The Hellraisers of Nairobi

By Edith Honan

The only thing that made it different when this 15-year-old girl went to the Huruma Police Station to report that her neighbor had raped her was the presence of a brigade of local female hellraisers.

She had come alone to this same station a few weeks earlier to report the rape. Nothing had come of it, and she assumed her attacker had paid off the police and the complaint had been discarded. She had next gone to her community’s council of elders, but they told her it was a mistake to press the issue. Her growing baby bump was a constant reminder of what had happened to her. She wanted her rapist in jail.

And so, that afternoon, she had gone with her mother and another woman to see the Grassroots Women’s Parliament – a loose network of women who meet every other week in Kiamaiko to talk about issues they say are ignored by local politicians and police: a wave of deaths at a local maternity clinic, young men disappearing or being shot in the open by police, the mistreatment of house girls by their employers, and girls who have been raped.

The Parliament, whose informal hellraiser-in-chief is Ruth Mumbi, had not been meeting regularly; instead, they had been busy organizing. Their brother-in-arms, human rights lawyer Willie Kimani, had been murdered along with his client and a taxi driver, and the women had been helping to organize the rally last July 4 in Uhuru Park. Local issues had taken a back seat.

But the easy tone of this meeting changed as the girl and the two women, all dressed in jilbabs, approached the group. More plastic chairs were brought in. The slow patter of English, which had been used for my benefit, turned to rapid-fire Swahili.

When the girl finished her story, one of the women, Hannie Maniu, raised her palms: “Who here agrees that you will be a mother to this child, and that you will help this girl?” Every hand shot up. Then, Mumbi and Manui accompanied the girl and her mother to the police station.

At the station the girl stood pressed up against the counter of the Report and Enquiry Office, looking through a row of bars at a female police officer. Mumbi stood at her side, while the other women waited outside. Four other people — all men– were packed into the small room, and their eyes moved from the girl’s face to her round belly as she made her complaint. The police officer behind the counter never asked the men to leave, nor did she offer the girl a private room. There was no private room to report a rape. Instead, the girl stood among strangers and spoke in a voice that was just loud enough for the police officer to hear. The fact that the officer was writing down what the girl said was the only thing that could be called a victory, Mumbi told me later.

When it was done, the girl, her mother and the third woman disappeared into Huruma. Mumbi and Manui meanwhile headed off to a local bar – and promptly, if playfully, started an argument with the male patrons, all of whom had a head start on their drinks.

“Tell me, men, why is it that men rape women?”

Ruth Mumbi (second from left) at a meeting of the Grassroots Women’s Parliament (Photo: Edith Honan)

Nairobi has dozens of women who, like Mumbi, have devoted themselves to being on the front-lines of human rights work in Nairobi, usually for no money and at huge personal cost. Another one of them is Wanjeri Nderu, who micro-blogs about human rights on Twitter and Facebook.

Like Mumbi, Nderu works in the trenches. Most of the cases she takes on are low-profile, and involve poor women who fall through the cracks of Nairobi’s meager safety nets. Indeed, many poor Kenyans see outspoken, seemingly fearless activists like Nderu as their only hope in a crisis. These women have little in common with Nairobi’s celebrity activists – a group that is mostly male and highly visible, the sort of people who get invited to hold TED talks or sit on panels around the world and talk about Human Rights in Kenya. “I know so many activists, especially in the slum areas, who do so much more than most celebrity activists do,” said Nderu. “Being an activist is not just about making noise, it’s about making sure that what you’re doing actually changes someone’s life.”

Mumbi, who is 35, grew up in the Kariakor section of Mathare. She traces her activism to an early awareness that terrible things could happen to girls like her in Nairobi’s sprawling slums and that for them, there was almost no such thing as justice. As a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer (she still loves bold colors and traditional prints) and even enrolled in a design program. But then funds ran out, and her family decided it was more important for Mumbi’s younger sister to complete secondary school.

