The Lost Girls of Mombasa
All of my senses became alert, suddenly.
I sat upright, peered in wonder, the type of wonder that makes you feel sick to your stomach. A sharp intake of breath, like you’ve been punched in the gut.
It was all too familiar. But not in the way one is familiar with something from experience. But more so from research, from documentaries, from second-hand experiences.
All the signs were there.
Older white male. Younger African female.
Abnormal outward affection.
Flirting minus the depth of relationship.
Male dressed average, female dressed lavishly and provocatively.
The location being international-based versus local-based.
Forgetting what client project I was currently working on, I stared at this couple across the cafe, watching his advances, her reactions. Like a train wreck, you want to look away, but you just can’t.
Then I noticed. . .
A second couple.
Then a third.
Then a fourth.
That’s when the shock hit me, making my heart freeze.
I had found myself sitting in a hub of sex buyers and prostitutes.
And I didn’t even know it. I had literally “stumbled upon” this standard European-type cafe in search of good wifi to do some work. But this international-comfortable spot seemed to also attract all tourists– including those who came to specifically take part of sex tourism in Mombasa.
You see, there’s a thing in sex tourism called the “Girlfriend Experience.” Buyers from around the world, especially from wealthy Western countries, come to tourist spots that have a supply of women and girls who are inexpensive for purchase.
Inexpensive, in that the girls and their families have been living in the cycle of poverty around that tourist city and have few options for income.
Inexpensive, in that she lives on $1 a day, so to charge even just $20 a night to cater to his sexual desires is highly profitable.
Purchase, in that he uses money to bribe consent, which, non-surprisingly, is not actually consent given that she wouldn’t ever have sex with him if he didn’t offer the money and if she didn’t desperately need it.
Purchase, in that she is no longer a living, breathing human, but is instead a usable, itemized object with a fluctuating valuation.
What I had researched before was just data and statistics. Now it was faces.
“Come to Mombasa! Not only can to enjoy the beauty of the beaches and the coast, but you can also buy yourself a girlfriend for the duration of your stay. Any age desired!”
Any age desired?
I saw adults that night in the cafe, but do they also buy girls?
You mean, little girls? Elementary age girls?
It was last year, sometime in May 2016.
I had attended a Compassion Experience event in Chicago near the west side. I had been sponsoring a 4 year old girl through Compassion for about 6 months at this time, and it seemed that this “Experience” event would allow me to see her world and understand the stories that these children have.
In the Experience you enter a series of rooms while listening to a tour on an iPod. It’s kind of a micro version of a walking tour in a museum. A child is telling you their story about life in poverty, a life marred by dependency, scarcity, and incapacity, where material and relational needs are at a loss. Then you discover how they got into the Compassion program and how their lives have changed and developed as a result of that program.
It was fascinating and I definitely felt more connected to the work of Compassion and my own child.
Afterwards I talked with one of staff who was standing in front of wall of photographs — all children that needed to be sponsored. I knew my budget and that I probably couldn’t afford to sponsor another one at that time. But I looked a wall of girls from Kenya, and I noticed several “older” girls — girls over 12 years old. On certain cards there were notes that their home areas were at high risk of HIV and trafficking.
I knew that fact all too well. In Chicago itself the entry age of prostitution is 12 years old. Entry age. That means if you see an adult street prostitute outside, you can safely bet that she was exploited, trafficked, around the age of puberty. So I could only imagine how much worse the statistics were in developing countries.
As I left that day, those photos stuck in my mind. While biking downtown to a meeting a few days later, God brought it back to mind very clearly, and I started praying for those girls, the vulnerable ones.
Immediately after my meeting I received an email that was titled, “Sponsor an older child today,” and it had a picture of a girl from Kenya named Jane. I immediately knew she was special. In a moment of complete instinct and vulnerability, I replied to sponsor her.
I had no idea at the time, but, as you’ll find out, I’m so glad I did.
What’s going on in Mombasa?
She lives just north of Mombasa in a town called Mtwapa. I did some brief research on the area so I had some context in which to add to our letters. But I didn’t give it too much thought after that.
Except for 6 months later.
I follow a human trafficking forum where articles and research are posted from communities all over the world. I noticed that one in particular talked about Mombasa. Of course my interest was piqued, so I started reading.
And the shocking truths emerged.
“Almost a third of girls age 12 and younger in the Mombasa region were involved in prostitution.”
“Trace Kenya, a local nonprofit group that works with the United Nations to battle child trafficking, estimates there could be as many as 100,000 child sex workers in Mombasa.”
“Many come to the city in search of girls aged between 12 and 18. The industry has made Kenya one of the world’s hubs for child sex tourism.”
“Emily, a 16-year-old orphan, said she was forced into the business due to poverty and peer pressure. Her aunt encouraged her to engage in sex with white men to help pay family expenses. Emily is now infected with HIV.”
This deeply troubled me. And then I took note of Trace Kenya, and found that they were headquartered in a town north of Mombasa that they considered the main hot spot for child sex trafficking.
That town? Mtwapa. The same town Jane lived in.
My heart went to my throat. Though I research often, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. And she could easily be one of these statistics.
But it couldn’t be — that couldn’t happen to her, right? I mean, I know her name, her face, her hobbies, her favorite school subjects — she’s just a little girl, not a target for prostitution.
