Stolen life: How 14-year-old was sex trafficked to Tanzania

An aerial view of Mtwapa town in Kilifi County, taken on November 15, 2022. The one-time sin city remains a hotspot for commercial sexual exploitation.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Lisa’s* troubles started when her step-father said he could not educate a girl. She was only 13, and was about to join Form One.   
  • On November 14, 2017,  her ‘sisters’ took her along to some cottages in Malindi town where they hooked her up with an old German tourist.
  • Her elder ‘sister’ convinced her that there were wealthier and more generous foreign tourists in Tanzania. 

This is the second instalment in the three-part investigative series on sexual exploitation in the travel and tourism sector.

In the afternoon of December 13, 2022, I went for lunch at a popular hotel, along Nyali Road in Bombolulu area, in the sub-county of Nyali, Mombasa County. This is a top tourist destination in Kenya.

Something, however, caught my attention as I approached the entrance.

Three young women, all dainty, skimpily dressed and seemingly below 20 years, stood on a narrow path separating the hotel from a stone wall on the right side.

Their eyes were fixed on people walking into the hotel. Their sight was a reminder of how 17-year-old N* (covered in our last week’s edition) paraded herself in wait for men who would later exploit her sexually.

Earlier in the day, I had met Lisa* in Nyali area, who opened up to me on events in her life that she wishes had passed off as vapour.

On the night of November 14, 2017, her elder ‘sister’ told her to pack some of her belongings because they were in for some good adventure.

Lisa, shared a poorly built-three room stone house in the outskirts of Malindi town in the coastal county of Malindi with her ‘mother’ and two other ‘sisters’, aged 26 and 14 years.

She didn’t pester her with queries of “tunaenda wapi, ni siku ngapi? (Where are we going, for how long?) She feared her elder ‘sister’. She was short-tempered.

Lisa was only 14 years old, 12 years her junior.

In her mind, she thought, “mamangu anakuja kunichukua. (My mother is coming for me).”

She lazily folded a few of her belongings and stacked them in a black mid-sized backpack. The straps were already worn-out. She wouldn’t take the risk of overloading the bag.

The night seemed to be 48 hours. She wouldn’t catch much sleep. Most of the time, she rolled this way and that way, anxious of what was awaiting her.

Nikama nililala hapo saa kumi na moja. (I must have caught some sleep at 5am),” she says.

At 7am, her ‘sister’ shook her leg, waking her up with “tunaenda (we are going).”

She hurriedly took a bath, wore a dera and drank water, “nilikuwa nimepoteza hamu ya chakula lakini kulikuwa na chai na mandazi ambayo mamangu alikuwa amenunua (I had lost appetite but there was tea with mandazi, which my ‘mother’ had bought).”

All the three ‘sisters’ had their bags ready before 8am. Their ‘mother’ called a cab for them, a tuk tuk, auto rickshaw, popular in the coastal towns offering cab services.

The driver arrived before 9am. In 15 minutes, they had arrived at their destination- some cottages in the Casuarina area, southeast of Malindi town. Her ‘sisters’ had come to meet their Italian ‘lovers’ and they were going to stay with them for more than a month.

The men were accompanied with a German friend, staying at the cottages for the same period and he needed company.

Lisa was the company.

She was oblivious that her eldest ‘sister’, had already decided so.

The trio walked into the reception as they cosied in the puffy cream leather couch.

“Eh!” Lisa draws a surprise reaction.

Niliona vibabu tu (I saw very old men),” we burst into a loud laugh.

Nikajua hapa mimi nimetegwa (I realised that I had been ensnared).”

The eldest ‘sister’ stood, leaving the two seated. She exchanged pleasantries with them and after about two minutes, she beckoned Lisa and informed her “huyu ndio wako (this one is yours).”

Afadhali wangu, wao walikuwa wameisha (Mine was better, theirs were too old),” this tickles us.

We burst into another loud and hearty laugh like a guffaw that follows when a mother cracks a joke on how her children gave her a hard time when they emptied a cooking pan full of wet fry chicken and took turns to pass blame.

Lisa says her German tourist was 60-something-years-old unlike her ‘sisters’ who were in their 70s or 80s.

Each with hers, they went in different directions in separate cottages.

This was her first sexual encounter.

