By Victoria Magar
“From the moment my mum told me that I have to leave education for lack of school fees I cried. I cried because I have tried my level best to go all the way to form two and I wanted to study and become a nurse. Even when you look at my report forms, you can see I was good in school,” she said, lowering her head to hide the tears welling up in her eyes.
“I even wanted to kill myself, but I just agreed to come here because there was nothing left. I realized even if I cry, nothing will change,” 17-year-old Dembe* (not her real name) recounted to the media.
Dembe is among some 120 Ugandan women and girls rescued from an open field in Nairobi’s Eastleigh, having fallen out with their employers.
When COVID-19 struck last year, reports of mass layoffs, pay cuts and increasing poverty levels were reported around the globe. It was particularly worse in Africa, which was already suffering from a sluggish economy even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Families were under pressure to find means to survive. Not even children were spared from the struggle of making ends meet.
And this is how hundreds of girls such as Dembe traveled from Uganda to Kenya, with high hopes of landing in greener pastures to support their families back home.
After schools were closed in Uganda last year under pandemic restrictions, Dembe’s sister, who was working as a domestic worker, asked her to travel to Nairobi to look for employment.
Against her own wishes, Dembe traveled to Kenya last August, for the sake of helping her family.
She worked as a house-girl for a family in Eastleigh, and in the meantime, her sister returned to Uganda because she fell pregnant.
“I worked for the first five months and the sixth one I was chased away from my job. I moved around and when I came to this side (somewhere in an open field), I found my fellow tribes-mates sleeping under trees. I asked them what they would do from there. They told me they don’t have jobs and this is where we stay. So, I begged them to allow me to join their clique and they accepted,” she recalled.
Dembe was lucky enough to secure a second job for two months. Sadly, not a single penny was paid for her labour.
“My boss kept on telling me to come back next month, ‘I will give you your money’. The next time I went there, I found that she had relocated to Somalia. So, I had to go back to the streets again,” Dembe said.
She decided not to look for work again, after her experiences of being overworked, mistreated, insulted and even denied food.
Life on the streets of Nairobi was harsh. To have a meal depended on the generosity of passersby.
“I fell sick. I had no money even for treatment, but ‘Good Samaritans’ helped me with food and drugs. After finishing the treatment, one day we were sleeping – we used to sleep on the verandah. The chief had come with a large group of men, we explained everything but they couldn’t understand. They collected everything we had – the clothes we used to carry around and burnt it all. They had the nyaunyo (Police whip). We were beaten mercilessly and told to go away,” she recalled, her tears now flowing uncontrollably.
“So, we told them even us we wanted to go back home, we were tired of this life in Nairobi, (where) we struggle to get food, we even sleep on the ground. It is even worse when we are on our periods.”
“So, I decided I tell my mum if (it) is fine she sends me money, I travel back home because I even have a health problem. She told me now we have a lot of problems back home, even your dad has left us. We don’t have work to do, so just stay in Nairobi and make money.
Counter Human Trafficking Trust – East Africa (CHTEA), a civil society organization working in Kenya, has given the girls a place they call a safe haven.
It is a safe haven because it has a roof, walls and a door that can shield them from the cold nights and sex predators.
Their hopes are on CHTEA and International Organization for Migration (IOM), Kenya which are making plans to repatriate them to Uganda
Whereas this is a short-term measure, the governments of Kenya and Uganda have the power and responsibility to break the human trafficking cycle that continues to expose countless underage girls to labour and sex exploitation.