The weak link in thriving baby sale syndicate revealed

Mary Auma runs a street clinic in the Kayole neighbourhood of Nairobi. [Courtesy, Standard]

Adama’s life was easy when she had her parents, she said. Money was tight and her options were already narrow, but there was an order to things that made sense. She attended school and cherished it. She had few worries. But then her father died when she was 12, and her mother a few years later. As the eldest of three, Adama had a duty to provide for her two siblings.

“Life became so hard then,” she said, in a conversation from her village in a rural part of western Kenya. “I had to drop out of school and fend for myself.”

At 22, Adama met a man and got pregnant, but he died three days after their baby girl was born. Her loneliness deepened. She nursed her baby through an infant sickness until the girl improved, at about 18 months, and then a steady income was needed to keep them both alive.

So Adama left the baby with her grandmother and headed to Nairobi to find work.

“Bear in mind you are going to get a living for you child,” her grandmother said.

City struggle

Adama arrived in Nairobi and began selling water melon on streets. It didn’t pay enough, and her housemate stole any money she left at home. She has a scar at the top of her forehead, just under her tightly cropped hair, from defending herself.

“Some men were playing with me and it reached a point I had to fight back,” she said.

She moved on to a construction site, where she wasn’t paid at all, and from there to a nightclub, where she instructed her boss to send her pay directly back to her grandma in the village.

After a while, Adama took a little more of her pay in Nairobi so she could rent a place to live. She found a new job with slightly better wages at another construction site, and met a man there. The two dated for a while and he told her he wanted to have a child.

Adama offered him a deal – if she could bring her baby girl to live with them, they could have a child together. He agreed, and for five months of Adama’s pregnancy, he paid the rent and bills and bought food for their home, and Adama waited for the right time to bring her baby girl into the city. Then he left one day and never came back, dimming her hopes.

Many women know the anxiety of preparing to bring a child into the world without enough money to feed one person, let alone two. Most will never contemplate selling a child to a stranger. But for some expectant mothers in poverty in Kenya, selling a baby to traffickers has become the last in a limited number of options for survival.

The traffickers pay shockingly low sums. Sarah – not her real name – told BBC Africa Eye she was paid just Sh2,000 for her baby.

Sarah was 17 when she became pregnant with her second child, with no means to support the baby, so she sold him to a local woman who offered her a deal.

“At that point I was young, I never thought what I was doing was wrong,” she said. “After five years it hit me, and I wanted to refund her the money.”

There are thousands of unwanted teenage pregnancies in Kenya every year.

Recent statistics by the African Institute for Development Policy (Afidep) show that Nairobi County is leading with 11,795 teenage pregnancies between January and May, 2020.

“This is slightly higher than last year’s figures in the same period where there were 11,410 cases reported,” Afidep reports.

According to the organisation, Kakamega County came a close second with 6,686 cases compared to 8,109 last year.

Machakos County that has been the focus of the latest public outcry on teen pregnancies, ranks number 14 with 3,966 cases registered this year compared to 4,710 last year.

From all the counties, the total numbers reported for the period January-May 2020 are 151,433 compared to 175,488 for the same period in 2019. 

For many girls from impoverished backgrounds with little hope for a better future, there is only a painful solution. A solution peddled by baby stealers and brokers willing to take a child away from their mother forever – if the price is ‘right’.

Sarah said she knew other women who had sold babies for similarly low sums.

“Many girls sell their babies due to challenges. Maybe she has been chased from home by her mother and she has nothing, or she was still in school when she got pregnant. That is too many problems for a girl who is 15 or 16,” she said.

“You will find girls losing their baby and everything they own because there is no one to hold their hand.”

Health experts say the problem has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, with some women pushed into sex work to survive and girls losing the structure of the school system.

“I’ve heard so many stories of women and girls in this situation. Young women are coming into cities looking for jobs, getting into relationships, conceiving, and being abandoned by the father of their child,” said Prudence Mutiso, a Kenyan human rights lawyer who specialises in child protection and reproductive rights.

“If the father will not pay, then these women and girls have to find other ways to substitute for that income. And that is what drives them to these baby sellers, so that they can get some form of income to support themselves and perhaps children they already have back home. People don’t speak about this in the open, but it is there.”

Adama hid her pregnancy for as long as she could at work, until she could no longer carry heavy bags of cement or disguise her bump. Then she had no income to cover her rent. For three months, her landlord gave her grace, then he kicked her out and boarded the place up.

At eight months pregnant, Adama began breaking back into the house late at night just to sleep and leaving first thing in the morning.

“On a good day, I would be lucky to get food,” she said. “Sometimes I would just drink water, pray, and sleep.”

