Imagine you’re 8 years old. You’re playing in the yard with your siblings. You feel a noose around your neck and laugh, thinking you’re older brother has invented a new game and snuck up behind you. The noose gets tighter and you reach your hands to your neck and grab it. You feel it’s a twined rope like those used to pull a cow to the market. Such rope is strong, the cow can never escape. It continues to get tighter and then you realize your sisters are staring at someone behind you with expressions of confusion. It’s someone they know, you can tell because if it was a stranger, they would have run to fetch your mother. Suddenly the rope jerks you backward and you choke for air. You can hardly comprehend what’s happening because you can’t breathe and it’s dawning on you that you’ve been seized. With every bit of strength your little hands can master, you pull the rope around your neck to allow your head to turn and for a brief second, you catch a glimpse of your captor. That’s when you start to faint. It feels like you’re falling into one of those dark wells mama says it’s safe to play in as they have dried up. It’s happened to many girls in the village and now it’s happening to me. I succumb to the dark airless hole and barely feel my feet dragging through the ground as the world known to me disappears. I am no longer a child of 8, but a wife. I’ve been sold to a village elder, like a cow.
Based on the graphic nature of what transpires when these children arrive at the home of their captors, I have purposely left out highly sensitive material to protect their dignity. They are allocated to the International Treasure House Ministry (ITHM), by the government through children’s services. The Treasure House is a safe place to call home for 3 years before being re-integrated to their communities. During those 3 years ITHM provides an environment for healing, restoration and education. Some children have been seriously injured and come directly from hospital after months of treatment and recuperation. All need emotional and mental healing. Most give birth while with us as they have come expectant and others come with an infant. Leading to the full reintegration, ITHM carries out visits every 3 months to see their parents and siblings in the presence of the local chief, their school teacher(s), two assigned government social workers, select community leaders and police security as deemed necessary. This story report is based on such a visit carried out on Wednesday, August 28th, 2019 in which I joined as a volunteer. Any names have been changed to protect the identity of all parties involved. You may contact ITHM http://www.ithministries.org to seek any further information on how to be a part of their work.
The unique part of this Wednesday’s visit included a rescue mission. A charge of ITHM was reintegrated to her family only to be re-sold as a child-bride again. Her whereabouts were unknown when she did not show up in school for a new term. Her teacher informed the chief per government protocol, and the search for her begun. ITHM and the children’s department social workers assigned the case, received confirmation of the girl being found and were asked to travel to rescue her with arrangement by the chief, the teacher and her mother. The undertaking would be one of the most dangerous to date based on the violent alcoholic father and the exchange of a bride price which he had already received from the husband.
This is the last day I will see him and his people. I have planned my escape for months and no one has noticed my stash of softened seeds and dried nuts buried near the cow’s kraal. I used some of the water I fetched myself from the lake which is 9 hours away on foot. When I’m not taking my lazy co-wife along, I can do the walk in 6 hours. But she tells the husband everything and I have been cleverly keeping a little water in a cow hide flask just like my brother showed me. I miss my brother and sisters. One day I may see them. For now, my freedom is most important. If they see me free they may get in trouble with father. Why did father sell me? I was working so hard. I’ve heard the husband say I cost him much because father was poor and he paid for me to help my family eat. Should I be grateful? I am not because I could have kept working hard taking the animals out to pasture and father would have sold them for a good price to feed us, if he was not always using money to drink the special brew with other men in the night.
I plan to wake up while they are all asleep, just like I do when going to the lake to fetch water. When I reach the lake, I will let the donkeys go free. If I don’t take the donkeys, the other wives will be curious. The husband will not notice anything for many days. He only counts us when we are preparing for market day. That way, he will not be embarrassed if any of us are not seen walking behind him to the market. I have never been past the lake but I am not afraid. I remember teacher Lontiani telling the class that there is life beyond the lake. There are other people and villages far away. I know she must have asked my parents where I went when I did not show up in her class. My grades were good. She said I would do well to keep learning in school. Mama was pleased by this but it angered father to hear of such wild ideas. To him we were born to herd cattle and goats and bring him wealth through bride price. It was no longer time to dream of the past. I curled up in my corner on the floor and pretended to fall asleep. Tomorrow I would be free and that thought kept me warmer than any blanket could.
As you may know from previous updates, this child was rescued by strangers who found her barely conscious but staggering wearily several miles past Lake Magadi. To date, no one can explain how she managed to survive such a trek, day and night alone. The strangers took her to the area police who took her to the government children services. That is one of the current lawful procedures for runaway child-brides. The child then receives immediate care based on her status (such as hospitalization), and future placement in a safe house like ITHM. The children services opens a case file and begins to investigate the child’s origin and home. This is when the government social workers are assigned and begin the work of investigation on the background leading to the child’s status. The local area chief and school teacher(s) are involved in the investigation and process of mitigation with family and child while ITHM provides a home, healing and education in the 3 years it takes to reintegrate the child to her family and community. Since they reside at ITHM’s Treasure House, the coordination and logistics, including transportation to the child’s original homeland for the meetings is done by ITHM. Otherwise it would not happen in a timely manner because the government only affords one truck for the entire county and two social workers who are required to hire and pay their own driver, which is unfordable for them. It is quite an undertaking of which I will describe briefly below.
The journey comes together in two parts. Everyone has to prepare the night before because of the early start. The ITHM founders, Jenn and Johnny are now pros at this. The girls are not novices either. They’ve done a couple of the 3 month visits this year since its August now. Everyone is up at 4am and moving quietly not to wake the rest of the household. The house-mum ensures the two girls and one infant are awake and getting showered and dressed. She’s prepared their breakfast and knows Jenn has packed their lunch and snacks. It’s an intense drive so Johnny’s major task is to find, navigate and safely get everyone across country through the bottom of the Rift Valley and over Lake Magadi to Oloika, a place at the border of Kenya and Tanzania. The girl’s origin.