So, at 17, Mumbi found herself back in Kariakor with nothing to do. “Women were gang raped all the time, but no one would talk about it, no action was taken. If you were married, you were exempted,” she told me. And so, she married an older man who ran a second-hand clothing business. At least, with their interest in clothes, they had something in common.

The marriage didn’t last. Within a few years, her husband had become abusive, and Mumbi, then pregnant with her third child, took her kids and left. To support her family, she set up a stall selling chapati and mandazi. Her stall, in the heart of Kariakor, happened to be across the street from a local human rights organization, and its staff were her customers. One day, one of them invited her to an event on the rights of women and children. She was hooked.

Ruth Mumbi at a protest in Uhuru Park after the killing of human rights lawyer Willie Kimani along with his client and taxi driver (Photo: Edith Honan)

From the beginning, Mumbi’s approach was radical and feminist. She realized that women were being excluded from local community associations because of the membership fees, so she set up her own women’s parliament, and made it free to join. Herself a Kikuyu, Mumbi invited women who represented all the different communities around Mathare to join.

Almost immediately, the Parliament got to work on issues that no one else seemed to be touching. “For us, we wanted to have a unique platform where women can share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,” she said. After a house girl was beaten by her employer and cheated out of her wage, the Parliament helped to form a house girls’ association. And after a woman died in childbirth at the local Huruma Maternity Clinic, they organized a march to demand that the local government shut the clinic down. (That didn’t happen, but the government did agree to build a government maternity clinic, which Mumbi says is a victory for this under-served community.) That protest led to Mumbi’s first arrest as an activist. As Mumbi sat in the Huruma police station, someone alerted her oldest son that she had been arrested. The boy stood in front of the station for hours, demanding to see his mother. “You’re as annoying as she is,” the police officer told him.

For a time, most of Mumbi’s work was done in the shadows: quietly building a network of female community activists. But she found herself increasingly drawn to cases involving police, and by late 2014, Mumbi’s growing assertiveness had led to death threats. She noticed that she was being followed. And then, early one morning as Mumbi and her mother was rolling chapati dough in their kitchen, a message flashed simultaneously on both of their phones. “It said, who do I think I am? I’m just a small cockroach who can be eliminated any moment, if I don’t stop what I am doing. And then it named all these people who had been assassinated.”

A group that protects human rights workers whisked Mumbi off and enrolled her in a protection program in northern England. There, she got her first formal training in human rights work, and finally got, as she says, “that kind of peaceful sleep that I had longed for.”

When Mumbi returned to Nairobi six months later, and was installed in a safe house with her three children, she decided she had had enough. “I hadn’t realized that what I had ventured into was that risky. I think I was even going crazy,” she said.

But then, just a month after Mumbi’s return, her 17-year-old brother-in-law, Steven Gichuru, a young acrobat so good he had toured in China, was shot and killed in broad daylight by two police officers. Mumbi was thrust back into her old role.

“What do you do? You’ve been talking, you’ve been defending victims of extrajudicial killings, but it has never affected you directly. And now, you have a case that affects you and your family directly. And that reignited my energy,” she explained.

Wanjeri Nderu has also been threatened because of her work. Over a year ago, she was attacked in a grocery store parking lot near her home in Langata. It was around 8pm, she had just finished her shopping. “This guy came to me with metal knuckles and he told me in Kiswahili, ‘You need to shut up, or otherwise we will shut you up.’ And he just swung at me.” A doctor later told her that she came close to losing her eye.

For three weeks she barely left her house. “I was in between thinking, do I give up? Do I continue? I just can’t stop. Why should I stop? I mean, we need more people to talk, not people giving up on these things.”

Wanjeri Nderu at the Willie Kimani protest (Photo: Edith Honan)

Horrible as the attack was, Nderu says that it did not slow her down. Nor does the regular deluge of hate mail, including vivid threats of assault. The only part of her work that makes her feel like she should quit is the concern that she is letting down her husband and three kids by not having a paying job.

