September 10, 2012
THIKA, KENYA− Margret Nduta says she vividly remembers the Sunday afternoon when her daughter left their home in Gatukuyu Village, 15.5 miles from the town of Thika, to look for a job and never returned.
“She left home on Sunday [after] she rang her younger sister to say goodbye. Then, two days later I was told my daughter was dead,” Nduta, 55, says. She cannot hold back her tears as she looks through old photos of her daughter, Jacqueline Wambui, 25, who died in February.
“I miss my daughter. She was the breadwinner and [she was] everything to me and her two children,” says Nduta.
Her whole body shakes as she begins to sob.
Wambui was indeed the family’s breadwinner. She was a prostitute – a fact her mother says she did not know until her daughter turned up murdered in a cheap hotel room in Thika. Nduta says that more than two days passed before she received a report from a neighbor who told her that her daughter had been found dead. Nduta says she immediately went to the mortuary in Thika where she identified her daughter’s body.
Mary Njeru, known locally as Mama Ruo, a businesswoman in Thika, confirms that Wambui was a known commercial sex worker. Njeru owns a brothel in Thika at the Twiga buildings, where commercial sex workers, including Wambui, entertain clients. Njeru says on the night of February 2, Wambui met a client and went to a hotel called the Suitable Lodging House in the red-light district. Suitable Lodging House, although registered as a legitimate business, is primarily associated with commercial sex work.
“Wambui’s body was found naked and the neck broken,” Njeru says.
She was the eighth prostitute murdered in Thika this year.
One week before Wambui was killed, another commercial sex worker, Hellen Nyambura, was murdered at the Rwambogo Lodgings, also in Thika’s tiny red-light district. Her body was found with the neck broken and stashed under the bed. Njeru says the style the serial killer used to murder the girls was consistent. “After he has sex with them, he twists their necks, killing them instantly,” she says.
Prostitution in Kenya is illegal. The recent string of prostitute murders in the small town of Thika has brought the social stigma of sex and sex work to the fore here. Advocates say that women in the sex trade do not receive justice when they are wronged or legal protection in cases of violence because of the deep cultural taboo surrounding sex.
Five years ago, commercial sex workers in the Majengo slums outside of Nairobi staged a protest march after a suspected serial killer, who strangled four prostitutes in a matter of weeks, was released when police were unable to link him to the murders. In Kenya, slums and small towns, like Thika, often have large prostitute populations, as poverty remains the number one cause of sex work in Kenya. Despite the relatively conservative societal values, nearly 7 percent of women here say they have exchanged sex for money. In a 2001 survey of 475 sex workers in four rural towns, more than 20 percent reported being physically assaulted and 35 percent said they had been raped, yet not a single woman filed a police report.
Police Investigate the Thika Serial Killer
Popular opinion here dismisses prostitution as an ugly and immoral part of society. Yet the sex workers in the town of Thika say they have many clients.
“Prostitution is illegal. We will not allow this kind of business. The clothes these girls wear are very indecent,” says Wilson Njenga, the Thika District Commissioner.
But Njeru, the brothel owner, says the discrimination goes beyond distaste. “The police harass these girls in town and ask them for a protection fee. If they refuse, they are arrested and charged,” says Njeru. “I wish these girls [could] get help because most of them are poor and illiterate.”
Njeru says most of the commercial sex workers in Thika were driven into sex work by poverty. The going rate for sex in Thika is 1,000 shillings, or $14 USD. However some women who say they are desperate to eat or feed their children charge as little as 50 shillings, a negligible amount if converted to American dollars.
Just two months after Wambui’s murder, a serial killer, identified as Philip Onyancha, was arrested in Kisii, a town 150 miles west of Nairobi and more than 200 miles from Thika. Onyancha confessed to killing 17 women and told officers he had 83 more to kill before he reached his target of 100 slain prostitutes.
In June, Onyancha led detectives from the Special Crime Prevention Unit to locations in Nairobi, Thika, Naivasha and Nyeri where he says he committed murders. Caleb Wesa, the deputy officer of the commanding police in the district, confirms that Onyancha took officers to several hotels in Thika’s red light district.
The court ordered a psychiatric evaluation for Onyancha, who remains in custody. “If he is found insane he will not stand trial,” said a high court judge who requested anonymity, prior to the evaluation. “He will be taken to psychiatric institution or acquitted at the President’s pleasure.”
Attorney General Amos Wako later confirmed that Onyancha has been determined to be of sound mind and will stand trial.
Two sex workers in Thika have also confirmed that Onyancha was the man they narrowly escaped in the Suitable Lodging House, the same hotel where Wambui was murdered. “He kept on placing his hands around my neck holding tight and I struggled to get them off, then I jumped out of bed and ran out of the room,” Njeru says one of the girls told her of the attack. Efforts by the Press Institute to get the two sex workers for comment were not successful as they have since fled the town.
Despite the fact that Onyancha is a confessed serial killer, police have indicated that they have not been able to match many of the dates he claimed to have killed someone with actual victims. Police have indicated that they will not charge Onyancha on any crime that lacks sufficient evidence. Wambui's case is one that remains in limbo. While many media outlets in Kenya have listed Wambui among his victims, police have yet to formalize that fact.
Adjusting to Life Without Her Daughter
Nduta says she is glad to have some answers related to her daughter’s death, but says her life is still filled with uncertainty and agony. She says she is struggling to take care of the Wambui’s two young girls.
“The last time these children [got new] clothes was a year ago when my daughter was still alive. I don’t think I will ever be able to buy them anything,” says Nduta.
Nduta had to pay 5,000 shillings, or $65 USD, for a plot to bury her daughter. The money was raised by neighbors and well-wishers. Nduta says she does manual jobs in the village to feed her granddaughters. She walks from house to house to ask for jobs, which range from house chores to tending to farms. The little money she gets she uses to buy vegetables, which she in turn sells to make a small profit to keep her granddaughters fed. She says she regrets the 5,000 extra shillings she paid for her daughter’s post-mortem exam and the 300 shillings she spent on a bus trip to Thika in search of justice for her daughter before her daughter was officially added to the list of women Onyancha killed.
Nduta says she is hopeful that Kenya’s new constitution, approved last month, will allow young women like her daughter more rights under the law.
While prostitution remains illegal here, the new sweeping human rights laws apply to all women, regardless of profession. “In the case where a [prostitute’s] human rights have been violated, the human rights laws can apply [to them],” confirms Patricia Nyaundi, the Secretary to the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in Kenya.