We pick up the government social workers on our way. Security has been discussed and arranged by the chief. As Johnny drives, he asks how Noni (one of the girls) is doing. I glance at her and don’t notice anything amiss. I tell him as much. He doesn’t need to explain further when 2 hours later, she has her head in a pretty purple bucket getting sick. Johnny pulls over. There’s no one behind us but, it’s an ingrained good driving habit I’m sure. There’s no one anywhere around us actually. It’s not really a road but a cleared raised pathway made of rocks and dried cotton soil, which we are following in the middle of the lake. It’s not a curb he’s pulled over on, it’s the dried part of the lake, off the pathway. A combination of the smell of the red sulphuric lake and the bouncing motion of the vehicle on the mushy clay soil stuck in rocks is the perfect combination for car sickness. The child who bravely escaped her marriage months ago and walked through this very lake, can better withstand it on foot. The ITHM team is aware of her demise and carry the pretty purple bucket on each trip.
Four meetings take place that day. They are all held on the school grounds under the watchful eye of a school teacher (who has rescued several girls), the chief, the government social workers and Johnny.
One girl meets her mother. She’s Noni, the one that escaped from the husband. She stands tall and brave as she speaks with her mother. They seek a private space hidden slightly by a tall tree close by. I notice her mother looking at her and checking her neck, her chest, wanting to ensure she is whole and unhurt. They exchange beads. Noni smiles triumphantly as if to show everyone that running away was the best thing she ever did. We all know she is different. She houses a courage many can only aspire to. She is a born leader. It is clear she will lead many to freedom in her community.
Another girl, Jari with her infant, meets her mother, sisters, brother, cousins and uncle. They all touch and hold each other. The grandmother simply cannot let go of her grandchild and marvels at her size. She is not yet a year old but is bigger than a six year old in the village. She is amazed that there is enough food and milk to feed one child so much. She rejoices that her daughter has found such a place and is safe. Her husband attended the last meeting, but he was angry, drunk and ill-behaved. The social workers and ITHM could therefore not release their daughter and grandchild to the family. The mother begged for her grandchild to remain. The team refused and explained the two (mother and daughter) go together. It was a sad day for Jari as she and her child returned to the vehicle with her suitcase, seeing reintegration would not come that day. No one will give a child back to a home with a belligerent father. Jari continues her stay at ITHM and remains sad and longing for her mother and siblings. Her journey continues and ITHM is walking it with her.
The third meeting is about a case that is currently in court. The government social workers have come to meet the parents of a girl who was sold as a child bride and consequently the case has been filed in court due to the arrest of the man who married her. This is the extent some of the cases will go to based on the status of the child, repeat offenders, etc., The meeting is being offered by the court as a chance to have the parents accept the child back into the family on condition they will not sell her again. Unfortunately, the father did not turn up for the meeting. He sent his son in his stead and this did not fool the team as they are keenly aware of the culture, which mandates any decision regarding a child or his family can only be made by the father. A mother and sibling do only what the father decides as it is a patriarchal society.
I’ve left the third meeting for last because it’s the rescue mission. The meeting includes the same team: the chief, the school teacher who noticed the missing child, the social workers, ITHM, and the missing girl’s mother. The school teacher is livid that the father did not show up for the meeting in this case. The reason she’s upset is because it’s taken months to find out the girl’s whereabouts and the more time passes, the harder it becomes to carry out the rescue since the girl gets pregnant and settles into the life of a mother and wife. Remember, it’s also the second time this particular girl has been sold. At this juncture no one can imagine how demoralized she will be and if she will trust anyone, including her rescuers again. The teacher suspects the mother was involved in the second sale. The mother said it happened to her, she was a child-bride and no one rescued her and she turned out alright. The teacher explains the additional reason they are pursuing her child is because she was an exceptional student. The mother seems surprised by such a commendable report of her daughter and, as the talks continue, her demeanor changes as if her mind is grasping some unrealized truth. She has also observed the interaction the other mothers are having with their daughters who ITHM came with. It’s clear they are still children and need to be sheltered. The team lays down the law and, the chief reemphasizes that the mother must come meet with him and the teacher the following day and she should come with her husband and the child. Upon which the chief will explain the consequences of selling the child again and offer that they willingly surrender her to the government for a safe home placement and rehabilitation. This meant Chatu was not rescued that day. It was deemed unsafe for ITHM and the team to venture to her whereabouts without her father because she now belonged to a different family, and their reaction to a rescue team was unpredictable. Based on a previous rescue mission, which had turned into a small war, the team accepted the day’s results and would await the next arranged meeting and return to rescue the child. Chatu’s mother promised to bring her daughter and husband to the chief. She explained her pain and pointed to her midriff in sadness and despair for her lost child.
Before we left to return to the Acacia House, one of the mothers approached Johnny with an interpreter. She had made him a chain of blue beads with a silver locket. Blue is one of the 3 Maasai colors. They use it to symbolize the sky, hope. What a great way to think of Jenn and Johnny. They are always looking up into the heavens as they seek strength to help the least of all.
It was a long day yet, a typical day for ITHM. Remember, you’re always welcome to come visit. We appreciate you walking this journey with these children and us. We desire your financial support, (you can give through the ITHM website at http://www.ithministries.org) and most of all we covet your prayers for the lives of those brought to our charge.
Kiki…for Jenn and Johnny, http://www.ithministries.org