Celebrating East African Writing!
Terri lived in a home for orphans and vulnerable children. The founder of the home, who runs it herself, explained upon my enquiries that both Terri’s parents died of HIV-related illnesses.
Her 5 siblings were scattered among relatives but Terri landed at the home because she had above average performance in school and there was a scholarship available for her.
But something had happened in the one year she had stayed at the relatives’ homes waiting for a possible change in fortunes. That something had changed her completely, turning her from a smart, gentle child with aspirations, to a desperate, bitter, rebellious, listless and hopeless teenager.
Terri Njeri Mumo*. She was 19 years old the day I first wrote this piece. She sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Exams in 2007. I thought she had a lot of potential. From her essays, my guess is she was a girl with a lot going on in her head. She could have been a great statesperson someday. But did she have a chance?
I don’t know about that. If her future was hinged on her KCSE results then there was not much hope. See, she never earned more than a dismal D+ aggregate on all her subjects. It was a D+ because she was strong on languages and very good at writing essays. That balanced the E’s she got from the other subjects to a D+ Aggregate.
I think I found out why.
Terri wrote me an essay. Her essays were usually exceptional, sometimes quite rebellious in content but very articulate and with stellar grammar. I’d been talking to her quite a lot lately about her behavior and this may have led to her writing this particular essay.
Terri got along fine with the other students in her class. The girls confide in her. The boys adore her. She hates teachers in general, male teachers in particular. I’d say that’s the average teenager, I know. But my girl took it further than that, you see. She set out specifically to cause trouble.
The teachers gave up on her and would have kicked her out, if she wasn’t an orphan and practically homeless.
I thought I saw in Terri a little bit of me when I was 17/18. I was a tomboy then, playing rugby, starting up practical jokes in class and leading the boys and a few daring girls down to the beach in Mombasa for a dose of beach football during class time. I didn’t see the worst in her, as I had been something not too far from what she was once.The teachers, though, had very different ideas.
I reasoned that my antics had been just a little bit of defiant naughtiness, acting out, that had petered out as the KCSE drew closer.
So I hoped that Terri would, like me, be alright in the end.
That was before her grades took a serious nosedive, then I found her in the bushes near the school, having sex with a boy while four others waited, clearly to get their turn. No, it wasn’t rape.
When she saw me, she just sat there with a smirk on her face daring me to question her. The boys ran off, I was a little too shocked to even register their identities. My shock wasn’t because she was having sex. Any teacher is aware that their students are sometimes sexually active by the time they are 10. But this was something else, beyond experimenting and certainly not for pleasure.
I wasn’t able to respond to this incident immediately. I wanted to talk to the head teacher. That was what my code of conduct and the school rules dictated that I should do. But I also knew just how precarious Terri’s continued stay at the school was, especially considering the head teacher’s famed fits of rage.
It would not help to make a rushed decision.
So instead, I tried to talk to her later and in private. I even visited her at the home. I knew she needed help to deal with whatever was causing her low self-esteem. I thought I could talk her into talking to the home’s founder who was a trained psychologist.
Then one morning, I found a neatly written essay with Terri Njeri Mumo written neatly at the top. Her essay started:
“Her name is Njeri. She is 12 years old. Her parents died three months ago. Now she lives with her Uncle in Kibera. She lives with him because the relatives decided to let her stay in her old school until after she sat her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education and he is the only one who lives close enough.”
I had not assigned any essays that week. It was a week to the start of the year end exams, and I felt that a lot of time should be spent on helping the kids get ready and comfortable for the exams. So I very nearly pushed the essay aside to read it later. Something made me read on, though.
Then I came up to this paragraph:
“His body is too big for her and she tries really hard to keep breathing. She thinks she will die. If not from the pain, then from suffocation. She begs him to stop. But he warns her to be quiet or he will slit her throat. He tells her about the man down the street who came home and slashed up his wife and children with a panga. She knows about that man. She even saw the blood as the police moved the bodies into a dark blue jeep. So she keeps quiet and bites her lips when it hurts, it hurts really bad.”
I felt really sick. I could not read on for a moment. So I paused and watched the other teachers talk over steaming hot cups of tea. None of them seemed to notice me. They talked about their classes, their families and the person they are going to vote for because he is from their tribe. How long would we take before we said something, and then did something about what is happening to the children?
After I read the essay, I went to the children’s home. There was no smirk on her face this time, instead her eyes searched out mine for sympathy and understanding. Maybe she found what she was looking for, but I don’t think anyone can fully understand the pain of abuse unless you have gone through it.
Terri told me she had planned to commit suicide. The only reason she had waited was because I seemed to care about her. I told her she could get help and set herself on the path to an inner healing. She was sure that if we took the matter to the police her uncle would kill her. So we went instead to the founder of the home.
That was two years ago. Terri did her Fourth Form at a different school. Her grades were still poor. She was still a ringleader against the authorities, but the darkness seemed to be going from her eyes. Terri is got a lot of psychological help but she refused to go to the police with her story. She never believed in the law. All she knew is that if she dared tell the police, they would not be able to protect her from her uncle. She may have been right.
I have been keeping Terri’s essay in my drawer. When I heard about her death last night, I went and took it out. She had asked me to write about her story back then. She told me that she knew I was a writer and that it would be alright if I told her story on. Maybe, she thought, it may open up society’s eyes to what was going on around her and maybe save a little girl somewhere.
“She lies in the dark underneath him. Now, she has learnt how to separate her mind from her body. So she doesn’t feel the pain anymore. She thinks about what she will be when she grows up and how much fun it will be living in a big house with all her siblings. Maybe she will be a detective like in Kojak. Or a doctor like in ER. Maybe she would go to America and be happy there away from her Uncle. Then she remembers what the Home Science teacher said. AIDS is transmitted through sex. What if she gets AIDS? For a moment she panics. Then she remembers that she must be quiet or he will kill her. So she starts thinking about that Math problem that she couldn’t solve.”
Terri had HIV. She knew that with anti-retroviral therapy and a lot of care she could live a decent life. But she didn’t want to live long. She thought she deserved to die because she was guilty of infecting all those boys from school. I don’t know that it is a fact although Terri’s counselor told me that they talked to every one of the boys that had been involved with her.
It’s a tidal wave. A little tremor at the bottom of the sea of society causing a murderous wave that doesn’t stop till it takes crashes onto the beaches and devastates as many lives as stand in its way.
What are you going to do now? I will be talking to everyone who will listen about the little boys and girls who are losing their innocence and their lives to preying monsters. My eyes will be open to their vulnerability, my heart to their plight. What are you going to do now?
*Not her real name.
Juliet Maruru is a writer, and editor at Storymoja (www.storymojaafrica.co.ke) She volunteers at the Ongoza Njia Community Centre on weekends. You can read about the kids at www.jmaruru.wordpress.com/2009/02/03/ongoza-njia-kids/