Tourists walk along Diani Beach in Kwale County. The Coast region stands out as the core of sex tourism in the country, aided by the vibrant travel and tourism activities. 

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

I wonder how they communicated since all of them had Grade Eight education and neither of them had a grasp of Italian or German language, or mastered English.

Nearly all (97.41 per cent) of Italians speak Italian and seven per cent English.

Similarly in German, 94.17 per cent speak German and only 31.93 per cent English.

So I ask, “Mlikuwa mnatumia lugha gani kuzungumza (what language were you using to communicate)?”

“English tu, broken English. Hata hatukuwa tunaongea sana. Muda mwingi tulikuwa tunalala ama tunaangalia movie kwa TV (We communicated in broken English. But we didn’t even talk much. Most of the time we were having sex, sleeping or watching a movie on a television set),” she responds.

For the next 35 days (November 15 to December 20, 2017), the foreign tourists sexually exploited them day and night. He used protection.

The coast region stands out as the core of sex tourism in the country aided by the vibrant travel and tourism activities.

In the annual reports on trafficking in persons by the United Nations of America, Department of State, it is singled out as having the highest prevalence of sexual exploitation of children, attracting the most attention of the government’s child protection and anti-human trafficking officers.

High levels of poverty in the surrounding communities makes the region a fertile place for sexual exploitation. Families and guardians take children to be commodities to trade off in the bigger picture of escaping deprivation.

For centuries, African communities embraced and played by the implicit culture that a child is raised by a whole village.

But the rise of capitalism in the African continent beginning in the 1940s, has typically eroded that socialist tradition where even a stranger would punish a child for defying a morality order, without wanting to know who the mother or father is.

Capitalism introduced the culture of “caution, money first" and general attitude of “I don’t care as long as it doesn’t hurt me.” A dangerous culture. And even more dangerous to the children because communities in these coastal regions witness the exploitation and they don’t care to warn them, protect them or even report.

In the process, many other people such as boat operators, rip off from their exploitation.

Income inequality is highest at the Coast.

Three coastal counties top in the list of counties with the highest income inequality in the country, going by a 2013 joint study by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and Society for International Development – East Africa.

Tana River comes first with a 0.617 index, followed by Kilifi (0.597) and Kwale (0.565).

Being her first time, Lisa was terrified. Her perpetrator noticed and promised to go easy on her.

He showed concern. He sought to find out why she decided to engage herself in that kind of life.

She told him she did not have any means of income. He promised to send her money to start a business. Lisa said she wanted to open a cosmetic shop.

True to his word, through international money transfer service, Western Union, he sent her Ksh200,000 ($ 9707.17). Her eldest ‘sister’ withdrew the money.

This was in addition to the more than Ksh200,000 ($ 9707.17) she received during her stay with the man but all ended up in her ‘mother’s’ pockets.

“More than four times, I lied to him that mom was in urgent need of money and he’d give me Ksh50,000 ($ 404.47) to send her, which I didn’t. But finally I gave her all the money. She was in total control of me,” Lisa says.

Nothing excites her about her childhood.

She was raised by a step-father who terrorised her.

She didn’t even know he was her step-father until she turned 13 years and was about to join Form One.

They had picked up a fight and the bone of the contention was that he had maintained that “hawezi somesha mtoto wa kike (can’t educate a girl).”

In the heat of the exchanges she had him protest that “I have helped you raise her since she was a baby, why are you forcing me now to pay her high school fees and yet she is not my child.”

As a child, whenever he felt she had erred, he would whip her mercilessly until she lost consciousness, as her mother watched.

Neighbours would run to the chief and village elders to seek their intervention; only then would he stop whipping her.

“He whipped me all over with electrical cables. Wherever they hit me, they peeled off my skin,” she says as she lifts up her dera to show the whip marks on her legs and arms.

“My uniform would be stuck on the wounds. Sometimes, my teachers at my primary school, cried when they saw the injuries.”

But he was soft on his six blood children.

“He’d use a bucket strap to whip his eldest daughter,” she says, trying hard to fight back a whimper.

She remembers him, though, as a good provider. They had enough food to eat. He was a manager at a fish company in Mombasa County and raised them in an average kind of life at Ziwa la Ng’ombe, a low-income residential area in Nyali Sub-county. Her mother retailed second-hand clothes.

