I am doing a story series called Nairobi Love, documenting the trauma we go through in relationships and how we try to heal. This is the second story in the installment after Eight Years of Toxic Love. Names and places have been altered to protect the identity of the narrator—I salute her for the courage to strip herself, skin and bone, and share the marrow of her life in the two hours or so we spoke.
When I was five, my uncle, the brother to my mom, used to touch me. The first time it happened was in my grandmother’s house in Meru. My mom had me when she was still in college and they made an agreement that my grandmother would take care of me while she finished her studies. My uncle, who was eighteen at the time, found me alone in the house and pulled me into his room and took off my clothes. I remember feeling an excruciating pain after. This continued until I was in class six.
There was a day he made me give him oral sex. “Weka hii kitu kwa mdomo,” he said carelessly and I obliged. It was not just my uncle. My cousin who was nearly the same age as my uncle pulled me into his room once and did the same thing.
After I turned seven, my mom got married and she came to pick me up. She picked me up along with her brother and we went to live in Kasarani with my new dad who had a son who was younger than me. He was a stellar man. His body has since returned to the earth but he lives within me and I still use his last name.
A couple of days after we moved in, my stepbrother came crying to me, “Uncle amenifanyia tabia mbaya kwa matako.” I held him by the hand and we went to my mom to report him but no action was taken. She never mentioned the incident again. My uncle was now treating me like his girlfriend. When I got home from school he would pull me into the bathroom. When I was in the house alone he would lift me and drop me on his bed. The pain was still excruciating but I got used to it and began to like it.
We moved to Langata when I was about nine and I was taken to boarding school. There is this one holiday that I remember vividly. I was in the house alone and my uncle called me to the bedroom. His exact words were, “Wanja, oka tuikane,” and I took myself to his room. He put on a condom and he started moving his manhood around my genitals without really penetrating me. I had gotten to a point where his touches and caresses had started feeling really good and I helped guide his manhood inside of me. He had an orgasm, took off the condom, put on his clothes and told me to dress up. I got up from the bedroom and went to the couch and when he was leaving, he threw a twenty-shilling and a ten-shilling coin at me. Of all the things he had done to me, that stings till today.
We went to Meru during those holidays. My grandmother always insisted that we sleep together. I slept with her and grandpa who has since passed. When my grandmother woke up, she left me with my grandfather and he turned in my direction. His hands moved towards my growing breasts and I woke up and ran out of the bedroom.
We started being taught about sexual abuse in class seven. I went to our headmistress, who was the sister to my biological dad. That’s why we had been taken to that school. By then I did not know that. My mom had locked that truth and thrown away the keys but truths have an ugly way of bubbling up. I went to her office and told her. “By the way, uncle yangu ni rapist.” Her face was livid. She was quiet then asked which uncle. “Brother ya mom.”
When I left the office she called my mom who came immediately. My mom came to tell me later that she had been going to work but she alighted from the matatu. I told her everything. She apologized and told me we would deal with it when I got back home. My uncle was uprooted from our house and taken back to Meru. That was my mother’s way of dealing with it.
It started dawning on me what my uncle had done to me when I was in class eight. I would be in class and I would break into a sob out of nowhere. I would remember the pain and how the person was still walking around and it would hurt. I had these heartaches that did not go away. When I was approaching my KCPE I called my mom and told her I did not want to do the exam. During one of the holidays, my mom found me crying. People were eating supper in the sitting room and I was just crying. She took me to Nairobi Women’s and there were all these other girls going through episodes and I felt relief knowing that I was not alone.
I did my KCPE and after I went to high school, my self-confidence nosedived. When I was at home I would only go outside at night. I felt as if my experiences were written on my face for the world to see. I used to spend all my time in my bedroom and only come out to get food then go back. I started eating junk food so much and I became a really big girl.
