The following story is achingly true. It is very hard to comprehend that one young soul can experience so much pain in one life but that does not change the fact that it is someone’s reality. The month of March in most of Kenya is rainy and sombre. There are heavy rains and it gets pinching cold, winning the month the label, ‘Kenyan winter’. This was one such morning in Ngomongo Korogocho ward-one of the largest informal settlements in Kenya. The trek to our targeted households was one laborious one. The mud was knee deep and the walk felt like a retribution. As I approach the corridor that leads to the houses, I spot a hefty lady seated on a ramshackle 3-legged stool that didn’t quite look like it had the capability to support her weight. I asked her if she had daughters that I could speak to. As though she was anticipating my question with a ready answer, she quickly pointed to the house straight ahead saying in the native Swahili language, “Ongea na hao, hao ndio wasichana” (speak to those ones, they are the girls), “I only have sons.”
When I got to the house, I was welcomed by two friendly high pitched voices that asked me to walk right in. I introduced myself and the purpose for my unannounced visit. The two girls introduced themselves in return citing that they were both 17 years and married. The visiting girl shortly after walked out leaving me in the private company of the girl in whose house I was in. I prefer not to disclose the name of this girl who had the courage to open up her heart to make her sorrow known to me, so for the purpose of this story we will call her Grace*.
Grace says that my questions take her back to a very painful episode of her life. Born to a single mother, the first born of 4 children, she says she did not share the same biological father with the rest of her siblings. Shockingly, much as this was not her fault, it became the reason for her alienation and discrimination by the rest of her family. The spiteful treatment heightened when she got pregnant at the age of 14, as she was approaching her final year in primary school. Her mother was very categorical and did not mince her words as she asked Grace to get rid of the pregnancy. This was against Grace’s will and what followed is inconceivable. Her mother chased her away from home and poisoned her for not aborting her pregnancy. She was fortunate to survive but the same cannot be said about the foetus she was carrying at the time. She later learnt that her mother and siblings had relocated to a different town on the Kenyan Coastal line called Mombasa.
Left homeless and with no one to call family, Grace resorted to life on the streets. With painful tears rolling down her cheeks, she recounted that life on the streets was very difficult and nasty. She was defiled severally and even seeking medical attention was torturous. The service providers pointed judgmental and accusing fingers at her saying that all she did was sleep around with old men and give them her private parts. When she could not meet the most basic need of humanity, food, she joined a gang as a means of survival. Life only got worse as she spent most of her days in running battles with the police. On one of those days, she was caught by the police and locked in. However, soon after, as she performed her routine task of emptying human waste, she managed to escape from prison landing her in the list of the ‘most wanted criminals’. On one very fateful day as the police were in search of these wanted criminals, they crossed paths with Grace and a friend who was also part of the gang. Grace and her friend took to their heels but unfortunately, the race came to an abrupt end for Grace’s friend who was shot and died on the spot. In her words, “That was my turning point, I sought Jesus and gave my life to Him”.
Grace found a church and this is where she met her husband whom she now lives with and in who she found a family. Grace admits that she has been battling drugs. Every so often, she says there is a huge urge and inclination towards them but with a sly smile plastered on her face she acknowledges the support of her husband in the journey and an inward determination not to let him down.
At the time of our discourse, we were facing one challenge. Grace had no identification documents because she had spent most of her life on the streets and her mother who is the only other person in possible possession of the needed documents for enrolment into DREAMS could not be traced. Thankfully, with some interventions with the local authorities, Grace was enrolled into DREAMS.
DREAMS initiative is an ambitious partnership to reduce HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women (10-24yrs). The goal of DREAMS is to help girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women. It is supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Girl Effect. LCVT HEALTH in Kenya is among the DREAMS project implementing partners in Nairobi Kenya. LVCT HEALTH does a door to door enrolment of vulnerable girls. Some of the following criteria is used to identify these girls;, Adolescent Girls and Young Women who head households, those undergoing violence, teenage mothers, girls aged 10 – 19 years and not in school, children in sex work, children in Worst Forms of Child Labor among others. We deeply believe in this course and offer technical assistance and other forms of support hoping that these girls will one day get to achieve their dreams. This way, they will no longer be regarded as victims, discriminated or stigmatized.
A NEW DAWN AFTER A DARK NIGHT
When I met *Neema, One Child at a Time (OCaT) beneficiary and subsequently DREAM’s program beneficiary, during this year’s International day of the Girl Child celebrations, she was full of energy and enthusiastic about her life. I also noticed that Neema was very mature unlike ordinary 17 year olds and I was eager to hear more from her.
Neema narrated that two years ago she was very disappointed after finishing her primary school education since she felt that was the end of her education.
“When I joined my mother in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum I soon realized that my dream of becoming a doctor was quickly diminishing, since she could only afford to buy food for the family from her low wages she collected from cleaning clothes and houses”
Neema was soon forced to join her mother to fend for herself and siblings. “All we got after a day’s hard work was 100 Kenyan shillings ($1),” Neema said with a breaking voice and welling eyes. “What can 100 shillings do for anyone?” she asked rhetorically” “I needed to survive in this city and I was determined to do all it took. This landed me in the greedy hands of old merciless men who would stop at nothing to have sex. I slept with these men in exchange of the much needed money,” she asserted.
Neema’s life changed the day she met one of the OCaT providers from LVCT Health and got enrolled into the OCaT and later DREAMS program. “While in the program I was admitted to secondary school (form 1) now in form three and getting closer to achieving my dream of becoming a doctor. Most importantly and excitingly, besides the formal education that I receive at school, DREAMS has equipped me with life skills that have shaped my mind and my life. I have learnt to love myself and respect others. I renounced my old habits of sleeping with men in exchange for money and this makes me feel a lot better about myself as this was not something I enjoyed doing. My prayer is that many other girls are given the same opportunity for them to chase their dreams,” a hopeful Neema noted.
“This program has changed my life completely. I am living a life that I never thought I would”
*Names have been changed to protect identity