ESTHER WANGUI: Breaking the silence on child abuse
Child abuse is a hushed-up affair in Kenya. Very few come out openly for fear of stigmatisation. The result? Years of anguish and hatred to all those the victim perceives to have conspired
Child abuse is a hushed-up affair in Kenya. Very few come out openly for fear of stigmatisation. The result? Years of anguish and hatred to all those the victim perceives to have conspired in the act. But children never forget. Never. Esther Wangui, a communications professional, opens up to MWAURA MUIGANA about a troubled childhood and the onset of adulthood that was mired with one psychological abuse after another.
For young Esther Wangui, there was nothing unusual about being left under the care of a trusted family member when her parents went out for errands. But on this particular day, it was not the same. The trusted male relative, a church elder, started touching her inappropriately. She was only seven years old. Having been cautioned by her mother never to allow any man to touch her that way, she attempted to fight back.
He sweet-talked her that what he was doing was right and before she could fully understand, he sexually molested her. She was devastated and confided in a female relative who warned her against telling anyone else, justifying that the man was a respected church elder and a close relative and no one would believe her. Young Esther could not understand this conspiracy of silence and insisted on telling her father. The woman arm-twisted and played with Esther’s mind, telling her that she was probably imagining things or that she had done something to encourage the molester. She felt guilty as if she was responsible and so did not tell anyone. However, the hurt, hate and trauma simmered inside her.
She detested her molester and never wished to ever see him again. But that was not to be. He was close to the family and stood in for her parents whenever they were away. He molested her again when her mother left her with him and then warned her that no one would believe her if she told on him. She hated him all the more. But she had no one to open up to, neither did she know how to deal with it. Her parents were grappling with serious marital problems and this made it even harder for Esther to open up to them.
“I recall the day a cousin took my younger brother and I out for lunch and when we returned home in Lang’ata, we found our mother had left for good. Our dad explained that they had divorced. I didn’t understand or comprehend the lasting implications. My younger brother and I had a privileged upbringing and did not see this one coming. We had witnessed problems between our parents but hoped they would go away,” says Esther, now a mother of two girls.
The scars of divorce were immediate. When she went to school, children were on her case. ‘Don’t play with her, her parents are divorced!’ they chorused. She was rejected save for one friend, Esther Wangechi. She became bitter and withdrawn. After primary school, she was enrolled at Elite Senior School in Nyahururu. Attending boarding school was the best thing that happened to her.
The school environment was a haven of peace. However, the real issues she had to deal with were still embedded in her mind. The teenage period with its complexities added to her confusion. She didn’t understand herself and why she was such a bitter young person.
She lived with her mother during the school holidays, while her brother stayed with their dad. During one of the school holidays when she was in form two, her mum took her to a ‘friend’s’ house in South C estate for a ‘sleep over’. This ‘friend’s’ wife had died sometime back but he had a son and a daughter.
He approached Esther and asked her to be calling him dad. Assuming it was a joke she asked him why. The career soldier said, ‘because I had a daughter your age who died this year and I want you to replace her. Moreover, I’m your mother’s boyfriend! Esther still loved her biological dad and didn’t envisage replacing him with another man and the idea of losing her mother to this man was unbearable.
“How could my mum do this to me?” she was short of answers. This added to her already distress-loaded heart.
In sickness and health…
A few weeks later, this man tossed a wedding invitation card to her. She was shocked and wondered why it was he and not her mother breaking the news. She felt she had completely lost her mother. She reluctantly attended the wedding when it was halfway through and thereafter her mum’s new home became also her home.
Her stepsister and stepbrother didn’t help the situation. They hated and wanted her out of ‘their’ home. She recalls of an incident on Valentine’s Day when she discovered, to her astonishment, that her stepsister had shred all her dresses with a pair of scissors.
“When I complained bitterly, my stepsister claimed I was trying to play victim. I was heartbroken and felt hated. My mum was doing her best to protect me, but at the same had time had started struggling with an unworkable second marriage. No one seemed to understand me,” says Esther.
She played the house girl at their new home. Her mum would console her that relationships like hers were often rocky at the beginning before stabilising. They would talk in whispers to avoid being overheard by her harsh stepfather.