Yet I knew, when poverty and sex tourism collide, the most vulnerable of our communities will always lose.
Who are those?
Our children, our girls.
While visiting East Africa last month, I was able to find some time to visit Mombasa for a few days. I spent an entire day with Jane and her friends at the Compassion center in Mtwapa. Since I wanted to be centrally located, I got a hotel in Mtwapa as well. Obviously, I already knew the research before going, so I wanted to observe as much as I could, but I figured it would be from a safe distance as this wasn’t a dedicated “human trafficking research trip”.
My time with Jane and her friends was about as fun and joyous as I could’ve imagined. Though they were all coming from families of poverty, they didn’t have a poverty spirit. Instead, there was a spirit of abundance and fullness and honor.
That’s how you know a poverty-alleviating organization is succeeding. When those they serve are relationally restored to understanding their identity and gifting as an individual, as a creation of God.
I visiting her home and spent time with her mother and siblings. I loved interacting with them, being welcomed into their home, meeting the community.
But, almost unwanted, the thoughts stirred in the back of my mind: “Are any of these the girls of Mtwapa part of that statistic? One of the 100,000? At nights do pimps come to recruit them to sell to nearby tourists? Are there seriously no other options?”
Too many questions, and none that I wanted to deal with as I held hands with the children as they led me singing through the dirt streets between the homes.
The “Hot Spot” Cafe
It was that very evening that I was in the cafe doing work for my clients when I noticed my disturbing surroundings. This was a nice mall in the Mtwapa/Mombasa area, and apparently one that attracted foreigners. I went there the following night as well, and the same exact scenario repeated itself. I sighed. This is “normal.”
It was quite a helpless feeling to sit on the sidelines and observe the objectification of these women, knowing very well the trauma they live through each day they are in this industry. Seriously — imagine experiencing sexual harassment in a vile form at work (which most of us women have experienced). It causes trauma and many women have to go through therapy after just one experience. It’s such a big deal that our government created laws against it to protect us.
Now imagine that’s your job. Your job is to experience sexual harassment and assault and abuse every single day. And pretend that you want to be there. Because if you didn’t you wouldn’t have any means of survival, you wouldn’t be able to feed your family, you wouldn’t be able to pay for a roof over your head.
Since I was typically in the cafe for several hours, I saw couples come and go, and would often try to catch the eyes of the women as they walked past me. I felt like the only thing I could offer was a smile, a gesture of kindness, a show of non-judgment, a look of solidarity.
But I was never able to. I recall one woman in specific, in her high heels and fancy clothes, a time that most women may feel like shining and standing out, yet for her was a walk of shame. She never looked up, only stared at the ground as she passed by. It was such an absence of joy.
Prostitution, trafficking, selling of bodies — it all steals the soul, sucks the life out, and leaves behind the shell of a person.
This is not what the Image of God was made for.
Each of us was uniquely crafted before birth with a specific purpose, gifting, calling, and destiny. And above all, we were made to love and be loved.
Anything less then that is not meant to be. Using another person, especially in an explicitly sexual way, distorts and destroys the Image of God on that person.
We were made for so much more.
And not just for the American girls like myself who got to attend private school her entire life, graduate from college, and find consistent employment. The same respect and honor is due in parallel form to girls like Jane, who may not externally have the same earthly privileges and wealth. But the Image of God is just as strong in her.
There is no place to choose which women we get to use, and which ones we don’t.
We’re all equal. We’re all valuable.
Is there an answer?
Is there? That’s the question. I sat there that night really unsure of what I’m supposed to do with this new, personal experience and information.
As I’ve been mulling it over, there are a few practical suggestions I can make.
Sponsor a child in poverty
I’ve met some amazing organizations like Compassion and Christ’s Hope International. I’ve seen first hand how these models work. And you just never know how much impact that $36 a month will have, that you may literally be saving a little girl from sexual exploitation. Is there a promise that every child sponsored won’t end up falling into the snare of exploitation? No, which is why prayer and encouragement are so vital. Those consistent positive voices of advocates in their lives are often lifelines of hope to keep them on the paths of hope and purpose.
Support your local anti-trafficking organization
The awareness of this problem is much stronger now than it used to be, and most cities in America have some sort of chapter or organization that deal with human trafficking in one form or another. Just Google it and be open to serving (and learning!) however necessary. If you need any recommendations of where to start, let me know in the comments and I’ll share any contacts or connections I may have.
Learn and share and pray
As you can see, those 100,000 girls in Mtwapa may not be as high in demand if it weren’t for the sex tourism from the wealthy Westerners that visit. Guess where those men came from? Probably your country, probably America. We need to admit that we are part of the problem of little girls being exploited in Mombasa because we endorse and celebrate the sexualization of women here in America. That creates the “demand,” the need for women to fulfill sexual desires on-demand.
We have to deal with the issue of “demand,” that until our culture mindset changes and our men stop viewing certain kinds of women and girls as objects for sexual gratification (prostitution, strip clubs, pornography, rape), then the problem will never go away. It’s both a local and international issue. But although we are all apart of the problem (yes, us all), we can also be apart of the solution. That solution will not come without humility, brokenness, and weighty amounts of prayer.
Keep praying, keep learning, keep sharing, keep repenting, keep forgiving, keep honoring . . . repeat, repeat, repeat.