By Edwin Makiche
The morning sun over Bomet County finds Chepkoech, 20, walking along the road as she ferries a jerry can of water from the Mara River to a roadside hotel at Mulot shopping centre. Unlike other locals whose workday has just begun, she has been busy all night doing the same thing she has done for the last five years.
Chepkoech is a barmaid, a job she does until midnight when her employer shuts down for the night. Occasionally, she takes one of the drunken men in the bar to keep her employed for the rest of the night, offering sex for money. This is how she earns enough to support herself and her two sons. Her family says her troubles began when she got pregnant while still in school. A dalliance with her teenage boyfriend proved life changing.
“Back then, I only had a vague idea of what happens after one engages in unsafe sex,” says Chepkoech, the first born in a family of six. “Save for my mother’s warnings about men, sex talk was considered taboo in my family.” The pregnancy caused a rift between her parents. Her father disowned her immediately, claiming that he could not waste money on a ‘prostitute’. She sought refuge at a relative’s home briefly, before fleeing to Bomet where she met other girls who had been through the same experience.
Her story is not different from that of her friends in the town, who say ‘they live as the day comes’ in a society hostile to unmarried girls with children. An investigation by The Standard On Saturday revealed a large number of cases of unwed mothers fleeing rural parts of Bomet, Narok, Nyamira and Kericho to live in town centres. Most of them are school dropouts, still in their mid-teens. Those in their early 20s have been in the centres for years. Town centres like Bomet, Silibwet, Kapkoros, Mulot, Kembu, Litein, Chepilat, Kaplong, Chebole and Keroka have all seen an influx of adolescent, teenage and post-teen girls all seeking seemingly carefree lifestyles away from the prying eyes of relatives.
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The women rent low-income residential structures behind the town centre shops, which are turned into brothels at night. The money and security of having a man by their side is their daily motivation. In a society that views conceiving in your father’s home as a crime worse than murder, many girls who fall into the trap have been left to their own devices. They must make hard decisions like procuring abortion, dumping the newborns, eloping or fleeing to towns. The situation is worsened by the fact that the locals do not offer female children the same privileges as boys, especially when it comes to access to education and inheritance. Forced out of their homes, many of the unwed mothers in the Rift Valley town centres turn upon their society and become cunning husband snatchers.
Though some like Chepkoech might be ‘unlucky,’ many of her friends carry on illicit love affairs with married men. These men ‘maintain’ their lifestyles in towns in exchange for sex. Typical targets are teachers, police officers, bank employees and wealthy farmers who might be twice their age. “Cases of men having second families in town centres are common these days,” says Mr Michael Koech, an evangelist. “These towns have turned into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfaithful husbands hide their side dishes in towns and bankroll their expensive lifestyles while their children wallow in poverty back home.” Moraa (not her real name) is one of these famous husband snatchers and she has no regrets. Though she dropped out of school in Form Three due to pregnancy, she says her life has improved for the better since she left her rural home in Kisii for a town centre in Kericho County.
The 22-year-old mother of two owns a hair salon and a Toyota Probox, both partly paid for by her elderly boyfriend, who is an engineer. “My parents cursed me as a prostitute when I gave birth at such a tender age,” she says. “My father beat my mum constantly, blaming her for not teaching me the right manners. I finally left my home for her sake.” While working as a barmaid, she met a 50-year-old man who promised to look after her in exchange for love. Though she is aware that her man has a family elsewhere, his financial support overrides all her concerns. “I do not care whether a man is married or not,” says Mercy. “As long as he satisfies me, he can have his way.” The 21-year-old says she left home at 15 due to lack of school fees. For her, life in town is a far cry from the stress of nagging parents. With the Sh1,500 monthly salary that she earns as a bar maid, she is able to pay for her Sh1,000 a month bedsitter.
The patrons she entertains every night foot the rest of her bills. She claims that she only entertains ‘moneyed clients’ – truck drivers and wheat farmers – who can buy her drinks and pay at least Sh2,000 per night. “My parents are proud of me since I frequently send them money, unlike my married brothers,” Moraa says.
Lack identity cards
She, however, doubts they are aware of what exactly she does to get the money. Local administrators are aware of the problem. They say they can do little about adults. Repatriating minors to their rural homes is a headache as they lack national identity cards or are addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“We may try to chase these girls away during the day, but in the night they are back in business,” says an assistant chief who sought anonymity. Not all the girls love the life they are forced into. For some like Lynda, 22, it is a living hell. Born to a single mother, she says that she was defiled by one of her mothers’ boyfriends when she was 12. At the age of 14, she was chased out of their home after she got pregnant. At 17, she was heavy with a second child. She got rid of the pregnancy, saying a man she was dating promised to marry her on condition that she got rid of it. “It was the most shameful thing when our neighbours retrieved the body of my child from a pit latrine,” she says. “The issue has been haunting me since then. To make it worse, the man who promised to marry me took off.” Now relying on menial jobs to make a living, Lynda says she has thought of suicide many times. Bomet County Children’s Officer Duncan Ng’eno says there is a worrying rise in teenage pregnancies and cases of defilement, incest and child neglect. He adds that children of single parents are often the most at risk. Mr Ng’eno, who claims he sees cases of abuse or neglect every day, says poor parenting and moral decay are making matters worse. “We encourage neighbours, church leaders, school administrators and others to be whistle blowers so that we can eliminate these vices,” he says. Unmarried girls are not the only ones who have chosen life in town centres. Women from abusive marriages have also joined the teenagers.
Mary, a mother of three, says: “My husband became abusive and evicted me from his house after I failed to bear him a son. I tried to go back to my parents. My brothers chased me away, claiming I had no share there and should humble myself before my husband.” Barely educated and with three girls to cater for, she took off to Bomet town where she washes bedding and clothes in several lodgings and residential estates. She also operates a grocery. She admits that she sometimes gives in to a ‘companion’ if he can boost her income.