In form two, my stepdad was involved in a car accident. He stayed in hospital for a short while before the gravedigger came for him. It was painful; going back to school was tough. I was the girl who didn’t have a father anymore and the men in my life had abused me. I was suspended in third term for associating with people with perverted sexual behavior—lesbians. I wasn’t engaged with them, I didn’t know particularly how they operated but I was fascinated by their carefree lifestyle. I used to walk around at night and so did they. I felt like I didn’t belong and here I was being accepted by this clique and for a minute it felt like home.
Lesbianism had become rampant in our school. They called a parade and my name was called among other names. I stood there not really caring what was going to happen to me because I knew I did not have a voice to defend myself and say, “This was me trying to process whatever I was going through.” Form four prefects laid accusations. I had written a note to one of them. “I wish you all the best when you finish school. Freedom comes with responsibilities.” The things my mom kept telling me. “It was nice to know you and thanks for being my friend for that time.” When it was read in front of the school it had been doctored to something I could not recognize.
There was this girl named Mildred who I considered a friend. I usually confided in her the things that were bothering me. After the letter was read, she stepped forward as a witness. “Wanja was abused. Maybe that’s why she’s a lesbian.” That sealed my fate. It was not the suspension or the lesbianism that hurt but the entire school looking at me and knowing what I had been through, and instead of sympathizing, pointing fingers and judging.
How was I supposed to walk around school when at home no one knew and I still couldn’t walk around during the day? I came back on a Monday and we were closing school on Tuesday. During the closing assembly, I was in this big hoodie that covered me from head to knees. I felt ashamed that it happened to me. ‘If everything that happened to me had not happened, I would be okay. I wouldn’t try to find a sense of identity in any group because I would be a whole human being and I would be confident making friends.’ I thought constantly.
When my mom was bringing me back to school she told me, “Wanja, I watched your father die. There is no single thing you can do in this world that can shock me.”
I started self-harming with the mathematics set compass. Weirdly enough, I used to feel very good. The more painful it was, the better I felt. Anytime someone did something to upset me, I took it personally and connected it with everything that was happening to me.
In form three nobody wanted to sit with me. I sat in the corner. I remember the class teacher forced one of the girls to sit with me. I never used to like myself because I had grown bigger. My self-esteem was leaking through my socks and when we went to funkiez, I used to sit by myself. I never wanted to be seen. I didn’t think people would find anything interesting about me.
I decided to direct all my energy towards books. Books became my friends, my escape, the one thing that would not turn its back on me or judge me. I buried myself in them and the result could only be excellence. I got an ‘A’. That was the first time I looked in the mirror and smiled after seeing someone in there that was worthy.
I joined University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy. I had lost weight and I was looking good in a way only a nineteen-year-old girl can; round bottom, shapely, comely, and I couldn’t get enough of the attention boys were giving me. I would hang out with one guy today, another tomorrow and another one the day after. There was no intimacy, not yet. The flirtations and being told how pretty I was gave me a sense of validation and I started drawing a sense of worth from the men I was hanging around.
I got a boyfriend but we broke up after I refused to give him sex. I got another one. No sex and he disappeared. When I was heading to third year I got into a fling with this cute, brown skin guy. Jeremy. He wanted us to date. When we were breaking for the holidays I passed by his bedsitter in Ruiru. “You know I will be your first?” he said with arrogant confidence. I hadn’t yet made the decision to sleep with him. I was waiting for him to take the decision from my hands. We started kissing and touching and it was over before I could blink. Afterwards, he told me if the elasticity of my womanhood changed he would know I had slept with someone else.
After we slept together the interest he had in me ebbed and died out like a candle in the wind. We had sex again but it was tasteless. He started blocking my calls but I held on emotionally. When he didn’t pick my calls my heart ached so fiercely I could almost touch the pain. I only felt okay after I had spoken to him. He became like a drug to me. Rapid and intense when he was uncommunicative, a release after we spoke and then a build up again.
