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The underworld of buying and selling babies on Nairobi’s black market

Mary Auma runs a clinic in Kayole, Nairobi. [Courtesy, Standard]

Sh45,000 in Kenya can mean rent for some people. For others, it means three months’ salary. For others, it represents an unprecedented windfall while for others still, it signifies what they spend on a night out.

For yet another group of Kenyans though, this amount of money is the asking price for snatching a newborn from its mother’s breast and putting it into the hands of another woman in Nairobi’s underground baby stealing and selling syndicate.

Now, a year-long investigation by the BBC Africa Eye reveals the intricate operations of this baby buying and selling syndicate that steals children from homeless women, poor and often single mothers in informal settlements before passing them off to the highest bidder.

The racket involves trusted members of the community, well-placed government officials including employees in public hospitals in a trade that has robbed hundreds of women of their children for the financial benefit of a few leaving behind a trail of pain and despair.

Mothers wake up every day to nothing but the memories of their lost children. Hanging on to hope. Struggling to remember the little details of their missing children in a world that encourages them to forget and move on.

Stains on their clothes bringing back memories of intimate birthmarks. The laughter of a neighbour’s child reminding them of their own. A child answering to a name breaking them down and reminding them of eternal loss.

Susan Wanjiku tries desperately to wipe tears off her eyes. It’s been four years since she last saw her child.

“Every time I see someone who looks like him I break down,” Susan says. “It would be better for me to hold him and bury him.”

For Susan, it is the uncertainty over her lost son that kills her inside every day. Not knowing what happened to him and the questions from her other children make it impossible for her to move on.

“They ask me why they had to steal our child… why have they never brought him back,” Susan says.

Her tale is not unique. There are hundreds more like her. Hundreds of mothers staring at empty places on the table every time she serves dinner.

This heartache has a source. Its source, a booming business that has made a few people wealthy over the misery of others.

Nairobi’s Kayole Estate is a mix of life itself. Within it lie the hopes and ambitions of a population brought to life by the daring spirit of some of its sons such as BET Awards Nominee Kaligraph Jones. Within it too lies vivid expressions of desperation such as the formation of violent criminal gangs.

Within it too lies extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances that punctuate everyday existence in this commune that lies 20km East of Nairobi’s Central Business District.

Somewhere between this mosaic of life, an underground baby-selling racket exists as well.

A woman tells first-time visitors to her makeshift clinic that she worked as a nurse in some of the city’s best hospitals. The clinic is not remarkably different from the surrounding buildings. It is on the ground floor. It has grey metallic gates where the windows and doors should stand as a security measure.

The windows, open up to blue metallic grills. A further peek inside introduces you to sparsely populated shelves of what passes off as a chemist. For effect, the shelves are lined with PVC, which ordinarily, would be used for flooring.

But it is what goes on behind these shelves that are the oddity.

Somewhere within her clinic. Somewhere past a black handbag on the wall. Somewhere past a fading calendar, feet can be heard shuffling around.

A pair belongs to a woman who is eight and a half months pregnant.

“She is almost ready to deliver,” she says, before going into a sales pitch to a BBC undercover reporter.

As she negotiates the price, the pregnant woman, deep in labour, shuffles around, oblivious of the conversations going on around her. For the right price, the baby, which is to be delivered at any time, would spend its first night in the arms of a stranger.

“This one was asking if I’d talked to you and whether the deal was on,” she says, creating the impression that the women who come to her, are well aware of what she does. “She wants you to take the baby as soon as she delivers.”

She says that all the pregnant woman wants is money. And that her man had left her. And that her landlord had locked her out of her house.

As the negotiations proceed, the women can be heard moaning in the background. Gasping for breath.

“Lie on your side,” she tells one of the women before returning to the business of the day.

She says that for Sh45,000, the undercover reporter can walk out with a baby. No questions asked.

“As soon as we are done with her she leaves,” she says. “We make it very clear and they know they can never come back.”

To stay ahead of the competition, she provides some key after-sales services. You just don’t walk away with a baby. You get a birth notification. A hospital card. And a birth certificate.

And just like that, a child’s true heritage is erased and a new dubious identity created for the benefit of the other accomplice in this devastating trade. Just like that, a mother loses a child, and another walks into motherhood. In between these two women with different motivations is Mary, making a clean profit for her troubles

For the homeless of Nairobi, life is one long war characterised by daily battles. Battles against unpredictable weather. Battles against harassment by county government officials and private security guards who see street families as a bother.

If you are a woman, the odds against you multiply tenfold. And if you are a mother, they become monstrous. You not only have to contend with sexual harassment but live under the constant threat of your child being whisked away in the still of the night to unknown destinations.

On one side of one of Nairobi’s oldest recreational parks, Jevanjee Gardens is a huddle of street families. Almost all of them led by single mothers. Here, they eat. They drink. They sleep and, once in a while they ask passers-by for alms. The street is where they do life.

Mothers, some as young as 15 years lay out pieces of cardboard boxes on the streets like play mats for their children.

Rebecca Wanjiru has lived on the street for years. And like many others, she has come face to face with the dangers the streets pose for their children, both born and unborn.

“You can’t even go to the toilet and leave your child unattended. If you do, your child disappears,” she says.

And all the mothers on the streets have stories to tell about them and their children.

Rebecca’s story begins on March 13, 2011.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and discovered my son was gone,” she says. She has never seen her son Lawrence ever since.

“I just want to see him,” she says. “And if he died, I’d also want to know.”

