Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 225th story of Our Life Logs |
I grew up in the industrial town of Nakuru Rift Valley in the 1970s in Kenya, a little girl raised by a single mother who dutifully provided for her three children through her job as a fish monger in the Kisumu-Nakuru regions. While watching my mother work so hard, I wanted a better bargain at life, a new city and with new destiny. Nothing—I had decided—would ever make me cower or be afraid to demand for the very best for myself.
I had ambitions of winning a scholarship and eventually flying abroad for University. I figured that getting out of the country would enhance my chances at the job market and give me a chance to explore a new place and life. I thought going abroad would bring me success.
Unfortunately, I didn’t score high enough to get into a university out of the country. Without the financial means or the score to get there, I had to temporarily abandon the dream. I convinced my mother to send me to a college nearby in 1996 to study fine arts, so I would at least get some sort of higher education.
Although it wasn’t my first choice, I grew to like the local college. I met new friends and did well in my classes. From one of those classes I met an Arabic girl who sat next to me. Beauty had no definition when I looked at her. I chided myself for liking a girl at first, because it was not common in my town, but something about her stirred a desire in me I had never felt before. She once caught me staring at her, and I gave her a shy smile. After class, we would sometimes bump into each other and strike up a conversation with her doing a lot of the talking. I’d just listen and feel my heart flutter.
Eventually, this simple crush was wired to a new-found flame. She (let’s call her Mona) dressed nicely and smelt like lavender. Her nose piercing was like a soft water droplet and her gaze was assuring. I could not wrap my head around it, but I felt like something more than my own personal will was pulling me towards her.
So, without a thought of what I was doing, I went on and told Mona how I felt. Shock does not begin to describe how I felt after hearing her response.
“I know. You have been checking me out a lot. I kind of love the attention. Maybe we could hang out and explore what we have some more?”
From then on, we behaved like we were dating. She seemed picky in the kind of friends she had, and she seemed to enjoy my company which made me feel special. Maybe I needed validation from her, but who’s to say? I felt blessed to hear her laughter, and the closeness with which we treated each other was genuine. At least I felt so. Heck! I even tried to break free and had a few boyfriends here and there. Nothing felt half as special compared to the moments when I sat in Mona’s presence.
One evening, after partying hard with friends over the weekend in October 1997, I asked Mona to come home with me. I was, however, too wasted to direct anyone home. Seeing the state that I was in, Mona hailed a taxi back to her apartment in South C, Nairobi instead. I had never been to her place before, but I had no worries about it. I believed that if I was with her, nothing could go wrong. I’ve come to see now that trouble can have an appealing aura, and I was very wrong to place so much faith in a girl I only just knew.
When we got into her apartment, a strangely calm, middle-aged man was sitting on the couch, smoking a cigar. The smell was heavenly and I thought to myself, ‘‘That must cost a fortune.” He gladly welcomed us in and helped me to the couch. My Mona disappeared into the room for what appeared to be 30 minutes before emerging back stark naked, strutting in her natural glory. I watched her and marveled, but also took offence at the man’s presence, wondering why he was even there.
“It’s ready,’’ she said to him curtly.
The man walked off and followed Mona back to the room. He came back with a glass of tot. I wasn’t sure what was in the drink, but I was already drunk and welcomed more alcohol. I gulped it in one swig. After that, my memory is a little blurry. I remember coming in and out of consciousness, once waking up in a bathtub with Mona and the strange man. My consciousness did not last long, and neither did my memory.
When I woke up I was at my dormitory, with Mona sitting on a wooden chair next to my bed. As I rose to get up, she hurriedly excused herself, promising to get in touch with me later. It felt a little off, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t until about two weeks later that I began to remember some of that night after the party. Even then, I could not clearly picture the whole scene. I convinced myself that some of what I remembered was a dream and that nothing went wrong. I was so blindly in love that I refused to think badly of Mona.
A month later, Mona called claiming she had an urgent call back home in Saudi Arabia and had to leave immediately. What was more shocking was what she asked of me.
“I was wondering if you want to tag along.”
For a moment, my heart missed a beat. I still wanted so badly to go abroad, and since I was not able to land there through education, I took the opportunity. Maybe I would find the success with Mona’s help!
“My cousin Ahmed will come with us,” she added.
