I was twenty years old when I first met Nekesa. I landed in Kenya to capture stories for my thesis film about women who inspire hope in their communities. A friend invited me to sit in during her university class to learn more about the challenges women face in Kenya. She told me there was a girl in her class that might be a good fit for my thesis film.
Nekesa was out of breath as she flung open the door to the classroom. Her pant legs were dusty and her braids were coming out. She found her seat at the front just as the conversation was about to begin.
“What are some issues that women face in our communities?” the teacher asked. Nekesa was the first to raise her hand. She stood to speak: “In slum areas—especially here, in Kenya—men take advantage of the poverty of women. This is why we see so much rape, incest, and prostitution in our communities.” She paused to swallow, “This is why I’m here—to help survivors find their healing.”
Her whispery voice pulled me in to listen. She spoke with such assurance that I was eager to learn more from her.
As we left the university together, mamas were selling Maasai earrings for 200 shillings ($2.00) outside the university gate. “Sister, look here! I’ll give you two for 300,” the mama said. It was an offer I couldn’t resist. “Nekesa, do you want a pair?” I asked.
“Ah! No. I would much rather use that money to buy unga for my baby,” Nekesa said. Unga is the cornmeal used to make ugali, the staple food in Kenya. Stunned, I quickly learned that she and I had vastly different priorities. Feeling guilty, I took her into a supermarket, and I said she could get a few things. She only asked for a small packet of unga, a bar of soap, and a toothbrush. As we spent time together over the course of the month that I was in Kenya, a friendship began to form. I asked if I could interview her for my thesis film, and she enthusiastically agreed.
On our scheduled day of filming, I set up my equipment in a quiet corner outside her university. Shaded from the heat of the noon sun, she began to share her story with me. “I was born in Ebutayi, a small village in the western part of Kenya. When a girl is born, there is
a big celebration. The whole village comes together and the women will dance and sing and cry ululations. But even though the village celebrated my birth, the celebration would last much longer if I were born a boy,” she began.
At eighteen, Nekesa had dreams of going to college, but being a girl, she was expected to sell mandazi, breakfast fritters, on the side of the road to support her family of thirteen. Her father, a day laborer, and her mother, a maize farmer, were at odds about allowing their daughter to go to college. Most of the girls in her village were already married, pregnant with a second child, and dropping out of school to tend to the domestic needs of their husbands. Nekesa was able to finish both primary school and high school, resisting the expectation of marrying early. As a high school graduate, the bride price would be raised—instead of one cow, she could be worth three. Her father saw it as a benefit for himself, but the idea of allowing his daughter to go to college was senseless.
With only bus fare in her pocket and the few items of clothing she owned, Nekesa jumped on a matatu, a bus, painted “Nairobi” in red letters. She planned to meet a distant relative in the Mathare slum when she arrived. Eight hours passed.
She stepped off the matatu and asked people where the bus to Mathare was. Most of the people ignored her question, but finally a well-dressed man approached Nekesa and asked, “Did you say you’re going to Mathare? I’m heading that way too, I can take you.” With relief, Nekesa thanked him, happy to have found a bit of kindness in this unfamiliar city. He spoke in Luhya, her mother tongue, and mentioned places and things that were familiar to her in Ebutayi. “We’re like brother and sister!” he laughed.
When they arrived in Mathare, he let Nekesa use his phone to call her distant relative. There was no answer. “Why don’t we go to my place while we wait for your relative to call you back? I can make supper.” Nekesa enthusiastically agreed. She hadn’t eaten all day, since there was no food in the house when she left. While preparing to cook ugali with mrenda and chicken, he served her a glass of orange Fanta. Nekesa finished the glass in a few gulps. They continued to share common stories of Ebutayi.
“At first, I felt like I was in the right place. But then I started to get dizzy. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, and I fell asleep,” she said as she shook her head in disbelief. As she paused, my stomach tightened. I distracted myself by double-checking my camera to make sure she was still in focus. She continued her story.
Hours later, Nekesa’s eyes opened wide. Curtains closed. Body naked. Pain. Sheets covered in
blood. He was reclining next to her. “What did you do to me?” she asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? You’re in my house, I can do whatever I want to you. Now hurry up! Get your filthiness out of my house. If you tell anyone that you were raped, trust me, I will kill you!” The man took her back to the matatu stage—the same place where he had tricked her into trust. As passengers boarded the matatu to Western Kenya, he grabbed her elbow with a twist. Nekesa opened her mouth to scream, but fear silenced her.
“On the bus, I cried throughout the long journey home. I felt so alone—no one on the bus bothered to look at me or help me,” Nekesa’s throat tightened. I tried to think of some comforting response, but the words would not come. I did not know how to hold the heaviness of her story.
After a month of filming various women throughout Kenya, I returned to Los Angeles to edit my thesis film. I was particularly challenged by Nekesa’s story. As I edited, her story played over and over, and a barrage of questions filled my mind: What would I do if her story were mine? Would I rebel against familial mandates to pursue my dream? Would I go against cultural expectations that risked bringing shame to my family? Would I pursue an unconventional career despite community ridicule? Would I be brave enough to commit my life to helping others through the same trauma I had experienced?
Her story could have been mine had I been raised in a different political climate in China, had I been born to parents who preferred a boy as their first child, had my grandparents never fled communism, had my parents been unable to find jobs because of discrimination, and had I not been given opportunities to pursue my academic dreams. While I was attempting to make a career out of telling other people’s stories in the film industry, Nekesa was rewriting her own story. While I was pondering all the ways I could become profitable in Los Angeles, she was trying to put food in her daughter’s belly in Mathare. While I was finishing up my final year of university, she was just beginning hers. While I was focused on building my own dream, Nekesa was building a dream for many starting with her daughter.
I saw how the struggle of my ancestors paved the way for me to write a new story as well. For I too desired to create a better world for my future daughters, should I have any. And if I did, I wondered, what would I want their world to look like? I did not know at the time, but I knew that I had a responsibility to reconcile the suffering of the generations before me. A common dream united Nekesa and me across borders. I paid her balance for the remainder of her semester.
When Nekesa’s results came back, she was at the top of her class.
Adapted from Liberation is Here by Nikole Lim. Copyright (c) 2020 by Nikole Lim. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com