Nairobi — "From the moment my mum told me that I have to leave education for lack of school fees I cried. I cried because I have tried my level best to go all the way to form two and I wanted to study and become a nurse. Even when you look at my report forms, you can see I was good in school," she said, lowering her head to hide the tears welling up in her eyes.
"I even wanted to kill myself, but I just agreed to come here because there was nothing left. I realized even if I cry, nothing will change," 17-year-old Dembe* (not her real name) recounted to Capital FM News.
Dembe is among some 120 Ugandan women and girls rescued from an open field in Nairobi's Eastleigh, having fallen out with their employers.
When COVID-19 struck last year, reports of mass layoffs, pay cuts and increasing poverty levels were reported around the globe. It was particularly worse in Africa, which was already suffering from a sluggish economy even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Families were under pressure to find means to survive. Not even children were spared from the struggle of making ends meet.
And this is how hundreds of girls such as Dembe traveled from Uganda to Kenya, with high hopes of landing in greener pastures to support their families back home.
After schools were closed in Uganda last year under pandemic restrictions, Dembe's sister, who was working as a domestic worker, asked her to travel to Nairobi to look for employment.
Against her own wishes, Dembe traveled to Kenya last August, for the sake of helping her family.
She worked as a house-girl for a family in Eastleigh, and in the meantime, her sister returned to Uganda because she fell pregnant.
"I worked for the first five months and the sixth one I was chased away from my job. I moved around and when I came to this side (somewhere in an open field), I found my fellow tribes-mates sleeping under trees. I asked them what they would do from there. They told me they don't have jobs and this is where we stay. So, I begged them to allow me to join their clique and they accepted," she recalled.
Dembe was lucky enough to secure a second job for two months. Sadly, not a single penny was paid for her labour.
"My boss kept on telling me to come back next month, 'I will give you your money'. The next time I went there, I found that she had relocated to Somalia. So, I had to go back to the streets again," Dembe said.
She decided not to look for work again, after her experiences of being overworked, mistreated, insulted and even denied food.
Life on the streets of Nairobi was harsh. To have a meal depended on the generosity of passersby.
"I fell sick. I had no money even for treatment, but 'Good Samaritans' helped me with food and drugs. After finishing the treatment, one day we were sleeping - we used to sleep on the verandah. The chief had come with a large group of men, we explained everything but they couldn't understand. They collected everything we had - the clothes we used to carry around and burnt it all. They had the nyaunyo (Police whip). We were beaten mercilessly and told to go away," she recalled, her tears now flowing uncontrollably.
"So, we told them even us we wanted to go back home, we were tired of this life in Nairobi, (where) we struggle to get food, we even sleep on the ground. It is even worse when we are on our periods."
"So, I decided I tell my mum if (it) is fine she sends me money, I travel back home because I even have a health problem. She told me now we have a lot of problems back home, even your dad has left us. We don't have work to do, so just stay in Nairobi and make money."
Dembe counts herself lucky that she is not pregnant like 28 of the women in the group who, in addition to worrying about their return to Uganda, must contemplate motherhood at their tender age.
Most of the 28 mothers-to-be are less than 18 years old.
Sadly, most of them have no clue who fathered the babies they are carrying. Rape and defilement had become part of their struggle.
Counter Human Trafficking Trust - East Africa (CHTEA), a civil society organization working in Kenya, has given the girls a place they call a safe haven.
It is a safe haven because it has a roof, walls and a door - that can shield them from the cold nights and sex predators.
With no bedding other than a thin woven mat, the girls lie side-by-side in groups of eights or tens, close to each other for warmth and also to fit into the tiny rooms. There are about 20 of these rooms situated in different areas in Majengo Slums.
Namono (not her real name) is 15 years old. She is seven months pregnant. She came to Kenya in January this year also hoping to get employment in Nairobi. She worked only for the first three months and was never paid.
"They (the employers) mistreated me, they overworked me and the man of the house did very bad things to me that I can't mention to you. But he was very bad. And he always used force and he told me he can kill me if I say. That is why I decided to run away," Namono explained.
"Auntie, all I want now is to be taken back to Uganda. Do you know when they (CHTEA) are taking us home? We are suffering. At home it was not this bad, when I go home I will be safe and even with the poverty there, it is fine for me, even if my mother will not be happy to see me back, I just want to go back," Namono pleaded.
When I asked the girls how they were doing and what they wanted, their sentiments were similar to Namono's and Dembe's. They want to go back home.
None of them has money to pay for transport.
Their hopes are on CHTEA and International Organization for Migration (IOM), Kenya which are making plans to repatriate them to Uganda
I left Majengo Slum broken in my thoughts and in my heart. During the visit, I witnessed three girls fight over a panty because they were all on their menses. All three claimed the panty belonged to them.
CHTEA's field officer, best known as 'Uncle', told me that the fight I witnessed was nothing compared to other conflicts: "There are nights that neighbors call me to come and separate wars that escalate to the entire plot, to the extent of girls kicking each other out of the rooms in the middle of the night."
As I bid 'Uncle' goodbye, I could not stop thinking how it would be possible for the girls to get at least some basics such as sanitary pads, clothes, shoes and bedding as they wait to be taken back to their home country.
Whereas this is a short-term measure, the governments of Kenya and Uganda have the power and responsibility to break the human trafficking cycle that continues to expose countless underage girls to labour and sex exploitation.