My dear bottle…
She was overwhelmed by her circumstances and without anyone to turn to resorted to alcohol. Her first sip was the beginning of a relationship with alcoholism, which she eventually found difficult to control. Drinking became her past time. She also turned to smoking cigarettes to feel in control.
Her stepfather openly discriminated against her. He would not give her enough pocket money or bus fare when she was going to school but her mum secretly provided. The situation deteriorated when she sat her I.G.C.S.E. Her stepdad was adamant that she could not be enrolled for the foundation course for a degree programme until his daughter, who was older than Esther, went through the course.
Her mum secretly enrolled her at Ausi Kenya for a foundation course that would eventually see her pursue a degree course in Australia. She would do her house help’s work at home then sneak out to college in Westlands. She would be back home in time to prepare supper for the family. Esther qualified to pursue a degree course in Australia but her mum preferred her studying locally. Esther was passionate about studying in Australia to get away from the challenging home environment.
She re-connected with her biological father who agreed to sponsor her to fulfill this dream. She met her stepmother, her dad’s new wife, for the first time in their former home when she had gone to discuss the Australian sponsorship with her dad. The environment resurged the bad memories of her past, tormenting and pushing her further into alcohol. She didn’t realise at the time that unless she dealt with the suppressing issues in her life, such as the molestation trauma, she would never walk the path of normalcy.
On reflection, Esther says, “I believe God wanted me to start dealing with the issues that were associated with this home including the rape and divorce. However, at the time, I was tormented and all I wished for was to leave for Australia.”
Australia, however, wasn’t the panacea for her issues. She had not learnt the art of making true and beneficial relationships. Even though her dad paid the fees, she had to work for self-maintenance and to finance her drinking and party life. She did seven odd jobs, including being a receptionist in a dance studio.
She acquired a reputation as a wild party girl among her Kenyan colleagues. She had low self-esteem and didn’t value herself. She never loved any man because the only image she had of a man was that of her molester. Her motive in a relationship was just to fit in with her peers. In retrospect, she says a girl brought up with the love of a father has a quick rejoinder when a man tells her that she is beautiful.
“She knows because her father has already told her so. A girl who grows without the presence of a loving father doesn’t know how to relate with men and gets into relationships for the wrong reasons. She seeks fatherly love from a boyfriend and this can’t work,” she argues.
Esther recalls getting to a point when she realised her party life was going to kill her and resolved to slow down. She decided to return home immediately after her final year examination before the graduation ceremony. It was a contradiction. Australia was supposed to be a haven of peace but she was now running away.
Back home, she moved in with her mother who had already walked out of the abusive second marriage. Thankfully, Esther got a high profile and demanding marketing job with a telecommunications service provider. It took most of her time and this helped her tone down her party life. Deep in her heart she was still struggling with the thorny issue of the molestation trauma that was crying to be resolved.
After a short while, she got restless and decided to pursue her Masters degree in Canada. Unaware of it at the time, she was still trying to run away from her troubled past. Before she could get her travel documents, her cousin and the only close friend and confidant she had, was murdered. It was a big blow to her and she found solace in more drinking and smoking.
A friend posted her cousin’s photograph on his facebook page after the burial. Esther commented on it and this started a social media friendship. In due course, they met. He was a devout Christian while Esther
had neither prayed nor seen the doors of a church for over 20 years. His constant invitation to Esther to visit their church fell on deaf ears. One challenge after the other had made her to wrongly conclude that God hated her. She also felt that since she was headed for Canada, there was no reason to waste time going to church.
When this new-found friend insisted, she agreed to go out for a date with him. Instead of taking her to a hotel, they ended up at Mavuno Church in Nairobi where he worshipped. He started guiding her spiritually and encouraging her that the challenges in her life were meant to make her a better person. She started accepting God. Her friend helped her to start dealing with the issues submerged in her heart. He helped her learn to forgive people she felt had wronged her, starting with her parents, followed by her former stepfather, stepsiblings and her molester.
Esther was thankful that she was now able to deal with the past and have a normal life and relationship. She realised that with God it was easier to go through challenges. She wished she had this knowledge earlier to avoid the long period of fighting her own battles and blaming God for everything. Today, Esther does a lot of voluntary work alongside her communication business. She is set to start a project for children who have been sexually molested.