‘One hundred…one hundred Nairobi,’ one tout shouted after another. ‘Fifty bob, fifty bob Mlolongo.’ Another one interrupted as they jostled for passengers at Kitengela town, 45km south of Nairobi.
I weaved my way through the crowd of mostly men and headed towards the Nairobi point. The bus stop was unusually quiet. The cacophony that usually comes with such rush hours was missing. There were many stranded commuters but only a few buses, most of them heading for routes other than Nairobi. Hawkers milled around displaying their wares to the stranded commuters. Some people lined up along the Namanga-Nairobi highway, stopping private vehicles for lifts.
A woman carrying a silver thermos flask in one hand and three plastic cups on the other shuffled across my path, and we almost collided. She was hurrying to sell Kahawa Tungu, home-made coffee to stranded commuters standing at a corner of the bus stop. I heard someone curse loudly at police corruptness in handling traffic matters. He was saying that there was a police crackdown on the highway towards the city but according to him, the police were just out to extort money from vehicle owners, giving commuters a raw deal. I didn’t wait to hear what he said next – a blue mini-bus belonging to Movoko Sacco Bus Company arrived and off loaded passengers arriving from Nairobi, as its touts called for passengers heading to the city. I quickened my steps to secure a seat as other people jostled to get in. I was going to the city to attend a women’s event that had been organized by a national newspaper that Sunday morning.
‘Hoi!’ A man behind me shouted and whistled as I walked past.
I didn’t bother to turn and check who he was after. I normally don’t respond to wolf whistles; I find it offensive for anyone to cat call. It sounded so out of tune with modern life, it irritated. I continued walking, eager to catch the bus that was filling fast.
I walked past a hand cart puller, also making his way out of the milling crowds. His face covered in sweat, he clenched his teeth for strength to steer his wagon full of groceries up the sloping bus stop, probably to a kiosk up the opposite side of the road.
I didn’t notice the man slither behind me until I felt a jerking tap on my shoulder, it shoved me forward. I thought a mugger was after my hand bag and gave out a yelp. Startled, I turned around holding tightly on to my bag, my hands flailing in the air in self-defence. A middle aged man stood behind me, staring at me with a smug look on his face. His rumpled red t-shirt looked like it had been wrestled out of a cow’s mouth. His faded brown pants hung on his body like it was on a pole. His eyes spoke of malice as his mouth moved, continuously chewing Khat.
‘Hey, it’s you I’ve been calling,’ he said, shoving the heap of chewed Khat on to the side of his cheeks.
‘Where do you think you are going, ignoring calls as if you were the Queen of England?’ the man said with a sneer, green spittle spraying my face.
I stepped back, startled, and wiped the bits of spit off my face. I felt dirty. I had never seen him before, nor was I aware of any debt I owed anyone. I wanted to open my mouth to speak, but it went dry.
‘What do you want?’ I finally managed to ask.
The man didn’t say a word and instead smiled at me cynically, examining me from head to toe as if I was a doll on offer.
‘I don’t entertain strangers and you are delaying me,’ I warned him. I clicked my tongue in disgust before turning to continue my journey.
‘Where do you think you are going, eh?’ The man shouted after me, attracting the attention of other men and commuters at the bus stop.
Before I could take another step, he quickly stepped in front of me and blocked me, so that I was not able to proceed.
I shoved him aside with an elbow and continued walking, kicking hard at every step; my red heels dug the dusty ground as if to create a hole for my escape from the prying eyes. Just before I could reach the bus, another man jumped in front of me, then another. Then cat calls started. More men showed up in front of me like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Then, in Kiswahili, they started to chant,
‘Rarua.. rarua… rarua.’(Tear… tear… tear).
Like a crowd of vultures over a dead calf, they circled me. Terrified and confused, my eyes darted from one man to the other like a caged bird. I tried to read their motive but I couldn’t get any. Most of their faces were frightening; others made sexual expressions at me, rubbing their genitals. They advanced and surged forward, the air between us fizzling as a cloud of dust kicked up by their feet filled the diminishing space between us. I felt suffocated, my body warm and moist. My heels felt wet and slippery.