During this time I had another guy I was talking to. Noel. We had been talking since first year. He was a phenom; dark, tall, played basketball and had this Mayan tattoo on his chest that made my blood flame. He was studying in India and most of our communication was through WhatsApp. He was the one person I felt I could talk to when I was not okay. This one time he came and I visited him at his parents’ place in Yaya. That was my second consensual sexual encounter as an adult. That was the first experience that I liked. It was the first romance in which I didn’t feel withdrawal symptoms when I didn’t talk to him. Jeremy faded away immediately after I had sex with Noel.
Noel came and left. He told me, “Wanja, I can’t leave you as my girlfriend because I want you to experience campus.”
I went to third year and started seeing another guy. Edwin. A supermarket cashier whom I used to bump into every time I went to buy supplies. I considered him a friend more than anything. We would hang around his house, watch movies and talk and he started flirting with me. I behaved oblivious to his advances but we ended up having a fling and it resulted in a pregnancy.
I came to know about it because I had an infection. I visited my gynecologist in Nairobi CBD and he told me I needed to test for three things: HIV, sugar and pregnancy. I panicked more about the pregnancy than HIV. I went back to a laboratory in Ruiru and the bill amounted to five thousand bob. On a Thursday, while going to my boyfriend’s place, I bought a pregnancy test which came back positive. He asked what I wanted to do with it. I didn’t hesitate. “Kesho staki hii kitu kwa mwili yangu.”
After making the decision to remove it I started toying with the idea, ‘Should I, should I not?’ I called my friend, Judith who was also my classmate and told her everything.
“Judith, what do I do?”
“Can the dad support it? Can you support it? You need to think critically about what you can do for that child.”
I sat down and really thought about it. I am in school, I’m twenty, my mom is barely making ends meet. My stepbrother had even gone back to his side of the family and I didn’t want to be another burden. I didn’t see myself as a mom and I did not want to be one. I thought about my boyfriend; I did not like him that much, and I knew he could not afford a kid. He had just quit his cashier job to become a Disc Jockey.
The next day we pulled funds together with him and bought cytotec misoprostol. Six tablets for six thousand bob. I am a pharmacist myself and I know six tablets go for five hundred bob but the price goes up in the black market. I ingested two and inserted two into my vagina. Nobody told me I was not supposed to eat anything after taking misoprostol. I waited for the medicine to work and nothing happened. That was on a Friday.
On Saturday we called the contact person who had sold us the drugs and bought some more. This time she told me not to take anything. I ingested four more and at midnight while I was studying for my end of semester exams I felt a cramp then I felt liquid trickling down my thigh when I went to the bathroom to check, it was blood. I was so relieved. Before taking the pills I had sat on the couch and prayed “God, I desperately need this to work. My mom is going to throw me out, please make it work.”
I started feeling a lot of pressure from the waist downward. I went to the toilet and a grotesque mass of blood and veins fell out. Sunday morning I had breakfast, continued studying for my exams and did my paper on Monday morning. I didn’t have time to process what had happened, all I knew was that I needed to work hard on my studies because I had made the ultimate sacrifice for it.
The lady had told me to expect my period after one month. When I went home for my December holidays, twenty-eight days passed and I did not get my period. I took another pregnancy test and it was still positive. The clinician of the place where I took the test told me to wait for one week. A week later there was still no period and the third test was still positive.
In the third week of January, my boyfriend gave me two thousand bob for consultation at my gynecologist. A friend of mine had had an abortion and she told me if I found the baby was still alive not to remove it. An ultrasound was done and the results showed that the abortion was incomplete. Tears spilled, blurring my vision. A part of me wanted it to be alive.
Cleaning my womb was twelve thousand bob; money we did not have. We started looking for cheaper alternatives and found one in Thika, a place called Family Healthcare. They did the service for five thousand bob which was inclusive of an MVA (Manual Vacuum Aspiration) and a contraceptive method of my choice. I chose an IUD (Intrauterine Device). My doctor told me that if I didn’t get a contraceptive I would be back there again. And I am grateful because after a few months I started getting the urge to replace the kid. ‘Nikipata mwingine si nitawacha kufeel hivi?’ I thought frequently.
