I moved to Mombasa in the beginning of the year after an unpaid internship. At that time I slept on a friend’s couch. As luck would have it, I soon got a paid internship and moved out to my own studio apartment.
I loved the place, it was close to work, close to the road, no dusty roads, and it was urbane chic. I had the worst neighbours. In the entire place, there were only three girls while the rest of the tenants were bachelors. Students and old men. As time went by, being needlessly hit on became a norm. I knew I had to move out. I did.
I moved to Maweni. There was a long stretch of dusty road before getting to the main road. It somehow reminds me of home because I am a village girl. I fell in love with it, it is much cooler than my former place and as a bonus I am on the third floor so no more getting spied on by creepy old men. It is still a studio apartment but all other houses are filled with families- father, mother, and children – the lot. It was an excellent choice.
During my first month, I saw a white woman with a mixed race daughter at the ground floor. With the benefit of retrospect, they did not look very happy. I thought it was nice that white people stayed there, so in my mind I thought the place must be damn good. I met the woman a few times with a black eye or flushed face as if she had been crying. It did not concern me much because I thought she might be having allergies hence the black eye or she might just be scorched in the hot Mombasa sun. I think she had put some make up on her eyes because it was not quite noticeable.
One Saturday morning, while I was trying to get ready for work I heard screams and shouting from downstairs. I could not make up the words clearly. I walked out of my door and I was going down the stairs when I heard the accent and aha! When I got to the ground floor, I found my neighbours looking at the white woman’s house helplessly while chasing their children back into the safety of their houses. I stood there for a second and what I hear is:
‘Someone call the police!’
‘This man is trying to kill me!’
‘I am an American citizen I shall not be treated like an African woman!’
‘Get out you brute!’
All that time, I am seeing figures inside the house, their curtains had been drawn and you can just make out their struggling figures through the louvres. I asked one of the friendlier looking women what was going on and she tells me that the man, a Congolese, persistently abused the woman, his wife. She told me that there were nights when she screamed that she was being raped.
I was taken aback; I had only gotten over her ‘I am an American citizen’ bit, which I have never heard being used in real life. What worried me the most is that the people next to me were grown men and grown women who looked like they were there for the drama and not to help. Yes they looked concerned, which is alright on its own but was not enough to help the poor woman and her child who had been caught up in the fracas inside. After much prodding by the women outside, two men tried to get in but the Congolese man stood at the door and warned them in words I could not get. I just saw his arm moving up and down in a rather aggressive way.
I called my friend who was interning with us and asked her to call the police. I left for work. My friend called me to tell me that she had tried calling 999 but no one was picking. I did not even know that number was functional but I tried and someone picked up. I got through to the Nyali police station who sent a vehicle home. At this point, I was swamped in meetings with some clients that my boss was keen on clinching and I could not excuse myself to go home and invite the police in. Apparently, the police cannot get in private dwelling without an invitation. I was unable to leave the meeting and unable to help the poor woman.
I came back home and everything seemed calm enough. Neighbours somehow found out that I was the one who called the police and started saying things like ‘it seems like you know people, if I ever get in trouble you’ll be the person I look for.’ I soon learnt that no arrest had been made. I blamed myself.
Two weeks passed by without incident. One Tuesday night, I had just gotten home and was ready to open a beer can when the landlady knocks at my door with the caretaker. ‘I have paid my rent, haven’t I?’ I asked myself. They invite me to the landlady’s house where I find the woman crying softly with her face flashed as it was some of the times I met when I first moved to the apartment. She tells me that her husband had gotten worked up and that her daughter had run away to the neighbour’s place to hide from his wrath. She had left the house under the guise of looking for her daughter and that’s how she came about to hiding at the landlady’s. At this point I know what is going on and I do not need the sordid details of abuse so I ask her about their story.
The man is a Bishop from Congo. They met in Morroco two years ago and got married in Tanzania a year later They have no children together. Turns out, the man is a classic abuser telling the woman that no one cares about her, not one can help her, he is taking all her money, cleaning her accounts, bad mouthing her to his congregation, calling her a witch and all. She was pregnant some three weeks ago but had suffered a miscarriage because he kept kicking her in the stomach accusing her of adultery. He had taken away all the ways she could communicate with people in the outside. His congregation members at all times standing behind him, enforcing his abuse, alienating the poor woman, refusing to help her and in many ways ensuring that she is kept under the house arrest. Luckily for her, she had hidden their passports, she only needed to get a way out.
That night we called the Police and they arrived in time, they took her story and told us to get the man to attend the police station, In the meantime, I had contacted the American Embassy in Nairobi. They spoke to her and had directed her to report to the police station the next day and to Nairobi afterwards. She packed all she needed, got their passports and I gave her a cell phone with a functioning line for her ease of communication.
I remember that at the time the police had come to the place, one of the Pastors in the church where the Bishop was preaching came to ask what was going on. The woman became so afraid of him. He was taken away. What I cannot get my mind around is that during the Saturday incident, he was there trying to arbitrate the matter. The matter was not resolved. He does not stay in the Compound but when the police come, he arrives two minutes later uninvited and wants to speak in a position of authority to the police. The Bishop came back to the premises at midnight and he was told to report to the police. He was locked away.
The next day, we attended the Police station where our statements were taken. I explained to the police what had happened and told them that the lady was required to report to the Nairobi Embassy the next day so that she can go back home. The man was to be arraigned in Court later in the day. He was denied bail on the basis that he was likely to threaten the victims and the witnesses which included me. It was not surprising that in the next few days, I saw those church people more than I even saw the people I ordinarily saw when I left for work or came back. A friend of mine was traveling to Nairobi that night and I asked him to accompany them to the American Embassy. Last I checked they were settled back in the United States.
This whole episode is indicative the rot in the African church. To be an African woman and a member of a church is a double-edged sword. Many churchgoers want to institutionalize the church and make it look like a terrible oppressor against women. Church leaders, good as they seem, are actually terrible people. They steal, they lie, they manipulate and they are known to sexually abuse their congregation. They want to hide behind Christ to hide their devilishness. They are the meek and the weak that need to be treated like children. When the rest of us sin, we get excommunicated from the church and purged to prison. They assume that when Christ said ‘come like little children’ he meant do bad things and not get blamed for it.
From what I saw, I wonder what would have happened had I not moved to the place, I suppose that someone might have gotten around to helping her but how much time would have passed before they did something? The poor woman was broken, her little girl terrified and no one wanted to help them. They stopped and looked in disbelief as the abuse went on. They were told ‘call the police’, but all they did was stand and stare. Then they mutter to each other ‘Marriage is like that, disagreements are a common thing.’ Disagreements are a common thing, colleagues disagree, they do not start chocking each other at work. The members of his congregation rallied behind him. One of them arrived from Nairobi that morning and tried talking the woman into forgiving him and taking him back. They know this happened but they would not say anything. They have transformed God’s house into a den for thieves, perverts and brutes.
Church people have gotten the entire be patient and be forgiving narrative wrong. They exacerbate the problem when they force they force victims and their abusers to stay together all for show. Women have for a long time bore the brunt of weak church going men. Everyone seemingly wants to avoid going to the authorities because of domestic violence. The alternative is the church or the clan elders. When have these two institutions been kind to women?