Catherine Njeri Mwangi is no stranger to suicidal attempts. She suffered a sexual assault at the hands of a fellow student while pursuing her university studies. Too stunned to speak, the ordeal changed her life to result in a series of attempted suicides. She opens up to HENRY KAHARA on the events that led her to give up on life and finally finding redemption.
When Catherine Njeri Mwangi, 32, together with her friend went to finish their assignment in a male colleague’s room at one of University of Nairobi’s hostels, they didn’t expect anything bad to happen. After all, it was normal to use a colleague’s computer.
But Catherine points out that this was the genesis of her troubles. “On March 28, 2006, a friend and I went to type and print some assignment in a friend’s room as was the norm,” Catherine starts off the interview.
Since there was only one computer, her friend was the first to use the machine. Once through, she left as she had something to attend to. “Immediately after finishing her assignment, she got a call from her father who was a lecturer at the university. She left me alone with the male colleague,” says Catherine.
Catherine reveals that in early and mid 2000, most students used to do their assignments in cyber cafés, as only a handful of students owned laptops. “There was another group of students who owned the less expensive desktops and some of us preferred to use these as opposed to going to the cyber cafés,” she says.
They were just the two of them in the room when the unthinkable happened. The male colleague roughed her up and raped her before warning her of dire consequences if she dared open her mouth about the incident. “I was shocked at the turn of events,” she confesses. Needless to say, she was unable to complete her assignment after the incident. She headed home. Confused and torn.
At home, she didn’t know whether to open up to her parents or keep it to herself. “I didn’t know how to start the conversation with my parents on what had transpired. Discussing sex with one’s parents was absurd then,” she points out.
When Catherine commenced her university studies, she had only one thing in mind: studies. She was focused and careful not to get lost in campus life. She had also sworn to a life of chastity especially since she grew up in a Christian family that emphasised on the need to abstain from sex till marriage, as fornication was a sin. The rape immobilised her.
She went to sleep with a heavy heart but at least had the mind to visit Nairobi Women’s Hospital the following day for treatment. “I was furious and didn’t want to listen to any person, let alone the counsellor. All I wanted was post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and just leave the premises. And that is exactly what happened,” she says.
A changed person
The rape ordeal and the resultant shame totally changed Catherine. She started sleeping around with men, some of whom were older than her father. She also admits to leading a very reckless life, a complete opposite from the life she was living before the rape.
According to her, sex was the reason why she was shamed and the only way to face the shame was through sex. “No one wanted to be associated with me due to my behaviour. To fill the gap, I would treat myself expensively with the cash I got from the men I slept with. However, I was bleeding inside,” she says.
One evening while in campus, Catherine felt she could not hold it any more and thoughts of committing suicide filled her. “I tried to figure out where I could commit suicide but I didn’t find a perfect place. I first thought of doing it at the school swimming pool but realised it was fully manned so canceled that option,” she says.
The thought kept nagging her but one day while on a mission to end her life, she came across an advertisement seeking a young person willing to record a porn video. She immediately dialed the number, talked to the client and the deal was sealed. She went to a secret location that evening and shot the video.
“I thought shooting the video would lift my spirit but was wrong. I felt dirty, unworthy and even more confused. I threw away the Ksh10,000 that I had been paid for the assignment,” she reveals.
They had come to the end of the semester and she went home for the holidays. She looked forward to the new semester thinking it signaled new beginnings but that wasn’t the case as her past caught up with her.
“On the opening day of the new semester, one of my friends called me and told me ‘ile video imesambazwa’ (the video has been spread everywhere). It took me a minute to understand what she was saying because I had forgotten all about the video shoot. Almost everybody in campus had that video on their phone,” she says.
The situation got worse as people would send her text messages enquiring about her charges per night. One day as she walked out of the lecture room to receive a call, one of her classmates shouted, “She has gone to shoot season two!” The whole class burst out in laughter and she wished the earth could open up and swallow her.
“I didn’t go back to class. I went and tried to dive in front of an oncoming car on the highway but a police officer manning traffic was quick to hold me. I survived with minor injuries,” says Catherine. The traffic officer made sure she crossed the road safely.
Some of the Christian Union members at the university had heard about her reputation and they decided to pay her a visit. “I listened to them and I even joined a Christian Union but it didn’t take long before I went back to my old ways,” she says.
Another rape, more suicide attempts
Catherine did her internship in 2008 while living at home in upcountry. The internship progressed well but something appalling happened as she was about to wrap it up. Their houseboy raped her and this opened wounds that she was trying so hard to cover.
“It was late at night and I had been left to finish up household chores as the rest of the family members went to sleep. I decided to take a shower in an outdoor bathroom and it was there that our houseboy raped me,” she says.
Again, she kept quiet about the ordeal. She travelled to Nairobi the following day to seek treatment at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. From then on, she went through life in a daze without any aspiration. The repressed feelings inside her were screaming to be released but she had no one to turn to. Her only recourse seemed to be suicide. She attempted suicide, for the third time, while visiting her mother.
“While at home, I decided to take poison that I had prepared but instead of dying, I vomited all of it. I found myself calling my mum for help. She immediately drove me to the nearest hospital where I was admitted for a week. In hospital, I tried to suffocate myself with a polythene paper bag,” she says.
Her mother, seeing how delicate her daughter had become, didn’t want anything to do with her. “So I went to stay with my dad in Mombasa. He looked for a counsellor to help me out,” she says.
She tried to commit suicide twice while living with her father in Mombasa. The first time her dad was at work and she was alone in the house. “I tried to hang myself in the house but as if God sent, I heard a knock on the door. I had not locked it so my father walked in. I fell down and started crying,” she says.
The second time she tried to jump into the Indian Ocean at Nyali Bridge but just before she did it, she heard a voice speaking to her. “I heard a loud voice telling me, ‘Catherine you are precious’,” she says amidst tears.
By this time Catherine had carried the shame with her for 10 years but this voice convinced her that her life was precious and worth preserving. She decided to open up about her bottled up hurt and shameful memories so the healing could start. She is at a better place now.
“I have come to realise that the more I speak about my past, the more I become free. Confronting your shameful memories lessens their power over you,” she says adding, “Today I am proud that I have recovered and the old me has gone. I am a new creature.”
Now a born-again Christian, she notes that although she changed her ways, some people who know about her past still point fingers at her and talk loudly about it but she is no longer bothered by them. “You might be the world’s most hopeless case but there is a way out,” she advises.