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The struggles of women, HIV-AIDS, poverty, rape, hunger and disease, poverty in Kenya

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She stood at the entrance of the homeless shelter and peeked in. She was noticeably hesitant. This was her last resort; else she’d wind up in the street and with the sky pregnant with rain, she knew she had to drag herself inside and hope she’d be taken in. Her black eye attested to the fact that she had either been involved in a physical kerfuffle or she had been manhandled by a stronger figure. She looked lean; visibly emaciated with sunken cheeks. Her long gown may have been whitish in color at some point; now it bore shades of dirty brown, black, green and murky yellow. She had a dirty, torn bag dangling miserably on her shoulder. She could see a group of children running around in the big hall. They seemed happy. A tall lady was seated behind the desk with a ravishing smile on her face. It was the smile that offered her much needed nudge to step inside. The lady behind the desk looked up and smiled at her. She quickly rose to her feet and walked towards her. “How can we help you madam?” She asked, still smiling. To her surprise, she hugged her. Even she could perceive the putrid stench that had built camp on her own body for weeks on end, so she was quite surprised that the younger lady who was immaculately dressed would hug her. She noticed her gorgeous make up, her colorful blouse; bright fitting skirt and black shoes and they reminded her of herself – or perhaps her former self. A gust of guilt and shame wafted through her. Back in the day when she had everything going for her, she’d not hug the person she is today. 

“I…I…I,” she stuttered. “You need somewhere to sleep?” The vivacious lady completed the sentence for her. She was evidently skilled at her job. “By the way my name is Shani. Come right through here with me,” the younger lady added. She followed her obsequiously while surveying the environment. They entered a room. It was a fairly well furnished office. “So you need a place to sleep. What is your name please?” “Dalila,” she finally answered. She seemed lost. Bemused. “You need a bed? Don’t be afraid, we are here to help you.” “Yes,” she answered. “Nina hakika unahitaji kitu cha kula. Ngoja , ngoja kuchota wewe baadhi ya maji na kitu cha kula (I am sure you need something to eat. Wait, let me fetch you some water and something to eat),” Shina said and left the room. She returned almost immediately with a container of cold water, a glass and a plate of warm Ugali. “Have something to eat. We have a bed for you. After eating, I will show you to the bathroom so you can clean up and get some rest.” Dalila pounced on the Ugali with a ravenous apetite. She wolfed down mussel after musssel in quick succession. Shani left her to devour the meal. Whe she returned. Dalila was gulping down a glass of cold water.” Asante. Ninashukuru sana! (Thank you. I am very grateful)” Dalila said effusively. “Don’t even mention it Dalila. Come let’s get you to the bathroom.”

One night turned into several nights at the homeless shelter in Mathare, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Dalila had walked all the way from Korogocho to Mathare the day she came to Shani’s homeless shelter for women and children. The previous night, she had been brutally beaten and raped by a ruthless, perverted gang of four daredevils. She had built herself a camp with scraps of cardboard paper she had salvaged from the refuse dump, near where she had set her camp. Out of nowhere, they tore open her humble home and jumped on her like ravenous lions on a wilder beast. They left her bruised, bloodied and broken. At the first sign of day light, she left Korogocho, wandering aimlessly, until she found herself in Mathare.

Eighteen months later, she was still living there, occupying her own room now. She and Shani had become good friends. Although she had made far-reaching strides towards getting her battered life back on track, she was yet to fully rid herself of the remnants of the emotional fallout from her past. A few times she had tried to take her own life unsuccessfully. One night, she had slashed her wrist. Lying in bed, she cut through her left wrist until she saw enough blood dripping out like incensed ants waging a bloody war against an enemy ant camp. She dropped the knife, lay back and waited for the cold hands of death to put her out of her ‘torturous misery’. She could feel the searing pain on her wrist as she began to drift into unconsciousness due to extreme loss of blood. Nevertheless, the pain on her wrist was hardly anything when compared to the agonizing pain that rampaged deep within her every day. In her oblivion she could see her ex-husband James who had left her for a younger woman. His abusive words and beatings poked knifing jokes at her. She saw her son and daughter crying as their father threw her out of the house. Repeatedly, she was beset by the gory and dastardly images of herself being violated by a gang of rabid street men. She opened her arms to death, ready to end the emotional torture. 

Shani had wanted to see Dalila before closing shop for the day. She knocked gently, but there was no answer. She knocked again, this time louder, yet there was no response. Knowing that Dalila had tried to take her life in the past, Shani got some of her staff to break open Dalila’s door. They found her sprawled out on her bed, bleeding her way to death. They quickly packed her into a taxi and rushed her to the emergency unit of the nearest hospital. When she came around, Shani was by her bedside. Dalila could not look her in the eye. Instead, she stared blankly at the wall. “I wish I could make your pains go away Dalila,” she said after a long silence. “If you die, your children will never know you Dalila. The guilt, shame and anguish you feel inside push you to end your life, but if you do, you deny your children the opportunity to know their mother at all. If they find out that you took your own life, it would hurt them even more. Think about them Dali. Live…live for them so they can get to know their mother someday.” Shani paused and awaited a response from her. 