A street in Diani, Kwale County, on January 18, 2023. High levels of poverty in the surrounding communities makes the region a fertile place for sexual exploitation. 

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

With a defiant step-father, her biological mother decided to use her savings to enrol her in high school.

In January 2017, aged 14, Lisa joined Form One and when they returned home for mid-term break, she visited her girlfriend at their home, some blocks away.

Unlike in their modern house, her girlfriend’s Swahili home had a porch where she sat alongside her girlfriend and her brother, and aunt.

“Suddenly, my step-father appeared,” she says, “It was about 5pm.”

“He scolded me before everyone. They tried to defend me but he wouldn’t listen. It was terrible,” she says.

Shaken, she left for home as he followed her from behind. On arrival, he ordered her to pack all her belongings and leave for good. The ejection came with a warning that she should never go to any of her aunties.

Petrified and left with no choice, Lisa sought refuge in her girlfriend's home, the one she had earlier visited.

The mother, however, was uncomfortable with her presence saying the step-father would cause trouble at their home. The following day she chased her away after 10pm.

Stranded and deeply hurting, Lisa stood outside the house confused. Then, she remembered a girl who was her classmate at primary school.

They sat Kenya Certificate of Primary Education in the same year in 2016. Lisa scored 315 marks in the examinations. They lived a few blocks away from their home.

“She wasn’t even a friend, but I was acquainted with their family’s lifestyle. Her mother left home early and returned late in the evening. I felt the only place I’d survive was at their home,” she says.

Her family welcomed her with open arms and the mother, who was the head of the household, loved her as her daughter.

To Lisa, she became her ‘mother’, and her older daughter her eldest ‘sister,’ and younger one, who was her age mate, her other ‘sister’.

She consoled her, discouraging her from getting swamped in distress, pain, anger and worry.

Lisa hoped her mother would look for her. One month passed. Another followed and no word passed that she was searching for her daughter.

Her aunt, her mother’s younger sister, was however looking for her but she was uncomfortable staying with her.

Lisa says she lived in Majengo, a slum in Kisauni Sub-county ridden with drug dealing and insecurity. She says she was afraid she may be drawn into drugs.

As days went by, hatred for her mother deepened that she’d take a pen and write on her palm “Mimi sina familia (I have no family).”

“How can my aunt care about my wellbeing and not my own mother?” she wondered.

Six months later, the head of the family sold the land on which the house they lived in was built and they all moved to a rented house in the outskirts of the town of Malindi, a tourist destination in Kilifi County, 120 km northeast of Mombasa city.

Niliona vile kunaenda, hakuendi vizuri. Mama alikuwa anatuambia tutafute wazungu kama wasichana wengine. (I’d gauge something is not right. ‘Mom’ would tell us to look for White tourists like other girls),” she says in a deep sad voice before her fan beside her bed in her one-room house in Nyali area, suddenly stops whirring.

The room goes quiet for some seconds. She then breaks the silence with “maybe the tokens have run out.”

The stone-walled room gets hot! It’s sweaty. In between the interview, I sip my cold water to cool myself after a wipe here and there. Lisa is nonetheless disturbed although she has covered her head in a hijab.

But the aroma of spices from her neighbour preparing a meal nevertheless keeps the room fresh and pleasant to be in.

Before they moved to Malindi, her two ‘sisters’ had introduced her to sex tourism.

For the first two weeks, she became part of the family, she would be left with her ‘mother’. Her ‘sisters’ would not be found in the house after 8am. They would have departed for the beaches, Shelly, Jomo Kenyatta, Bamburi or Nyali, all in Mombasa County.

Then one day, her ‘mother’ told her, “Instead of you sulking alone in the house, why can’t you accompany them?”

She lived off her daughters.

She says she is the one who first advised her against sleeping with a man without a condom.

At the beaches, she saw her ‘sisters’ wear bikini to entice the tourists or get into the shallow, near-shore waters of the Indian Ocean where an interested White tourist would join them and openly have sex with them without care that the public is watching.

“I wasn’t interested. I’d stand by the shore and watch them go about their business,” she says.

“They were black beauties and I thought the White tourists wouldn’t be interested in them, but I was surprised to see them pursue them (her ‘sisters’),” says Lisa who is light skinned.