Nderu, who is 37, gave up a good job as a financial advisor to commit herself to activism, and the work she does now – connecting people with non-governmental organizations, providing support and, when necessary, drumming up publicity to pressure authorities to act – she does as a volunteer. Nderu has a small garden, and uses the profits from selling cabbages and kale to fund her work and fill her car with petrol. Still, she is always stressed about money, and wonders constantly how she can quit activism. “I can’t afford to do this anymore. I am not bringing anything in, and I am taking everything out, so it’s becoming a problem even at home, even with my spouse,” she said recently, as she sat in her brightly-colored living room, wearing a “Save the Elephants” tee-shirt. “I’ve even posted on my social media accounts, please stop sending me any more cases.”

Nderu’s former employer has assured her that she would be welcomed back if she chose to return to work, and several times in the last year she has gone through the motions of her old routine. But she can’t seem to go through with it. “Last week, on Monday, I got in the car and I was already calculating the route I was going to use to avoid traffic. I had my suit, my stockings, my heels. The works. And then, I just walked back into the house.”

Nderu’s father’s father was a Mau Mau fighter, and she grew up hearing stories about the fighters’ heroism, as well as the deep disaffection with the corruption and cronyism that took hold after independence. “Many Mau Mau families hardly want to talk about it. But in our family it was an open discussion,” Nderu trained as a journalist, but never practiced formally, and was always interested in politics. But it was with the rise of social media that she found her calling. There are about 250,000 active Twitter accounts in Kenya, and Nderu immediately took to the platform as a force for good.

“OK if I quit, that child who’s going to be raped tomorrow, who is going to help them? That woman who’s going to be beaten up tomorrow, who’s going to help them?”

Willie funeral2
The burial of Willie Kimani in Kikuyu (Edith Honan)

Lately, a glimmer of hope has appeared to make Mumbi believe there could finally be justice for her cousin, Steven. Willie Kimani’s murder put pressure on local authorities to at least appear to be doing something to end police impunity for extrajudicial killings. In September, public prosecutors listed four cases that they said should be prosecuted. Steven’s was one of them.

But in the slums of Nairobi, a victory against the police does not come without a cost. Not long after the prosecutors’ announcement, Mumbi was walking home along a footpath in Mathare when she was attacked by three men. One grabbed her hands behind her back, a second reached for her body and a third, because by then she was screaming, slapped her across the face. She let go of her phone, thinking this was a robbery. But one of them hissed in her ear, “You better watch out.”

A few days later, Mumbi found herself in a grossly parallel situation to the girl from Huruma: reporting an attack to disinterested police.

“Do you know who this is? Google, Ruth Mumbi,” said a fellow activist who had accompanied Mumbi to the station. Mumbi’s record – the arrests, the Wikipedia page, the respectful profiles in the international press – must have come up, because soon Mumbi was escorted into a private room with a female officer, who took down the details of the attack.

When I asked Mumbi if she thought anything would come of her report, she laughed. “Of course not.”

Meanwhile, months after Mumbi and Manui accompanied that 15-year-old girl to the Huruma Police Station, there was still no evidence of a serious police investigation. But the girl told Mumbi she felt a small kernel of vindication – which is the least a girl who is raped by a wealthier man in Mathare can hope for.

A version of this story was previously published in the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Perspectives magazine.

edith twitterEdith Honan is a freelance journalist who came to Nairobi with Reuters. She is the Editor in Chief of Side Hustle. @edithhonan

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Osman Mohamed Osman says:

    This is moving. I’m glad you chose to highlight such often ignored stories.
    I wish you all the best Edith in your freelance work.

  2. MusaChekai says:

    Great stories of inspiration and courage. We must continue fighting for our people in the informal settlement especially against extra judicial killings and police brutality.

  3. s.ogugu says:

    This right here is the face of real courage and passion. I hope I grow up to be half the human beings these amazing women are.

  4. todayslimit says:

    I’m so glad that someone is doing something big in their small ways. I wish I was much aware of this earlier and that I would be involved in platforms as great as this.

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