It’s Furahiday !!! Best part about it is I saw my last patient at 3:45 pm and I get to go home early! Instead of leaving, I decided to take this rare opportunity to respond to numerous e-mails, text messages, and unanswered phone calls from colleagues. Most people become irritated that I don’t answer calls but if they only knew that paying attention to my phone would be a full time job in itself. As I hastily addressed these pending issues, I was quickly reminded why I usually have to escape the office to get any other administrative work done. Endless knocks on the door and questions and “saidia huyu rafiki yangu”( help my friend).
Well, it happened again, for the nth time.
Today I was calm and not agitated by time as my son was unwell and at home with his ‘cucu’, so I was content that he was well taken care of. Suddenly, Madam Janet interrupts my moment of intense concentration as she escorts a young girl dressed in school uniform into the room. She was probably 14 years old at most in my ‘expert opinion’. She was unaccompanied by a guardian or other adult as was the norm. Ms Janet then gives me a 2 line history, saying that the girl had brought herself to the office to report her mother! Ms Janet then asks me, visibly very troubled, “ Inaweza kua ukweli? Mama yake yule amemzaa alimuumiza?”(can this be true, that her biological mother hurt her?)…this was asked in the presence of the child. In an effort to “damage control”, I immediately responded very confidently, “Yes. Most definitely. Many mothers are stressed out and lack the coping skills to deal with their problems. They then take out their stress on their children”.
Fiona, obviously desperate for help and distressed, sat down, all the while facing the ground just as a shy person would, or one with damaged self esteem. As I read her documents, I called her by her name and she raised her head. She looked at me, this deep sadness evident in her eyes. She had a swollen black eye, what is sometimes referred to as a “raccoon” eye in medical language. Our conversation from this point went as follows:
Me: Who did this to you?
Fiona: My mother and stepfather.
Me: Why? How and when did this start? For how long has this been happening?
Fiona: “Kutoka nikuje Nairobi kukaa na mum, ni matusi tu saa yote. Ata siku yenye alinikujia kwa cucu ni matusi. Pia ananichapa sana” (since I came to Nairobi to stay with mum, she abuses me all the time. Even the day she came for me from grandmother’s house, she was abusing me. She also beats me up a lot).
Me: You lived with your grandmother before coming to Nairobi?
Fiona: Yes, since I was 4 months old.
Me: Why did you relocate?
Fiona: ‘Kusoma’ (to study). I was to continue Form 3 here.
Me: When you say she abused or abuses you, what do you mean?
Fiona: “Ananiita Malaya, shetani. Anasema yeye si mama yangu, ati mama yangu alikufa kitambo. Anasema mimi nimemletea mashida tu! Ati ninataka mume wake”.
( She calls me a prostitute, a devil. She says she is not my mother and that my mother died ages ago, that I have just given her problems and accuses me of wanting her husband).
Upon further questioning, she informed me that her parents had separated a long time ago and that her step father was her mother’s 3rd ‘husband’ with whom they had a child together of 9 years. Fiona was 16!
Me: So what happened to warrant a beating this time?
Fiona: Mum told me to wash the dishes after I got home from school. It was late. I usually have to walk long distances to school and back. I was tired. I asked her to give me a few minutes to rest and then I would wash them. “Akaanza kunitukana”(she started abusing me). She said I was useless and a pain. I started to do the dishes and she continued shouting at me. I asked her why she was shouting at me.
All hell broke loose Fiona said. It was as if a bomb had exploded. She (the mum) rained on her with slaps and took away her phone. She then asked her ‘husband’ to help her discipline Fiona. Being the “good husband’ that he is, he gladly slapped her, and punched her in the face, as her mother plucked her hair from her scalp and hit and scratched her back.
As if this was not bad enough, Fiona reported that her mother then took a metal rod of sorts, and used it to choke Fiona by standing behind her with the rod between her hands and pressing it against her throat so hard that Fiona had a hoarse voice and abrasions on her neck. Needless to say, as Fiona narrated her story, graphic images played around in my mind. It was as if I was in the making of a horror movie. I was horrified!
Fiona, tired of being abused and mistreated, ran away to seek refuge at a neighbour’s house. This neighbor was someone she knew from her rural area and she felt safe with her. The good Samaritan took Fiona to a nearby clinic to receive medical attention and seek further assistance.
This young girl continued to share that she did the house chores every day. She would cook, clean and iron, and was never allowed to join the family on family trips, instead she would be left to continue with house chores.
I listened keenly while taking in all the information I could observe, including her attire. She was dressed in crisp maroon school uniform. I asked if she had come from school and was curious as to how she pulled that off seeing as it was in the middle of the day. She narrated that she had come from the good Samaritan’s house and that she only had uniform from her old school to wear! She didn’t have other clothes, she said, neither did she have the correct uniform for the current school she was in. She did not even have any books and had to borrow from her peers. The headmaster had scolded her several times about this but she was never able to disclose that her mother was not interested in providing for her. Upon being summoned once she then broke down and shared her story with him. She mentioned she wanted to go back to her grandparents but her mother would hear none of it. He then wrote a letter “ To whom it may concern” indicating that she had to leave the school due to unforeseen circumstances and released her.
My question is, what more could have been done for this child? Why didn’t the headmaster take further action instead of releasing her with a letter? Did her safety cross his mind? Was he also unaware of the dangers lurking in her life? Why did she have to find her way to the Police Station and the Police Surgery by herself? Wasn’t the good Samaritan aware that this is a child in NEED OF CARE AND PROTECTION AT ALL TIMES? Do people know about the process of reporting child neglect and/or abuse? Are people aware of the signs of abuse? It was by God’s grace that Fiona arrived at her destination in one piece.
Many times family friends, neighbours and relatives, are aware that a child is being mistreated. Sometimes we may not be sure if what we suspect is indeed the case and opt to ignore it or justify it to ourselves to avoid being entangled in the mess. But this is not good enough. We must be responsible for one another and for our children. “It takes a village to raise a child”. If we note a parent or caregiver abusing a child, be it verbally, physically, or even in silence, please place yourselves in the shoes of this child. What would you want done for you or your own child? It is crucial that we break the silence! It’s better to be too careful, than to turn a blind eye! If you suspect something is not right, blow the whistle!
Below is a simplified reporting process.
I will stop this story here and now highlight a few useful tips in the event one comes across such a situation.
Bruises and grazes in unusual parts (common areas injured from falls during play are the elbows, knees, forehead)
Hand print bruises on the face
Scratch marks on the cheeks and neck
Broken bones with no explanation
Multiple injuries at different stages of healing
Weak unhealthy-looking individual without explanation (eg kwashiorkor in an area where food is present)
Poor dental hygiene
Withdrawn, sad, low mood
Crying a lot
Fearful, especially when a particular person is present
Fear of going to school or going home
Sudden separation anxiety
Regressed milestones: bedwetting after the child had previously stopped
Urinary and stool incontinence
Dirty unkempt child
Child roaming around unsupervised.
Supervised but caregiver doesn’t take measures to avoid accidental injuries, eg. playing around a “jiko”(charcoal burner).
Reporting can be done at any Children’s Office, or a Police station.
Whenever possible ensure a Children’s Officer is informed about this incident.
When reporting at a Police Station, ensure you receive an OB number!
Alternatively, anyone can report by dialing 116 Child Helpline and report anonymously.