The vast and bustling Mukuru Kwa Njenga is one of the five informal settlements making up the Mukuru slums in southeast Nairobi.
Slowly picking up the pieces after a spate of demolitions last year, Kwa Njenga is now selling its very soul. The makeshift camp created by displaced residents is gradually turning into “one big brothel”.
Hundreds of temporary tents housing several families now dot the expansive area. But inside these tents, tales are told of how women and young girls have turned to selling their bodies to make ends meet.
On the day we visit, dusk is fast approaching and soon darkness will engulf the 26-acre area.
But as most people rush to beat the darkness and retire to their tents after a long day hustling, for others their day is just starting.
While other women are preparing meals for their children, for others it is time for “business”, only that it won’t take long.
The tented Kwa Njenga is slowly spiralling into one, big bedroom where commercial sex is becoming a full-time source of employment.
“The issue of women selling their bodies here is not new,” says Rose Anyango, a community health volunteer and gender activist. “It was happening before the demolitions, but it has now taken a turn for the worse.”
Single and married women and underage girls are involved in the business and for their sweat, they earn anywhere from Sh20 to Sh500.
Their clients are men from as far away as Mukuru Kwa Reuben, Sinai, Kware, Pipeline, Lungalunga, and Tassia.
Even before residents received the tents from the Red Cross, Vision Ground was famed for being more than just a field. Couples copulated on the bare ground.
The Kwa Njenga Primary School ground, Area 48, Milimani, Sisal and Vision Ground have been turned into modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.
One woman has turned her tent into a brothel. It is a brand-new tent that she has beautifully set up and furnished with a new four-inch mattress and a new mosquito net.
Tucked among the many tents, off the road leading to Chaminade Training Centre and facing Al Huda Mosque, the tent has been turned into a “Sabina Joy” of Kwa Njenga.
It is conspicuous in its appearance and stands out from the rest.
“She rents the tent out to those interested, and the men have to pay her. The rent is less than Sh100, with the price varying according to the time taken in the act,” Ms Anyango says.
The tent owner, she adds, also brings her own clients into the same tent. Her cover was blown one morning when the wind lifted the sack that covered the entrance to the tent.
“One of the community volunteers going home after a night shift stumbled upon the woman going about her business.
Selling vegetables and fruit
“What hurts is that even underage children are engaged in the practice. In Sisal, we once busted 10 girls and five boys in a single room at night. We reported this to the police but nothing much was done.”
Ms Anyango recounts that the recent demolitions wiped away residents’ livelihoods, leaving them in confusion.
She explains that many of the slum dwellers work as casual labourers in the manufacturing industries neighbouring the informal settlement while others operate small-scale businesses selling vegetables and fruit or hawking various items.
Earnings from such businesses, although low and inadequate, helped families make ends meet. Women sold groceries, porridge or fruits in their stalls or hawked boiled eggs.
But after bulldozers flattened their houses and destroyed their livelihoods, they had to start all over again.
Left with nothing, several residents resorted to other means of survival such as prostitution, drug peddling and begging in order to feed their families.
“Previously, these women would earn some money from their small businesses to put food on the table. But now, those businesses no longer exist, their husbands have disappeared, and the children are hungry,” Ms Anyango avers.
She tells us she knows several women involved in the business that also involves underage girls.
“When 5pm hits, you will see many women taking baths, dressing up and starting to walk around. They don’t go anywhere,” she says.
About 60 percent of Nairobi’s population live in informal settlements, with a majority of these unskilled and undereducated.
With Kenya’s high unemployment rate, many residents in such areas find themselves turning to illicit businesses to earn a living. Children - out of school or with no recreational facilities except for video shops and pool tables - often resort to using drugs and engaging in criminal activities.
Kennedy Angudha Omollo, another community volunteer and gender-based violence activist, says the demolitions and the biting effects of Covid-19 have flipped the lives of most residents upside down.
Most of the residents have no source of income and they resort to prostitution not because they enjoy it but because they do not have other options.
“Even if one continues selling boiled eggs, who will buy them? The same people living with her in the tents? Or the ones huddling with relatives, also looking for school fees and a chance to relocate? It’s hopeless,” explains Mr Omollo.
Mr Omollo shows us two underage girls - 13 and 15 years old - who dropped out of school and have resorted to selling their bodies to feed their family of nine.
“Most of them are hungry, and when you look at them, you can tell that life has beaten them to their knees. However, they resort to this because they need food for themselves and their children,” he says.
But the women are not always assured of getting what they agreed on with their clients as some end up getting shortchanged by the men.
Some women are not selling their bodies
“They complain that when they are done, some of the men give them less than what was previously agreed upon,” Ms Anyango says.
“I handled one such case and forced the man to withdraw Sh500 before giving the money to the woman. The woman had been given Sh10 and told to buy a piece of maize to eat on her way back to her tent.”
Mr Omollo adds that the vice is not confined to the tents alone but happens in the small iron-sheet houses dotting the Mukuru slums. Some 30 villages divided into five areas - Kwa Njenga, Kwa Reuben, Fuata Nyayo, Pipeline, and Viwandani – host at least 600,000 people.
He says that the tiny houses act as a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and drinking den. Besides lacking privacy and watching or listening to their parents in the act, children get exposed to sexual acts early in their lives.
In the tents, even if some women are not selling their bodies, they have nowhere to offer conjugal rights to their husbands. But some do it in front of their young ones.
“These children, who are often aged around five and below, can already tell that it is wrong, and when they head out to play, they will be imitating what they saw,” he observes.
We find Mary Anyango, Race Agonya and Mary Bahati huddled in a small tent, which six different families call home.
The women say that they live together with only the young children while older ones sleep with their friends, while men also live alone in their tents.
“We are not even worried that they will look for other women because life is too difficult to even think about sex unless you are the type that sells their body,” says Ms Bahati.
Ms Agonya adds that life in the tents is extremely hard and food is a luxury as no one has come to help them since the demolitions.
“On a lucky day, a neighbour will bring us tea and a loaf of bread, and the children will get two slices each,” she says.
“We say thanks, and wait for the next meal, whichever time we will get it. Children no longer hang around the tent expecting lunch because there is no assurance.”
She adds that some Good Samaritans sometimes bring food and mothers with young children are given diapers.
“Imagine, a few of us use some of the diapers during our menstrual cycles. They are also cheap, each costing Sh15 as opposed to a packet of pads that goes for a minimum of Sh50.”
For Ms Mary Anyango, she is worried about teenage girls in such a hostile environment after her daughter told her that she did not want to continue with her education but wanted to help her make ends meet.
“My daughter recently told me that she wants to help me put food on the table. I questioned her how she intended to help, and she told me not to bother about the details of how she would get money," she said.
“This left me wondering how she would help me without a job, and I am worried she may give her body away in exchange for money.”
The high levels of poverty in informal settlements put basic education beyond the reach of many families, resulting in high illiteracy and dropout rates.
Different reports have shown dropouts of 44 percent in slums as many parents are unable to pay the few hundred shillings per term in school fees.
This has pushed many children into work at a young age, with many engaged in petty productive work to supplement basic family needs.
Community volunteer Ms Anyango is now worried that unwanted pregnancies, venereal diseases, rape and abortions will rise.
She recounts that several men in the area have approached her, saying the condoms provided by volunteers are not enough and most of them do not have money to buy them.
“A condom box has been installed at Mukuru Kwa Njenga Health Centre, but they are not enough as the demand has risen since the demolitions. The volunteers who used to restock the condom boxes were displaced by the demolitions.”