I could not recall who Ahmed was and whether I had met him. Ahmed or no Ahmed, I set my mind to go to Saudi Arabia. I must have thrown caution to the wind because when Mona gave me my completely executed visa, I did not question how she managed to arrange all that in a short time. I dropped out of my classes and blindly followed her without even telling my family. I was devoted to Mona. She was my chance to go to another country. Finally!
But as I stepped on that plane, I didn’t realize that I was walking into the gates of hell.
When I woke up, I found myself in a small windowless room, cramped with a lot of old furniture. I couldn’t tell if we were in Saudi Arabia or not. I didn’t even remember getting off the plane. One thing was for certain; something was very wrong here.
I never saw Mona again. The only people I saw were strange men who came into the room and had their way with me. They did what they wanted as I screamed and pleaded for help. After a few days in that dirty room, I realized what had happened. I had been sold as a sex slave to an unknown buyer in Saudi Arabia. After a few weeks of constantly enduring the wants of different strangers, I got accustomed to expecting pain. They did not understand the word “gentle” when handling me. I was just a toy to them. They would smoke and puff into my nostrils, and while I choked and gulped for air, someone would use the still burning cigarette and extinguish it on my butt. These heinous men freely tested all their fantasies on me, and each day brought pain that tasted like a bitter leaf. I still wonder what kept me going.
I lived like an animal, locked away and passed a bowl of water to drink out of, if I was lucky. At a certain hour of the night, someone would walk into the dark room and drop a plate of food at the corner. I would crawl to it and eat with such relish because it was the only meal I would get that day. All the anger and anguish I had against Mona and her cousin choked into my throat each time I swallowed. I asked myself why I was too blind to see the red flags. I couldn’t believe that this was my life now.
Back home, my parents had reported me missing and splashed my face all over the newspaper, appealing to the public to report anything they knew. Many were just false leads. During the second year, my mum watched those who were once my classmates graduate and enter successfully into the job market while her daughter was nowhere to be found. In three years of my absence, she had exhausted her resources and started losing hope. She resorted to prayers, and asked God’s will to be done.
Towards the end of the third year of my capture, something happened. A fight broke out within the property where I was held, and the commotion attracted the authorities who raided the house. As luck would have it, the door to where I had been detained was broken, and for the first time in years, I was untied and led out into the sun.
At the police station, a lady who spoke fluent English questioned me for close to four hours before disappearing into one of the offices. She did not return for two days, but when she did, she gave me the best news of my life; I was free to go home. I was deported back to my country in a daze.
The first person I contacted when I landed was my mum. I have never heard her cry like the day I called her. We stood sobbing together for the lost time. Soon, I was in a vehicle heading back to Nakuru. My heart was racing with fear of rejection, not knowing what my town would think of me.
I was still in a trail of thoughts when the sound of songs and dances welcomed me back home. I had expected to only find my mother, a gloomy compound, and spite. But I was quite wrong. The love I was ushered into that day was overwhelmingly comforting. I could not talk much through the entire celebration; I was speechless and still in shock from what I had endured. When I tried to speak, I burst into tears and ended up getting everyone teary. It was better to just let things flow and enjoy the pampering I had not had in years. I had learned my lesson the hard way, and it was comforting to know people still supported me and wanted to see me happy.
Life continued as I recovered from my awful experience. Thanks to the support from family and friends, I got my life back on track. My mother opened a shop for me in Nakuru town to set me up financially, and I’ve enjoyed throwing myself into being an entrepreneur. I still want to continue my education someday, but this time, I want to save up and pay my own tuition fees.
As more time passes, the horrors of what I went through never truly leave. I hope that by sharing my story, it will raise awareness about human trafficking and its dangers in schools. Although it has been hard, I’ve learned to forgive my offenders and be thankful for what it has taught me. At the end of the day, I hope to keep others from making my mistakes so that we can have a better world.
But most importantly, you must be there for those you love. With their love, I am hopeful and successful. That’s what matters to me.
This is the story of Sheila Mbatia
Sheila now lives in Kenya working in a shop set up by her mother. As a teenager, Sheila had dreams of going abroad and finding success. When a beautiful girl she had feelings for offered her a chance to go abroad with her, Sheila leaped at the opportunity, but soon realized she had been tricked into being sold to a sex trafficking ring. For years, she was forced to be locked up until she was finally freed by sheer good luck and able to return home. All that really matters to her at the end of the day is that her family has given her support after all she’s been through.
This story first touched our hearts on December 7, 2018.
| Writer: Opondo Maureen | Editors: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |