"I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you in with loving-kindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt...and go out to dance with the joyful." - Jeremiah 31: 3-4

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Malindi #3

On our second day in Malindi, Andrew and Scott walked around town while Nate, Martin and I met with the group of girls that Sarah brought together for me.

I’ve been sitting here for a while now trying to figure out how to best describe that afternoon. I’m having trouble putting into words the things that were going through my head while I was sitting in that room. I was surrounded by women who willingly sold their bodies to men who didn’t even know their names. The intensity of it all was hard to handle at first. The emotion in some of their eyes was devastating, but what was worse was the lack of emotion in the eyes of the others. You could immediately tell which girls were lost in the lifestyle and which ones still clung to hope of a better life.

Mercy was one that still had hope. I noticed her immediately after I walked into the room. She was tall, slender and absolutely beautiful! She wore a long pair of plaid shorts and a thin strapped tank top with her hair covered by a red bandana. If you saw her walking on the streets during the day, you’d probably assume she was just out grocery shopping. At night, I’m sure you would get a different impression.

But before I go into more detail about Mercy, let me tell you about some of the other girls. There was Leena, a 24 year old woman who was much taller than the other girls because her father was a Maasi (a tribe in a Kenya that most of you have probably seen on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel). She was sharp, direct and teetering on the edge of giving up hope and still fighting for a better life for her and her young child. She answered the majority of our questions and was very well-spoken. Again, if you saw her during the day in her baggy white, button-up shirt and skinny jeans, you would only notice her because of her height. She was just a girl like any other, nothing labeled her as a prostitute.

Then there was Maria. This girl in particular broke my heart. She did not speak. She rarely made eye-contact and her mother, who was in the room with us, didn’t even know how old she was but guessed around 17 or 18. Maria had been being used for sex since she was a young child. Her mother told us that she was “not normal.” I looked at the mother in shock and disgust and said “and you wonder why?” under my breath. This poor girl never had a chance to grow, mature or develop into a woman! She had her childhood stolen from her by her mother who used her body to make money. Maria’s facial expressions were that of a scared and curious toddler. She was a young adult, but acted like a baby. She wore an oversized, dirty set of pajamas and no shoes. Maybe she did have a minor mental disorder but being forced to perform sexual acts with men since childhood definitely did not help. Again, Maria didn’t speak to us the entire time so we did not get to hear her story but just by looking at her, you could tell that it probably would not have a happy ending.

Neema… Neema was wearing a pink dress that looked like something a elementary school aged girl would wear to a birthday party. It was sparkly and frilly and not something you would wear at age 22 in the middle of the day. But it was her only item of clothing. She had nothing. She had no home, no belongings and all she carried around with her was a few hygiene items and her medication. Neema had HIV and it was clear that she was not coping well with the disease. “I came to Malindi to get a job, but instead I got AIDS,” she told us through her tears. She cried almost the entire time and simply put – she was a mess. She said something that surprised me though…. “Jesus is there. He is around. I still believe He loves me.” After she said that, Nate and I exchanged glances. Did this mess of a woman, who looks like she could honestly die any day now and is living a life so void of happiness and love just say that she still believes in Jesus? I was in shock. I was thrilled to hear it, but still… in shock. Neema was struggling in ways that the other girls were not. Because of her HIV, she had trouble getting customers. No one wants to sleep with a woman with HIV. She did not want to be a prostitute but she assumed that she had no other choice. And now, even that was failing her. I don’t know what will happen to Neema. I can only pray that her faith in Jesus will bring her joy in her remaining time on earth.

Elizabeth was the oldest woman in the room at age 30. She reminded me of back-country trailer trash. She was crude, loud and disrespectful to herself and others. But still, my heart ached for her. She said multiply times that it was because of their problems that they were in prostitution. Their problems included having to provide for themselves and usually a child. She had given up hope. I asked her what she would do when she was too old to be a prostitute and men would not buy her anymore. She shrugged. All she knew was that that night she would be out on the streets offering her services for a few hundred shillings. Elizabeth was a prostitute for the Africans, not the Italians who pay thousands of shillings for a night with a woman.

The Italians are number one. They are who you strive to get as “customers” but they are picky. They only want young, skinny, beautiful, clean girls. If you are a little heavier, which is natural for most Kenyan women, the Italians will not want you. If you are not stunningly beautiful, they will select someone else. Many of the girls expressed that one of the hardest things about prostitution is the rejection they feel when men do not want them. Leena said that they will actually line girls up sometimes and choose which one they want. The others are left feeling inadequate and still in need of money for that night. Unfortunately, because of their desperation these girls will do anything the Italians request in exchange for a few thousand shillings (usually anywhere between $36 and $100). They shared with us some of the things the men will make them do. I won’t repeat any of it here because I don’t think I could even stomach having to write it out. As if these girls were not degraded enough having to sell sex, these perverted men made things a million times worse.

As our time came to an end and the girls began to get up and gather their things to leave, I thanked everyone for being there and then quietly asked Mercy if I could speak to her for a moment. During our time with the group, she had shared that she was in a relationship with an Italian man for a couple of years prior to becoming a prostitute. She became pregnant and the man left her immediately. In her own words… “He destroyed me.” When I heard her say that, I knew I had to speak to her one on one. She agreed to talk with me and we went across the alleyway and stood next to a small shop. I asked her more about the Italian man she was dating. “He told me that he loved me and would be with me forever,” she said in broken English. I asked her if she thought he truly loved her. “I thought so but no, he did not. I do not believe in love. It does not exist.” “So did you think you loved this man?” “I thought I did, but I know now that I did not. Love is not real.” The verse from 1 Corinthians came to my mind… “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Maybe Mercy had some faith and I know she definitely had hope, but she had no love. The greatest gift we’ve been given is absent in her life, as well as the lives of most of the others. I connected with Mercy. In some small way, I felt her pain. I understood the hurt and the destruction caused in her life because of that man who left her. “He told me he would love me forever,” rang in my head over and over. I had heard those words before. “I will love you forever.” The pain that I had healed from came back for a moment as I looked into her eyes. I felt like I was looking into a mirror at myself from two years ago.

I then asked Mercy if she was looking for a real job. She replied that she was but that she didn’t have an ID so no one would hire her. Where she was from, a small village near Meru, no one needed identification and now she did not have the money or means to get one. After that, Mercy had to leave because she was going to go wash someone’s clothes for a little bit of money. I was so glad to hear that she was looking for money in places other than prostitution but it upset me that something as small as not having an ID was forcing her to sell her body so she could feed her baby. I urged her to keep looking for other jobs and hugged her goodbye.

I walked away from that conversation and straight into another with Neema as she ran to me and pulled me down to sit next to her. I could tell she was desperate to speak to someone who cared. I asked her how she was. “Fine. I’m fine,” she barely managed to get out before the tears started again. “You don’t look fine, Neema.” She then called Martin over to translate for her so that she could talk more freely instead of having to speak in English and leave things out because she did not know the words. We talked for a little while about how sad she was and how hard her life had become since getting HIV. She didn’t ask me for anything, she just wanted to talk. I asked her again about her faith in Jesus. “I know He loves me. I know He’s real.” “Do you believe that He can save you?” “Yes, I do! I know He can.” Her hope was contagious. She had nothing. Absolutely nothing! Yet, here she was saying things that some Christians have a hard time believing. Jesus has the power to save. Unfortunately, she soon after told me that sometimes she just wants to kill herself. I put my hand on hers and looked her straight in the eye and told her that suicide was not an option. She nodded in agreement.

It was a lot to take in in one afternoon and I was feeling the weight of it all. But still, I had peace. Something in me connected with those girls in a way that I had never connected with Kenyans before. I felt myself becoming emotionally invested, which isn't a normal thing for me. I knew that my compassion was coming directly from God.

I spent the rest of that day mulling over everything I had just heard and preparing myself mentally and spiritually to walk through Majenga, the major prostitution area, later that night.


(I know, I know.. it's a lot!)

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