Catherine Mumbi Wanjohi, 42, is by all definitions a child of two worlds. She spends most of her time in bars, discos and other entertainment joints with commercial sex workers, mostly in Eastleigh in Nairobi, Embu and the small town of Naivasha where there are more bars and lodgings than hotels.
It is difficult to pick out Catherine from the group because she blends in well with this rather condemned lot. Every label has been used on these women – from husband snatchers, to home-wreckers, to immoral. By befriending these women, Catherine has herself been called a prostitute, street woman and all sorts of names. She carries condoms in her handbag and has a penile model on her table in her modest office in Naivasha town should the opportunity for a demonstration arise. She takes pride in the friendships she has formed, and the fact that these women confide in her.
In her other life, Catherine is devoted wife to Joseph Wanjohi, as well as loving mother of three – Laura, Louis and Rita. She serves as youth matron at Xavier Catholic Church in Naivasha, and is also the chairperson of the board of Archbishop Ndingi High School in Naivasha. Catherine’s work is a contradiction of sorts. You will find her teaching the youth about sex and its place in a relationship, the importance and proper use of condoms and other life skills. The Catholic Church, which she serves and whose conservative stand frowns upon the use of condoms or any other artificial family planning methods, does not view these lessons favourably.
With church youth on one hand and commercial sex workers on the other, it is easy to wonder where she draws the line when discussing sex and condoms with each group. Just three years ago, Catherine was confused about the distinction as well, but not anymore. Today, she draws a very clear line and juggles all these roles with ease, with most of her energy focused on rescuing women still trapped in prostitution. In order to achieve this, Catherine enlists the help of women who have been through it to encourage others to give up the degrading work. So far she has empowered over 3000 women, training them to handle rape, defilement and domestic violence cases in their neighbourhoods. Doing so helps to restore the stolen dignity of these victims.
“I wouldn’t trade my work with prostitutes for any other work. This is my life, calling and vocation,” affirms the former high school principal.
Like all good things, success was not handed to her on a silver platter. Catherine has had to make plenty of sacrifices, chief among them her job as a high school principal. Her first contact with a commercial sex worker was through her house girl, whose experiences made her heart run cold with sadness. Right then she knew her calling – to help women in commercial sex work. Her decision to quit her job sometimes made her cry, and on other occasions seek counselling. However, she realised she had to be strong for the sake of women who needed her.
Today she can afford to relax as she counts her achievements. She has helped many commercial sex workers deal with their past. And with enlightenment comes confidence, which these women have a lot of, hence their ability to walk with their heads held high. This empowerment must be passed on to children, if only to break the vicious cycle of ignorance. Catherine’s cardinal rule for the women she works with is that their children must all go to school, an achievable feat especially because of the free primary education programme.
A teacher is born
On graduating from Kenyatta University with a Bachelor of Education degree in 1990 at the age of 21, Catherine was posted to Kiaragana Girls in Kirinyaga district to teach Christian Religious Education (CRE) and History. It was while teaching at the school that she met her mentor, Mrs. Wangenye, who was the school’s principal. Mrs. Wangenye realised and nurtured Catherine’s hidden talents that hinged on compassion. Catherine was put in-charge of several groups and departments in the school including guidance, counselling, youth consultation services, the scouting movement, in addition to class teacher assignment.
Sometime in 1992 Catherine learnt how poverty, disease, dysfunctional families and other factors negatively affected students’ performance in school. Girls in the school would approach her out of class and confide about their problems. She did her best to listen and advise them accordingly. “The conversations with these girls got me thinking that there was much more to education than going to class and teaching. I encouraged my four colleagues in the guidance and counselling department to have more time with the girls and initiate conversation,” says Catherine
She also introduced life skills in the school. After classes she would take some girls out to help chop firewood and provide other services to needy neighbours. Initially the principal did not understand but Catherine insisted she was training the girls to be of service to the community.
At the age of 27, she was appointed principal of Gathambi Girls High School in Kirinyaga, a task she was hesitant to take up for several reasons. The major one was that she wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in counselling to help girls who came from challenging backgrounds. She was however pushed out of her reluctance by her mentor and in 1987 took up the post.
“It was in my position as a school principal that I encountered issues that charted the direction my life took later on. Many of the parents were single mothers, widows or women in very challenging marriage circumstances. When I sent girls home to collect school fees, their mothers pleaded with me to let their girls stay, or else it would be the end of formal education for them. I would mobilise teachers and members of the board of governors to help raise school fees for needy girls. The students would also chip in,” recalls Catherine.
Another challenge she encountered was the issue of HIV and AIDS. Girls whose parents became HIV positive would keep it a secret for fear of being stigmatised. They would be in school struggling to study, while at the same time worrying if their sick parents were going to die. At the time ARVs were not readily available.
Catherine’s defining moment came in 1999 when a mother brought her two daughters to school one Sunday for enrolment and pleaded to be allowed to pay school fees later. Admissions were never carried out on Sundays but Catherine made an exception. She admitted the girls but asked their mother to try and look for school fees. A week later, the mother was back with the school fees and so her daughters were settled in school. Later in the year, the woman sent Catherine a letter to apologise for not attending an important school meeting. She disclosed to her in the letter that she was HIV-positive and requested her to take care of her daughters in case she died. Sadly, one of her daughters attempted suicide in school and on being rescued and questioned said her mother’s HIV-status had led her to desperation.
