Diani Beach.

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By day, Diani, the gem of Kenya’s South Coast, looks passive.

The bright sun presents the ultimate coastal fantasy that life takes as much time as it wants. That somehow, time does not matter.

But underneath this calmness, the happy-go-lucky attitude of holidaymakers, both local and foreign tourists, is an alternate reality.

A reality in which under-age sex trade of both boys and girls is thriving unabated, under the noses of child welfare officers, police officers and even human rights organisations some of whom, investigations have shown, encourage the vice.

Three years ago, a 12-year-old Mwanaisha quit school. A neighbour, who was 24 then, had convinced her that life promised much more than the boredom of school work and exams.

“One day, I just didn’t go back home,” she says.

She moved in with Amina Masoud, who lived in White House Estate, a maze of concrete and semi-permanent structures sitting on what looks like a wayleave or a road reserve just off Diani Road.

Amina’s house stands at one end of White House. Opposite it is a lavish villa surrounded by a coral-themed wall.

The poverty in large sections of the estate is a testament to the rich-poor divide in this tourism hub. Some of the best holiday destinations Kenya has to offer are just a footpath away from grinding poverty.

An escape from this poverty is what Mwanaisha was promised.

“All I needed to do was as I was told. Go where I was told to go,” she says.

Two weeks after moving in with Amina, she was taken to the first of many clients.

Three years later, Mwanaisha has never really outrun the poverty she sought to escape. She still lives on the wrong side of Diani Road. She still goes back home to White House. The only difference is that now, she pays her own rent.

If you were to walk into any of the popular nightspots in Diani at around 2 am, a few things might happen to you. One of them could be that you find a friendly, well-trained waitstaff who will serve you till morning. If you are a man, the waitstaff could be of more help.

The recruiters

They might give suggestions on a better clubbing experience. But for Sh500, they might introduce you to a female or male companion that you can spend the night with.

If you still harbour some inhibitions, the friendly waitstaff would up their fees to Sh1,000 and introduce you to a ‘younger’ companion. This translates to a girl younger than 16.

In June 2017, Mwajuma left her father’s house with nothing but a bag full of clothes and a mind full of stories she had heard from her peers about the possibilities Diani offered.

“It seemed like a place where everything was possible,” she says. Mwajuma has a playful smile that tends to hide the things she has been through and the faces she has seen.

You could look at her for hours and not figure out whether she was sad or happy. Her eyes do not have enough windows to tell of the worlds she has visited.

Mwanaisha,16, prepares for a night out in the nightclubs of Ukunda, Kwale County.

So on that day, she made the two-hour journey on the back of a Probox that had just returned from making an illegal charcoal run, a lucrative business for passenger service vehicles plying the Ukunda-Lunga Lunga route.

“I wasn’t running away from anything,” she says. “I hoped I was running towards something.”

At that time, she had been out of school for five years. Like her older sisters, her father didn’t want her to go past Class Four.

“He says educating a girl is a waste of resources,” Mwajuma says of her father. She left home in Maledi Town at around 5 pm on that day. Her journey took her out of the virgin lands of her village where people know each other, then to Mwangulu, then Shimoni, then Msambweni and finally to Ukunda.

A casual encounter with a man who was her primary school teacher was the trigger for this journey. “He told me to get off at Naivas and that he’ll be there to receive me,” Mwajuma says.

When she got off, the teacher was there and promptly paid the Probox driver. Mwajuma had never been out of her village. Ukunda, and Diani were new worlds to her.

“It was too noisy,” she remembers. “There were too many people.”

The two walked into a nearby restaurant a few metres from the Ukunda Police Station and sat down for a meal. She had a plate of chips and a cold Fanta.

The teacher had some roast beef, ugali and a beer then they left. Afterwards, they got into a tuk-tuk and went to the man’s house.

At around 1 am, the teacher woke her up.

“He told me a former student of his whom I knew had called him and wanted to meet me,” she says.

“He told me to dress in a dera to look mature.”

They ended up at a popular disco along Diani Road. The other former student came out and walked them into the bar and sat them at a table where there was another man.

“They brought me a soft drink,” she says. “The next thing I remember was waking up alone in a room. There were used condoms on the floor.”

Mwanaisha,16, prepares for a night out in the nightclubs of Ukunda, Kwale County.

The teacher, she says, came to the room at around midday and took her back to his house, and handed her a crisp Sh1,000 note.

A conversation with her former teacher that begun at a relative’s wedding had ended with her in a stranger’s bed.

“He told me this is how money was earned,” Mwajuma says, her eyes betraying no emotion.

Before she slept on the second night, she remembered one thing that stood out of her journey from home.

A white Land Cruiser with civilian plates ahead of them was driving too slowly. What was even more curious was the unwillingness of their driver to overtake the two-door beige vehicle.