She says Lawrence introduced her to motherhood.

“I still have hope that one day he will come back to me…why would they take my child even if I am in the streets,” she says.

Rebecca, just like Susan still hopes that she will see her child. For both mothers, the time has not healed the wounds from the deep cuts that the loss of their children has caused.

These wounds though are not self-inflicted. There are individuals who prowl the streets, looking at windows of opportunity to steal other people’s children and sell them off like common commodities to the highest bidder.

One of them is Anita. The first time the investigation team meets Anita she is in a baseball cap and a black sweat top. She says she has been in the baby stealing business for the past three years. And during that period, she says she has taken more than ten children. At least the ones that she can remember.

Her mode of operation is not complicated. In fact, the cruder it is better for her.

She recalls one of the cases in which she coaxed a child whose mother, living in the streets, seemed to have a mental condition.

“I just played around with the child and ran away with her,” she says.

Data from the 2019 national census indicates that there are 20,000 Kenyans living on the streets and Nairobi accounts for 30 per cent of them. Close to 700 of these are women, who continue to endanger their lives and those of their children with every night spent under the deceptive glow of street lights.

In her line of work, Mary Ana Munyendo has recorded at least 600 cases of missing children in the past three years.

“This is a big problem now,” Mary Ana, who is the founder of Missing Child Kenya says. “So big that their cartels that are now protecting each other.”

Missing Child Kenya is a community led portal that works with organisations and individuals in the child protection sector to help share information on missing children.

Mary Ana says culture too has contributed to the increase in child trafficking.

“The pressure of women getting children and getting boys. You go back to the village and people call you barren…then you resort to stealing a child.”

She also says that the economic hardship that many Kenyans face every day also provides some form of motivation to the traffickers.

It is these motivations that keep Anita on the streets. Looking. Searching. Hoping to snatch a baby and sell her off.

She sells a girl for Sh50,000 and a boy for Sh80,000. But, prices of both sexes can go up depending on the level of desperation of the client. She doesn’t always interact with the clients. Anita acts as the supplier to someone higher up the chain, a woman who gives her detailed orders. From age, sex and size. To date, she has been a willing player in what she thinks to be a game, but in reality, is the sad reality for the women whom her actions have affected.

In the course of the reporting, Anita stole a baby boy from another unsuspecting mother. The BBC journalists on assignment Njeri Mwangi and Peter Murimi, attempt to pose as buyers in the hope of rescuing the baby and hopefully reuniting her with the mother.

But, the plan falls through. Before the team with the help of local police lay their hands on the baby, Anita passes him on to a buyer who offered a higher price. Just like that, another mother loses a child. And another lives with another’s child. After making an unknown amount of money, Anita disappears into the streets of Nairobi, perhaps planning her next heist.

Dodgy clinics

Babies though are not just disappearing from the streets. They are not just disappearing from dodgy clinics in the outskirts of the city. They are disappearing from within the precincts of public hospitals supposed to have the public interest at heart.

One of them is Mama Lucy Kibaki Referral Hospital. A clinical social worker employed at the hospital is supposed to assess, diagnose, treat and prevent mental illness and other behavioural disturbances among the patients.

He, however, has another side to his profession. Investigations reveal that he also moonlights as something else. Following a tip-off, the BBC Africa Eye team pose as buyers and approach the hospital employee for the possibility of a baby buying deal.

After several meetings, He agrees to meet with what he thinks is a potential buyer.

With ease, he goes into digging up the history of the potential client. Asking about her marital life. Her matrimonial problems as well as her motivations into getting a baby in the black market. He also asks her if she has tried following the proper adoption process.

After the brief session, seated in an office near the hospital, he introduces the issue of price.

The penalty for child trafficking in Kenya is steep. A person found guilty is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than 30 years or a fine of not less than Sh20 million or to both and upon subsequent conviction, to imprisonment for life.

But none of this bothers the suspects. All of them, perhaps oblivious of the penalties, or believing in their invincibility add fuel to the flames of child trafficking in their own ways.

The underlying motivation for all of them is their financial gain.

While the woman who runs a clinic takes the babies straight from their mother’s wombs and Anita snatches them from the grasp of their mother’s hands, the social worker’s operation seems a little bit more refined. He works for a government institution. Government is heavy on paperwork and procedure. But these two do not deter him from executing his plan. For some Sh300,000 he breaks all the rules.

The day after the meeting the social worker gets back to the undercover team. He has identified potential children that might be used for the deal. Three babies in the hospital’s neonatal unit have been abandoned by their mothers.

Normal procedure dictates that the children be moved to a hospital appointed children’s home for care. Between the dotted line of this standard procedure, the social worker sees his loophole. And seizes it.

At the hospital, he is the officer in charge of supervising the transfer of the three infants. He fills the necessary paperwork, asks for the discharge summaries for all the babies and orders a nurse to take the babies to the undercover buyer.

The social worker has told them that the woman worked for the children’s home. The nurses then hand over the children to the woman. In minutes, one can walk out of a government hospital with a bought baby.

When confronted with the facts at hand, he denied all allegations put against him.

He never responded.

The woman’s clinic still operates. It is not known where Anita is.

“Traffickers are operating in plain sight. This is a national tragedy,” Njeri Mwangi, the lead journalist behind the investigation says. “As a society, we have allowed this to happen. It is our responsibility to bring this to an end.”

BBC Africa Eye presented their allegations to Mama Lucy Kibaki hospital, and those individuals who evidence showed are involved in child trafficking, but they declined to comment.

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