When a woman finds herself in Adama’s position in Kenya, several factors can converge to push them into the hands of traffickers.

Abortion is illegal unless the life of the mother or the child is at risk, leaving only dangerous unlicensed alternatives on the table. There is also a significant lack of sex and reproductive health education for adolescents, particularly in rural areas, as well as a lack of awareness around legal adoption processes.

Emma helped expose a woman she knew was snatching babies. [Courtesy, Brian Inganga/BBC, Standard]

While abortion is getting safer worldwide, evidence indicates a higher rate of hospitalisation due to unsafe abortion complications for the Eastern Africa region.

Data from the World Health Organisation shows that at least 10 in every 1,000 women aged 15–44 are hospitalised as a result of an unsafe abortion.

The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey shows that Kenya records some 488 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, 18 per cent of these attributed to unsafe abortions. And these are just the official figures.

“Women and girls with unwanted pregnancies do not have support from the government,” said Ibrahim Ali, Kenya organiser for the charity Health Poverty Action.

Vulnerable situations

“These women have often been victimised and stigmatised, especially in rural areas, and they tend to run away, and that puts them in vulnerable situations in cities,” he says.

Adama had no idea what legal options would be open to her to give up her child safely, and no understanding of the adoption process. “I was not aware of it at all,” she said. “I had never heard of it.”

She contemplated a backstreet abortion, she said, but could not reconcile the idea with her faith. Then she contemplated taking her own life.

“I was so stressed, I started thinking how I would commit suicide by drowning myself, so people could just forget about me.”

But a few weeks before her due date, someone introduced her to a well-dressed woman named Mary Auma, who told her not to have an abortion or end her life.

Auma runs an illegal street clinic in the Nairobi slum Kayole. She gave Adama Sh100 and told her to come to the clinic the following day.

Auma’s makeshift clinic is not really a clinic, it’s two rooms hidden behind an inconspicuous shopfront on a Kayole street. Its shutters open onto a blue metal grate, behind which a few largely empty shelves are scattered with aging medicinal products. Auma sits inside with her assistant, buying and selling babies for a profit, without the inconvenience of having to check who is buying them or what for.

She told Adama that the buyers were loving parents who were unable to conceive, who will provide for a much-wanted child. But in reality Auma will sell a baby to someone who walks in off the street with the right amount of cash.

Auma also tells expectant mothers and potential buyers that she is a former nurse, but she does not have the medical equipment, skills, or sanitation to deal with a serious problem during childbirth.

“Her place was dirty, she would use a small container for blood, she had no basin, and the bed was not clean,” Adama recalled. “But I was desperate, I didn’t have a choice.”

When Adama arrived at the clinic, Auma gave her two tablets without warning, to induce labour, Adama said.

Ready buyer

Auma had a buyer lined up and she was anxious to make a sale. But Adama’s baby boy developed chest problems and needed urgent care. So Auma sent the mother and newborn out of the clinic and off to hospital on their own.

After a week in hospital, Adama was discharged with a healthy baby boy. The landlord that had kicked her out when she was pregnant allowed her to return and she nursed the baby for a few days.

Then she ran into Auma again at the market, she said, and Auma gave her another Sh100 and told her to come to the clinic the next day.

“New package has been born,” Auma texted her buyer. “45,000k.”

Auma wasn’t offering Adama the Sh45,000 she was quoting to the buyer. She offered Adama Sh10,000.

But Auma didn’t know the buyer she had lined up for Adama’s baby was an undercover reporter working for the BBC, as part of a year-long investigation into child trafficking. When Adama and our reporter met at the makeshift clinic the next day, Adama cradled her baby son in her arms and looked him in the eyes.

After a whispered discussion with the supposed buyer, Adama left the clinic that day holding her son.

“I was not happy selling my child, I did not want money. I did not even want to touch that money,” she said. “When there was no money involved in giving him up, then I was okay. I knew my child will be safe.”

Adama went directly from Auma’s street clinic to a government children’s hospital, where her son will be cared for until a legitimate adoption can be arranged.

Auma did not respond when the BBC put its allegations to her recently. Her clinic appeared to still be in business.

Adama is 29 now. She still goes to bed hungry sometimes. Life in her village is still hard. She gets occasional work at a small hotel nearby, but it is not enough. She dreams of opening her own shoe shop in the village and bringing in shoes from Nairobi, but it is a distant dream.

She knows she is not ready to have her son back in her life, but she hopes she will see him again. She knows the neighbourhood around his foster home, it is near the house she was kicked out of when she was almost ready to give birth to him. “I know the area is safe,” she said, “and the people looking after him are good.”