I went back to my boyfriend’s place and slept. The next morning it hit me all at once that I was no longer pregnant and my mom did not know what I had been through. The weight of all of it rested on my shoulders like a ton of bricks and the stress sunk me into a state of misery.
I had these regular gynecologist visit to check my IUD and I used to confide and borrow money from a very close friend of my mom’s. My mom would call me and say, “Wanja, mbona huwa huniambii vitu zingine?” This one time I snapped and told her everything; my mom lost it. “Wanja ni mimi unaambia ulifanya abortion? Ningekuabort ungekuwa wapi saa hii?” She hung up the phone. Every time I called her she did not pick. The funny thing is, the moment I told my mom, I felt better. I texted her and she texted back after a couple of days. “I forgive you for whatever happened. On my part as a parent I forgive you but ujue kila kitu unafanya kwa hii dunia hulipiwa tu huku.”
In my circle, the only people who knew my situation were my friend from school, Judith, and my boyfriend. A few months after the abortion I entered class and people started staring at me, whispering and giggling; whispering, staring and then giggling. It hit me that everyone in a class of a hundred and twenty people knew what I had been through and I had become the butt of jokes and innuendo. It felt like high school all over again.
I disconnected from people and started crying throughout the night. My boyfriend became everything to me. The relationship went on for another two months before going bust. He ended it. He got another person and told me that he felt we wanted different things. I didn’t appreciate it when he quit his job and every time he came and told me he had a nice business idea I would shoot it down and tell him to go and beg for his old job back. That breakup opened a pandora’s box and I started a fling with a married man.
I went for holidays at my aunt’s place in Nanyuki and forgot about my problems but the moment I came back to Nairobi, the feeling of anxiety came back like it had never left. The thought of going back to school made me want to cry. I just wanted to go back home and not have to deal with anyone except my mom and younger brother. That was the time my friends introduced me to this organization in university called Beyond Pain. At the time we were also being taught about drugs relating to mental illnesses: depression, schizophrenia, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.
We were taught the drugs for these illnesses and their symptoms and I became my own case study. I could almost tick on all the symptoms for depression; sadness, anger, fatigue, lack of sleep and not eating.
When I went for that forum, a psychiatrist from Kenyatta National Hospital, Dr. Okusi, and a guy who was battling depression started talking about it. They talked about the youth center in KNH where people who were below twenty-five years of age could get treated free with the exception of drug prescriptions.
The forum was held on Friday and I went on Monday. Dr. Okusi was not there and I was referred to someone else. My current therapist, Sandra. She’s a master’s student doing clinical psychology at the University of Nairobi. We sat down and she started writing my history.
I was having issues with my married fling. I had gotten attached to him. He was busy most times and when he was not talking to me I would feel deprived. I never knew what to expect from him. I was always waiting, waiting for something that never happened. There were times he would kick me out and tell me not to ever come back but when he called again I would run back to his arms. He was in it for fun. I wanted the fun but emotionally, I started getting attached. He was the complete opposite of my ex— successful and emotionally stable—and I usually thought that if I could make him love someone like me then I might not be so broken after all.
That was the first thing we tackled in therapy. We spiraled from the fling all the way to my childhood abuse from my uncle. She gave me a test called PHQ9. One for depression and anxiety. I scored twenty-one out of thirty on the depression test, which was severe clinical depression, and anxiety came to moderate. She sat me down and told me I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from my childhood abuse and it was manifesting in the form of depression and anxiety.
I was seen by a psychiatrist, Dr. Joyce. She looked at my file then looked at me open-mouthed. “How are you twenty one and you look like an old woman? Are you sleeping? Are you eating? What is wrong?” She asked me about my history and told me to forgive and I wondered what she was telling me to forgive. All I wanted was to feel okay enough to be able to eat.
She wrote me a month’s prescription for antidepressants. A tablet was one hundred and thirty shillings. I slowly got out and leaned against the wall and started crying in violent hiccups wondering how I moved to a point where I needed antidepressants. I called my mom and told her about it. “Mimi Wanja sielewi nini unasema,” she said and hung up the phone. I called my aunt and she recommended a cheaper place, Transchem. A tablet was going for seventy-five shillings. I had a thousand bob in my pocket and I bought tablets for fourteen days.