“At that point I knew I did not want to be a headmistress anymore. I needed to go out in the world and help women and girls in desperate situations. So in 2000, I enrolled for a Masters programme in counselling, effectively departing from administration work. In September 2001, I went for summer classes in the UK and it was a time of reflection. On my flight back home I made a decision to step down from being a high school principal and teacher,” she explains.
She joined Murang’a teachers training college and taught psychology for two terms but still felt totally misplaced. She purposely conceived in order to get some reflection time during her maternity leave. When her leave was over in January 2003 she forwarded her letter of resignation to the Teachers Service Commission.
She joined her husband in Naivasha town where he worked as a human resource manager in one of the flower farms. Her 39-year-old house help worked during the day and left for her home in the evening. Catherine used to go to a cyber café in town to research for her Masters degree and every time she came home in the afternoon would find the house help sleeping. After numerous complaints by Catherine, who found the habit strange, the house girl finally owned up. She was a mother of nine children, all school dropouts. To make ends meet, she worked all night as a commercial sex worker in Naivasha town, which was why she slept on her job during the day.
“That was my first encounter with a woman in the sex work industry. Somehow it triggered all the incidences and stories I had heard as a school principal from single mothers. Some of them only fell short of confiding in me that they went to the streets at night to sell their bodies,” recalls Catherine.
Life Bloom Services International comes to life
Catherine was very disheartened and realised it was time to help abused and poverty-stricken women. She bought school uniforms, books and other facilities for her house girl’s children and took them back to school. One by one, sixteen other women in similar circumstances were brought to Catherine, courtesy of her house girl.
“I had to open an office in Naivasha town using money from a friend since I did not have a job. I would sit with these women every Wednesday afternoon listening to their dreams and what they really wished their kids to achieve. They would shed tears about the mistakes they had made in the past, the pain they had experienced in the hands of men in the streets, and not knowing the paternity of their children,” she recalls.
“For most women in the sex industry, their first child is usually conceived while in school or after being cheated by a man during their first sexual experience. Subsequent children are born when there is promise of marriage. When marriage does not happen, or the man abandons her, there is a lot of anger and resentment. Sometimes this frustration is taken out on the children,” says Catherine.
This became evident when Catherine visited some of the women’s rented accommodation. Sex workers usually live together in the same plot or ‘work’ in clearly demarcated ‘territories.’ She heard one of them call her naughty son a dog and that he behaved just like his father. These unpalatable insults speak volumes about their tested emotions. Some girls as young as 13 years get drunk all the time just to forget the men they slept with.
Catherine is fulfilled when she and her six counsellors venture into bars and discos most afternoons and nights to interact with and recruit sex workers into her programme. It may take as many as three nights to strike up a rapport with some of the women, but the effort is well worth it. Most of them have turned their nightlife into day life.
To facilitate help to the increasing number of commercial sex workers who came to her for help, Catherine started Life Bloom Services International (LBSI), a non-governmental organisation, whose main objective is to empower women and girls through a comprehensive and integrated approach. This includes helping women and adolescent girls explore their inner-self and support them to address possible challenges through creation of a supportive and empowering environment that helps them realise their dreams. The other objective is to support commercial sex workers pursue legal, economic, reproductive health, education and social rights within Naivasha district, Eastleigh in Nairobi, Thika, Nyeri and Embu regions.
From the sixteen women in the initial group, LBSI has grown to more than 3,000 women, all of who are single mothers. After going through the programme that involves a lot of counselling and training in effective parenting, some of them are able to deal with their bitter past, betrayal, and self-guilt, leading them to have healthy relationships with men. Some have even settled in marriage.
Set a thief to catch a thief
LBSI has trained 247 peer educators (mentors) and 60 peer counsellors who have come out of the sex trade. They carry out counselling interventions in the community and effectively handle cases of defilement, child trafficking and domestic violence, among others. These peer counsellors are very effective in the sense that they are able to penetrate where other women who have never been commercial sex workers can’t. It is the case of picking one thief and equipping her with skills to catch the others – a very effective approach. They are able to identify or get reports, for instance, of cases of rape or defilement in their street ‘territories’ or at home.
In cases of rape or defilement, the peer counsellors do the very basic, professionally termed as first aid in counselling. This includes assuring the security of the victim, ensuring they do not take a bath or change their clothes, calling in the police and so on. When the case is complicated they call the main office for help. They have improved their skills and self-confidence along the way and can handle most of the cases through the police and the Children’s Department on their own. The programme has brought in the support of the police, pastors and priests, as well as commercial sex workers ‘stakeholders’ such as bar owners. After training, a peer educator passes on what she has learnt to her friends as they wash their clothes or as they go to the bars. She forwards to counsellors in the office whatever issues she can’t handle and they facilitate a solution.
LBSI strives to support the women find alternative means of earning a living and has initiated activities towards self-reliance. The programme trains them to think and plan for their future through savings and investments. They are trained in business and entrepreneurial skills, as well as life skills. Some have reformed and gone back to school.
Last year, 39 women were trained in computers, catering, hairdressing and beauty therapy among other courses. Already some have set up businesses while others have picked up from where they left in school. Still others have slid back to prostitution. However, the programme’s policy is that the doors are forever open – the women can get out when they want and go back into welcoming hands when they want. Some disappear with long distance truck drivers out of the country then return months later, infected with HIV and AIDS, but are still received back into the programme if they are ready to get back on course.
The programme is setting up a school in Naivasha where abused women and girls will receive leadership and vocational skills training, learn about parenting, reproductive health and so on. The school is expected to be operational by the end of this year.