Monday, 28 September 2009

Muzungu : White Man, Black Soul...

Some time ago, I wrote on this blog, that If I ever had some money, one of the things I'd do, is visit Kenya, as the coasts of Mombassa always attracted me.

Well not anymore. Not what after I've read tonight.

It is really late here, but I cannot and will not go to sleep before telling you what happens on the coasts of Mombassa.

According to a UNICEF study, over 30% of Kenyan children, especially in coastal cities are into some form of sex work. When I say children, I mean children between the ages of 12 and 16, and some as young as 3.

We say in Arabic, "Al Jo' ma yerham" - Hunger has no mercy. These children are hungry.

So who preys on their hunger but...but the white man, who devours their hungry flesh as well as their innocence and childhood, away...

This is a subject that never fails to make me so enraged that I feel am choking. And when am choking the way I am right now, I can't write...Not wanting to immerse you in expletives, I will copy and paste the whole article as well as the video.

I personally have no more words.

Kenya’s beaches are the stuff holiday brochures are made of – mile after mile of glistening white sand, kissed by equatorial sun. Tourism is a major money spinner for one of the world’s poorest countries, but Kenya’s tropical paradise hides a dark secret.

We have been on a harrowing journey – from nightclubs where European men pick up 12-year-old Kenyan girls; to an orphanage where children as young as six have found sanctuary after sexual abuse by foreign tourists.

A journey into a world of cruelty and desperation, a world we could scarcely have imagined. And both talking and filming with children brutalised and traumatised by their experiences has not been easy.

Our journey began in the nightclubs on the outskirts of Mombasa. Visit the Mtwapa suburb after midnight, and white male European tourists are busy ogling and fondling teenage girls.

The teenagers wear high heels, or pay a bribe at the club door to get in. The ultimate prize is a “muzungu ” or white man, who will pay for sex five times what a Kenyan labourer can earn in a day.

But the price these girls are paying is nothing less than a stolen childhood.

Anastasia says she’s 13 now, and has been prostituting herself since she slept with a British tourist at the age of ten, a crime which in Britain would be classed as rape.

Her parents couldn’t even afford school shoes, so she set out for a better life amid the bright lights of Mombasa. That life is sharing a flat with a fellow prostitute, Leyla, who is 14. And both girls say the number of children involved is growing.

“When I started at the age of 12, I could go into a nightclub, and maybe I can get 10 or 20 girls,” Leyla told me.

“At least you could count and say, ‘that one and that one, they are prostitutes’. But now there are many, all over the place. Sometimes I get stressed. I ask myself, or God, what I have done wrong? I am still a child and I am doing this.”

At that point in our interview, Leyla dropped her head in shame. Anastasia was crying. Three years ago, a study by the UN children’s agency UNICEF warned that there were thousands of girls like Leyla.

But that was before Kenya was plunged into political violence and an economic crisis and a drought which has left 10 million Kenyans without enough food to eat. So the author of the UNICEF study, Sarah Jones, now reckons her findings are an underestimate.

“We are talking about fifteen to twenty thousand children, and maybe more now, because the population has grown in that time,” Sarah told me.

“The researchers I worked with when I conducted the study all tell me now that they have a lot of visual evidence of increasing numbers of younger and younger children.”

Just two miles from Mombasa’s beachfront hotels and you are a world away. We found local tribesmen dancing in memory of a dead friend.

Hardly anyone has a job in Bamburi village. And local elders like Richard Chisima say they are battling to stop their children from heading off to the tourist resorts, in search of a white man with wads of cash.

We had heard that resorts north of Mombasa were the centre of the underage sex trade, so we drove for about an hour to a village near the town of Malindi.

And the scale of what we found left us profoundly shocked. Teenagers shelling maize told us it was normal for young children to sleep with African men in the low season to prepare for rich foreigners later.

The village elder was so concerned about his village’s children, that he sent several families with their 12 and 13 year girls and boys to talk to us. All the children we spoke to had the permission of their parents or guardians, where they existed.

Four of the ten children put up their hands when I asked them if they had slept with foreigners from the beach. Among them was Fatuma, now 13, and of all the people I interviewed for this film, her story haunts me like no other.

She told me she was driven by hunger to sell herself to two Italian tourists, named Andre and Thomas, at the age of 11.

One man gave her less than £5, the other less than £10. “I’m very sad, because my body is the temple of God “, she said.

With her mother’s permission, Fatuma showed me the beach where she sold her body to the two white men. She told me about her routine on Sundays. In the morning, she goes to church, in the afternoon her family’s poverty forces her to look for more foreigners. And her mother, Philomena, claims she’s powerless to stop her.

“Fatuma goes everywhere because I have no food at home and no money to support her”, she said. “I don’t like her going backwards. I would like the child to continue at school and the white men to be prosecuted.”

I gave Fatuma what I gave many of the children I interviewed – one of several tubs of sweets I’d picked up at Heathrow airport before my flight. It was hopelessly inadequate.