My therapist told me I had dependency syndrome. I depended on those around me for friendship, love and validation and when those things were withdrawn I broke down. She told me I had severe abandonment issues and that I was attaching too fast because I was scared of being abandoned. It stemmed from the fact that my mom left me with my grandmother, my stepdad came and then died, the one guy I liked left for India and even my friends betrayed me so I knew that the people I cared about would always leave.
She told me to stop seeing the married guy and to stop communicating with him and eventually it would be okay. The drugs became very expensive for me to buy so I only took them for a month. The problem with antidepressants is when you start taking them you can’t withdraw immediately. I withdrew immediately so the depression came back multiplied.
There are nights I would go to bed and wish I didn’t wake up. Everything around me was spiraling. My relationship with my mom was strained. My mom could not understand where my depression had come from. She was not very supportive financially and I was always constantly stressed about where to buy my meds or even how to get to KNH. I had school work and my social life was collapsing. There were rumors that I was having an affair with a lecturer.
I started getting panic attacks and hormonal imbalances. At this time, the fling I had with the married man had fizzled out and whenever we came across each other all we exchanged were awkward hi’s.
There was a time I panicked in the middle of a CAT. I looked at the paper and blanked out and stood up and left. I went to the Dean’s office and started crying. She stopped everything she was doing and asked what was wrong? I told her I could not manage pharmacy any more even though I was in the last semester of my last year. I explained to her about everything that was happening and she was shocked, “You always seem okay?” she said, astonished.
She told me instead of quitting pharmacy she was going to give me a break for one week. She asked me to write a letter for medical reasons and go and rest. “Any engagements you have in terms of cats and exams, I will talk to the lecturers to give them to you at another time.” I came back the next week and did my cats and exams and went for my attachment.
After, I opened up to my mom. We fought. I was very angry at her because when I was abused, the most she did was just chase that person away. It was painful. She was there feeling like a terrible mother and I was there feeling like a terrible daughter for making her feel like a terrible mother.
Eventually I forgave both her and my grandmother. I tried to put myself in their shoes and the issue stopped being black and white and became grey. I was my mother’s daughter and grandmother’s grandchild. I was important to them but so was my uncle because he was my mother’s brother and my grandmother’s lastborn son. I realized that it was not easy for either one of them.
For my mom, it couldn’t have been easy to know that her brother had done that to her daughter. It must have devastated and chipped away at her being, even for my grandmother, I think it took something from her. That was one of the things that made me forgive. Besides, whoever I am right now, all the good things that I am, it’s because of my mother. Repairing that relationship with her was very important.
My mom is my best friend now. We decided she will be buying my meds because I am still on medication. Right now there isn’t a single thing I wouldn’t tell her. If I had a boyfriend or I wanted to make a life-changing decision, she is my first point of reference.
My uncle is still walking around. I will bump into him or his wife and kids. My mom and grandmother still talk to him. He is part of the family. When I see him right now I see him as a father to kids and a husband to a wife. And I have decided to forgive him so that my mom and grandmother can forgive him too.
I let it go. I used to resent him a lot. Knowing that he was okay and I was suffering made me very angry. I used to tell God, for every tear I have cried let him cry too. We talk now even though they are just hi’s and how are you doing? I went to his ruracio and carried his kiondoo and told him, “Carrying this kiondoo for you is me letting everything go.”
Infinitely, I am in a better place. Though sometimes I hit a low, it’s not as bad. I still talk to my therapist; she’s finishing her master’s degree in clinical psychology and she’s set to graduate in September. The journey I have had with her has been very fruitful. The main thing I have learnt so far is that your sense of self-worth can never come from another person, it has to come from you. In any relationship, any friendship, I’m okay with being who I am. I’m okay if people choose to walk in and out of my life without notice and if I have an issue with anyone, I am able to talk about it without feeling as if losing them will break me.
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