A man in a yellow faded t- shirt, brown trousers and hair in dreadlocks lunged forward and ripped open my silky red flowered blouse. Its buttons spilled on the ground like grain. One man violently pulled at my handbag, the strap came off. He whisked it away as I struggled to clutch on to my torn blouse to hide my nakedness. In a daze and struggling to gain a grip of myself, I lost balance and tripped forward. I fell on my face but struggled to sit up immediately. One man lifted me up by the strap of my bra, ripping it apart. My bare chest was exposed. Another slit open my blue khaki skirt. More hands joined in. They violated me in broad daylight, in my own country. They said my skirt was too short for their comfort. Filthy male hands tore at me; touching me in places no stranger should, and savaged me in public like a caged animal. Touts cornered me, tore my panties, parted my legs and touched my private parts as one of them filmed the heinous act.
One man extended his hand to me. At first I didn’t trust him but when he insisted, I held on to it and he pulled me up. But they still came at me, slapping me on the face and shouting insults at me, calling me names as if I was a criminal. I perched on the man like a lizard on a branch. I wanted to scream but I didn’t know how, wanted to run, just run and never look back, but there was no way out. I buried my face on the man’s chest who now tried to fend off the offending crowd.
Then a female voice tore through the rowdy touts, catching them by surprise. It was a voice of an old woman. It was Mama Mboga. She had gotten wind of what was happening and dared the devil, at a time every woman ran for cover while others stood watching, as if they enjoyed the unfolding scenario.
‘Leave her alone …auhi! Stop your obscenities, what happened to your morality?’ She shouted as she broke through the ring of men with a lesso in her hand – a sheet like cloth, mostly worn by women. Mama Esther followed behind her.
‘Stop interfering or we will strip you too,’ one rude man called out from the crowd.
‘Try it, I dare you!’ replied the Mama Mboga as she quickly threw the lesso over my naked body.
‘Teach your girls how to dress. They have tempted us far too long,’ another said as the crowd melted.
I felt the world under my feet swing and everything went blank. I woke up inside a salon at the market. Mama Mboga and Mama Esther were not there. Selina, the salon owner, told me that I had been carried in by two women and a man she didn’t recognize.
When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was horrified by the image that I saw; my body was covered in dust and my hair matted. The skin below my left eye was swollen and looked like it had been grazed by a rough object. My elbows and knees were bruised and painful as if I had been dragged over the ground. Feeling guilty, embarrassed, and ashamed at the violation of my privacy, I cupped my face in my hands and started to cry. I wanted to die.
Selina asked me if I could remember the phone number of anyone that she could call to inform about the incident, but I couldn’t remember any. My phone had been stolen in the melee together with my handbag. Finally, my mother’s phone number came to mind but I could barely speak. I cried all the time, blowing my nose with my hands and wiping it with the lesso. Selina offered me a piece of paper to write it down. I scribbled the number on the paper, my hands barely able to hold the blue pen, they shook violently from the trauma.
Selina explained to my mother what had happened to me and she immediately sent an electronic money transfer to Selina’s phone for a taxi to take me home. My mother and Selina both wanted me to go to hospital, just in case I was injured, but I refused. I couldn’t bring myself to meet anyone looking the way I was. I hated myself and felt filthy. I just wanted to go home, where I felt protected. I wanted to clean my body, to wash away the marks.
At home I spent hours in the shower, crying and recounting every moment of the events before, during and after my ordeal. No amount of tears could heal the emotional scars the men had inflicted on me. I wished I could close my eyes and never open them again. I locked myself in the bathroom until my mother who had hurried home to be with me arrived. We went to the local police station to report the incident. The police didn’t take me seriously and asked me to make a statement. They said it was not possible to press charges on anyone because they were a crowd and it was hard to identify them as individuals since I didn’t recognize any of them. Despite the video taken by one of the men at the scene, which later went viral, no one has since been arrested. Mama Mboga and Mama Esther declined to record statements with the police for fear of the repercussions.
I am still learning how Australian men view the way women dress. Although it is a more relaxed, less judgemental way of life here, I am very conscious of what I wear for the fear that the same incident would happen to me again.
Although I am still conscious of what I wear, I am lucky to be abroad. Far away from the tragic world of judgment, in a secure country where I can wear what I want and walk the streets without having to watch my back at every step.