Looking away

When he finally overtook, the driver of the Land Cruiser now behind them flashed his lights twice. The Probox stopped and the driver got out.

Eager to see what was going on, Mwajuma and three other passengers tried to look past the sacks of charcoal in the boot to the Land Cruiser. The Land Cruiser’s driver then switched on his headlamps to full lights.

The passengers couldn’t see what was going on. But when the driver came back, he told the passengers that the occupants of the other car were CID officers and he gave them Sh1,000 so they could let him proceed with their journey.

Unknown to her, as she fell asleep at the time, the same vehicle would feature in her life a year later. This time, it took much more than a Sh1,000 note for the occupants to look away.

Mwanaisha stands at just over five feet. She is petite. Her laughter is still childlike. She has a slight shrill in her voice and at 16, she still has some level of innocence in the ways of the world.

She still believes in the infinite possibilities that life holds. The magic of humanity and critically, that life will remain as is for as long as she wants it to.

“There is nothing else I’d rather be doing,” she says…before breaking out into a throaty laugh and adding: “There’s nothing else I know.”

It’s Saturday and already, there is some excitement in town. She has just returned to her house in White House with a pack of khat and chewing gum.

She sits quietly in front of a mirror in her house and transforms herself from a dress-wearing girl to a working girl, a woman of the night.

At around 6pm, Mwanaisha walks out of her house for the nightlife of Diani.

But even under the layers of face powder and the redness of lipstick, the child in her cannot be hidden.

After an hour of preparation, she meets with her friend Amina, and the two go to Bidi Badu beach for supper. Today, Amina orders some home-cooked pilau which she shares with her underage protégé who has deep-fried potatoes and tamarind sauce. They order two sodas and go on with their meal.

Conversations between the two are varied.

Amina talks of a landlord who has reverted to getting his rent through sexual escapades with her. And how now, due to the accumulating rent arrears, has turned her into a wife.

“He walks into my house whenever he feels like it. He doesn’t even care that I have children,” Amina says.

Mwanaisha on her part talks of a strange white man he had the other night.

“He just sat there looking at me,” she says. “At some point, I thought he was dead and almost ran away. But I remembered he hadn’t paid me,” she says, before the two of them burst out in laughter, pieces of the fried rice falling off their cupped hands and onto the beach.

After the meal, they head to a bar along Diani Road frequented by white tourists and residents.

None of the four bouncers asks them for any form of identification. Mwanaisha is joined by another girl, who looks even younger than her.

I ask about her age. I get a curt response. “We are still talking to her about her period,” Amina says.

Within two hours, Mwanaisha and her friend leave with two men who look old enough to be their fathers.

After an hour and a half, Mwanaisha returns. She has got another call from her boda boda rider.

“He says someone wants a ng’ari ng’ari,” she says. “Let me see what he wants.”

Ng’ari ng’ari is a local term that loosely translates to “angel-like innocence”. In the streets, this means an “underage sexual object”. Mwanaisha leaves and we get to see her two days later.

Her friend Amina, teases her about her new shoes and hairstyle.

Hand of the Police

In December of 2017, Mwajuma thought she had struck gold.

“I was introduced to a white man who had come for a holiday,” she says. For two weeks leading to Christmas, the two had, what Mwajuma says, the time of their lives.

“There’s nothing we didn’t do,” she says. “Every morning he’d give me Sh4,000. I think he liked me.”

On Christmas Eve, the white Land Cruiser that had trailed Mwajuma’s Probox when she left home pulled up into the parking lot of an apartment block that the man, a German, was renting for the holidays.

Mwajuma at her home in Mwangulu, Kwale County.

Two men walked up to their door, knocked and identified themselves as police officers.

“They asked for our identification. I didn’t have any,” Mwajuma says. “But they knew I was underage.” She was 14 at the time.

Mwajuma and the German were arrested and taken to Ukunda Police Station, then to Likoni on the morning of Christmas Day. On Boxing Day, they were moved across the mainland to Bamburi Police Station. On December 27, 2017, after numerous threats of being charged with rape, defilement and possession of bhang, the man and the police officers reached an agreement.

“He told me he gave them Sh1.4 million and was on the next plane out of Diani,” Mwajuma says.

They had been together for eight days, three of them in unofficial police custody.

There were no records in the Occurrence Books of the police stations they were in.

She does not remember any instances where they were booked. Her memory of the event revolves around being shuttled from one station to another.

Mwajuma moved out of her teacher’s house in September 2017 after she realised he was stealing from her.

“Men were paying him up to Sh5,000 for me. He only used to give me Sh1,000,” Mwajuma says.

The allure of wealth that fuelled her journey to Diani remains a promise that always looks to be a step ahead.