All Fatuma wants – and all that she deserves – is to go to school. She is clever and funny and I try not to think about her too often, because when I do, my eyes fill with tears.

There are pockets of resistance, including a football club set up by “Frifonet”, a Kenyan charity. It’s motto: “To think in terms of my God is my strength, not my white man”

Its mission? “To reduce the number of beach boys and girls”.

But many of the children play barefoot because they can’t afford football boots, and the schoolteacher in charge, Mary Rukungi, admits that 16 of the 35 girls she trained last year are now back on the beaches, selling themselves.

“They take the child of Kenya, just because we are poor ” she told me angrily. “They misuse the child. Personally, it hurts me. I feel pain.

“Any foreigner found sleeping with a Kenyan child should be taken back to his country, and never be allowed to come to our country again.”

All along the coast we’d heard that children abused by tourists are now younger then ever. But we wanted evidence. So we went to Mombasa’s Coast General Hospital, which is home to the region’s only public clinic specialising in sexual violence. Cameras have never been allowed inside to witness the terrible suffering within.

We recorded the sound of a six-year-old boy crying out after being raped by a neighbour. Stark proof that child sex abuse is not just a tourist problem. Crimes against children are committed by Kenyans as well – some apparently believing that sex with a virgin child will cure them of HIV. The clinic is unique in confronting a scandal many would rather ignore and its admissions book reads like an astonishing chronicle of cruelty.

Over a thousand children have been treated here in the last two years – 138 of them aged five or under – and Dr Catherine Maternowska of California University, who is analysing the daily rollcall of new arrivals, says their ages are falling, with more and more sold for sex.

“The national estimate, based on a report by UNICEF, is that approximately 40 per cent to 50 per cent – it’s a hard number to calculate – are committed by tourists from abroad” she said.

On busy days an abused child can wait eight hours to see a doctor. The hospital is desperately in need of more money to continue its pioneering work – when I tell you that mothers admitted for Caesarean births have to pay for their own saline fluid, you may get a picture of the extent of need.

The families of abused children have to take their own forensic swabs to a government lab – a procedural failure which means that this vital evidence may be considered tampered with, and therefore inadmissible in court. And of course the doctors wonder how many child sex abuse cases never get reported at all.

“We don’t know what the situation is outside, but we are sure that what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg ” Dr Essam Hamed told me.

“Judging on our judicial system, the various loopholes we are currently having with evidence collection – we don’t even have evidence collection kits – I’d say it’s very rare for a perpetrator to be jailed. Very, very rare. ”

Kenyans are so angry that some have begun taking the law into their own hands. In June, villagers hacked down a string of beach huts after they had heard that a European tourist had been molesting nine-year- olds inside. A local campaigner told me that even if the tourist was caught, he could bribe the police to drop the case.

Ours was a journey of painful contrasts – the tropical beauty of the holiday resorts, lined with flowering bougainvillea, jarring with the desperation of the children nearby. And as we continued our investigation, those contrasts became ever more disturbing.

We found Henry, a seven-year-old molested by a white man in exchange for pocket money, new clothes and a bag of flour. His father wants the police to bring charges – but the police have told the parents the tourist has fled to Europe and may never return. We filmed the mother’s proud face, and in it we saw a family struggling to keep its dignity.

“We have to wait until the white man comes back” the boy’s father told me. “But now that he has committed a crime, I do not think he will come.

“I am afraid our government only listens to those who have money – and the case is not being taken seriously, because I have nothing.”

The authorities know there’s a problem – billboards up and down the main coastal road warn tourists against exploiting Kenya’s children. The government hopes a new tourist police force will be patrolling the beaches by the end of this year.

Major hotels have signed up to a “code of conduct”, which has raised hotel staff awareness that tourists bringing children back to their rooms is unacceptable. But this is a country which fears that any attack on its reputation, any labelling of Kenya as the “new Thailand” for sun, sea and underage sex – and then innocent tourists, the vast majority, could be driven away.

“We are going to take strict action on defaulters, or criminals, who are taking advantage of young children” Najib Balala, who is Kenya’s Tourism Minister, assured me.

“As a parent, as well as a country, we cannot afford abuse of our children. At the same time, if it is publicised, blown out of proportion, it will destroy the same effort of eradication of poverty by destroying tourism. ”

Coffee, tea and tourism – Kenya’s sources of foreign revenue are few and far between. But Kenyan parents and charities say the time has come for the truth to be told.

In a church orphanage, we found a six-year-old girl, who has told her carers about her visits to hotel rooms and being filmed for pornographic videos.

And the charity worker who rescued her says that, based on a medical examination, the abuse probably began at the age of three.

“The doctor said she had some whip-like lashes on her back ” said Eve Ngoroge of the Women’s Resource Network. “And she had a vaginal injury as well, and there was some sodomy as well.

She says it was “muzungus” – white men.

This little girl is now safe. No longer refusing to eat, no longer expecting to stay up all night. But up and down this 300 mile coastline, Kenyan children are suffering – their stories still untold.