They would pressure her, “Why are you looking down on yourself? You never know you will be lucky to find a fortune in a White tourist.”

After some time, she gave in. To her surprise, only African tourists approached her. But her ‘sisters’,’ told her to keep them off as they were likely to “kukutia nuksi (plunge you into problems).”

They gave her hope that soon she would find a mzungu (White tourist) who would change her life for better, for good.

Slowly by slowly, she was groomed and finally they introduced her to the 60-something-year-old German tourist who sent her the Ksh200,000 ($ 9707.17) to start a cosmetic business.

She did not open it. Her ‘eldest sister’ had a better plan.

She convinced her that there were more of such wealthy and generous foreign tourists in Tanzania. And they would use the money to cover their expenses as they scouted for clients.

Early December, 2018, they left for Moshi city, one of the tourist centres in the northern safari circuit of Tanzania and capital of the Kilimanjaro region.

Her eldest ‘sister’ had created friendship with a Tanzanian woman through Facebook. She was ready to link her up with the wealthy White tourists in Zanzibar, a top tourist destination site with pristine beaches in Tanzania.

They met in Moshi and she took them to a luxurious hotel “with a swimming pool,” she remembers.

She told them they first had to convert the money to the local currency to pay for the services. And she offered to do so on their behalf.

They handed her all the money - Ksh200,000 ($ 9707.17).

“She duped us,” she says.

“That was the last time we saw her.”

She disappeared and a staff at the hotel took them to where she lived. The neighbours informed them that she had moved out a day earlier.

In their desperation, they approached an African man dining at the restaurant in the hotel. It was sometime after 4pm, she says. She explains he was either in his 50s or 60s.

After more than 10 minutes of begging for his help, he offered to buy them food and pay for a room for them for one night. He promised he would give them fare back home.

That never happened. At about 9pm, he knocked at their door.

He demanded a pay for his help and the duo had to decide who between the two would spend the night with him.

Her eldest ‘sister,’ offered herself.

The next day, the man brought another man and Lisa became his slave. And the two became their sex slaves for the next three weeks.

Their daily routine was controlled. It revolved around the restaurant and the room. Nowhere else.

On Christmas week, they took them shopping in a nearby supermarket. It is at this point that her eldest ‘sister,’ excused herself to go pick “something”.

She used the ‘freedom moment’ to call her mother who later sent fare to her Vodacom number via M-Pesa.

“We told them, we’ve got fare back home,” she says.

“They said ‘Okay!’ We thought the news would shock them or that they would even ask us how we got the money, but they didn’t care. They let us go.”

Her ‘man’ gave her TZS3,000 ( Ksh158.87).

Lisa says she has kept the money as a souvenir to remind her of her “foolishness”.

In January 2019, her biological mother’s older sister who lived in Bombolulu, a low-income residential area, called her and implored her to go stay with her.

She accepted and her ‘mother’ and ‘sisters’ let her go.

“Mamangu alisema nisawa, wewe rudi (My ‘mother’, said ‘it is okay, you can go back,’” she says. Her aunt had planned to take her back to school but her husband opposed the plan. He saw her as a “Malaya (prostitute)” who needed no education.

But every Monday to Friday, she gave her Sh20 ($0.16) to go to a nearby library to read story books.

It is while on her way to the library that she met an executive director of a counter-human trafficking agency working in the coastal counties.

They were holding an outreach programme educating the community against sex tourism and child sexual exploitation in a social hall, adjacent to the library.

He was interested to find out why she was not at school, and she opened her heart.

That is how she got enrolled into a life skill programme.

“The programme helped me see myself from a better side of life,” says Lisa.

“I feel alive again.”

Today, Lisa who is still a teenager, is called upon to facilitate sensitisation forums at the county for which she is paid at least Ksh3,000 ($24.22).

Of wonder is that the step-father who chased her away and the mother who never cared to look for her, now call her asking for money.

“I want to save to enrol for a training on community development and social work, but I’ve found it difficult to do so,” she says amid a sob.

“I’ve turned into the mother and father of the people who rejected me.”

At this point, she cries bitterly.

Lisa* was used to protect the true identity of the survivor.

In the third and last instalment of the three-part investigative series on sexual exploitation in the travel and tourism sector, next Friday, find out how I struck a deal to trade off my three under-age girls for just Ksh300($2.42).