“Life has lost its meaning Shani. There is nothing more to live for. I have lost the will to live. The man I worked hard to get to where he is today dumped me like a piece of rag. I have been raped and treated like a worthless tramp in the streets. I have no other family to go back to. There is no need to remain on this planet my friend. I am better off dead.” “Napenda kukuambia kitu sijawahi pamoja na wewe kabla ya (Let me tell you something I have never shared with you before),” Shani interjected. “I too was raped when I was younger. It started when I was twelve, and the worst part of my story is that it was my own father you violated me. I would stay out with friends dreading the nights. When I did eventually return home, I could not sleep at night. I would stay up wondering when he was going to come in and rape me like an unsaddled horse. My mother had died years earlier, so there was no one to protect me. Who would have believed me if I had opened up? I was dying, one minute at a time. While in class at school I would be thinking of the agonizing torture waiting for me at home.” Dalila could not believe what she was hearing. Shani looked happy. Nothing about her suggested that she might be carrying any pains within. 

Dalila turned and propped herself up on the bed and stared at Shani with a rapt attention. “You mean you were violated by your won father?” She asked. “Yes, I was. He was a depraved man. Lost. How do you think I got into running a home for homeless women and their children? It was my own experience that spawned the desire to help others that may be going through some of the things I experienced in the past. Everyone of us is either in pain right now or is recovering from one. It comes at some point in life. Life can be such a rough road to trek upon. For some, suffering is a way of life, as was my case for many years. One night, I decided to end my misery. I could no longer take it from him. I was camping with my father. It was his ploy to get me out into the wilderness where no one could hear me cry. That night, I lured him out in the open. Come let’s do it outside, I encouraged him. His deviant, dirty eyes got bigger with excitement. He had no idea that I had a knife hidden in the back pocket of my jean.” Shani stopped for moment. A solitary streak of tear descended from each other eyes. “I have not talked about my experience with my father in years. When...when he laid his hands on me, I put the knife through his throat.” 

More tears came falling down Shani’s cheeks. “I stabbed him again and again. He died there. I...I...I went inside and washed up. By early morning, hungry hyenas came by and feasted on him. I was never suspected. The police believed he had been attacked and killed by hyenas. I began to have nightmares after that. I still get them every now and again. I have lived with that burden every day of my life, but somehow, I have to carry on. After that, I went to live with a distant relative. Soon, his sons began to gang-rape me, so I had to run away. Like you, I lived in the streets for a long time. I ate and slept at refuse dumps. I was raped and gang-raped severally from Githurai to Korogoocho. Like you, I considered suicide several times, but I could not go through with it. I guess I still loved life despite its meaninglessness to me at the time. One day, I became tired of the street so, I found a charity that took me in. It was run by a church in Kibera. They offered me a roof over my head for the first time in years. I was able to get a proper shower, food and warmth. Despite all that, I was still badly broken. I went back to school to finish secondary education and studied part-time to get a University degree. I bounced from one man’s arms to another desperately searching for love. Because of my experience, I was ready to do anything to have any man...any man at all to say that they loved me. Some said it to get what they wanted, others gave me hope for the same purpose and along the line, I became pregnant. After my child was born, I swore to give her a better life than the one I had had up until that point. I did not even know who her father was having slept with anyone that smiled at me. Knowing that I was bringing another person into this world gave me a new perspective on life. In that moment, I found the strength to live again...for myself first, but most of all, for my unborn child. 

“At the same time, I found out that I had HIV. I could have killed myself Dalila. That was the time I most seriously considered suicide. Thankfully, the doctors told me my child could be protected with the right the treatment. I thank God now because she is growing into a beautiful girl. My greatest joy is that my daughter was born HIV-free. I don’t think the antiretrovirals will protect me forever; so, whenever death comes calling, I am ready. In the meantime, I enjoy each day. I make the most of everything I have...I know I don’t deserve to be here. I thought HIV was the last straw, but here I am. I pour all my love on my daughter and other people in my life. It is all I can do. If I had taken my life when the thought came to me, my daughter would not be here today.” Shani rummaged through her purse and dug up her daughter’s picture, which she showed to Dalila who was crying irrepressibly by now. “Yeye ni nzuri (She is beautiful),” Dalila pointed out. “Just like her mother,” Shani replied jocularly. “Please stop trying to take your life Dali. Live my friend. Do it for your children. When they grow up, they will understand. You’d be denying them the opportunity to know you at all...to hear your side of the story. Besides, things could change along the line... huwezi kujua (you never know).” “Thanks for sharing that with me Shani. I am going to try. I could never have guessed you have had such an agonizing experience. You have given strength and will. I will try my best!” Dalila said wiping a stream of tears off her face. “I am sure you can do it my friend,” Shani encouraged her. They hugged for what seemed like eternity with tears drenching their eyes.  

This story was written by:

Victor Chinoo

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The struggles of women, HIV-AIDS, poverty, rape, hunger and disease, poverty in Kenya
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