On December 14, 2022, I visit Jomo Kenyatta, Nyali and Bamburi beaches – all in the north coast of Kenya.
From the palm trees on the shores of the beaches looking over the hot white sands linking up to the blue waters in the Indian Ocean, the view is simply relaxing. Notwithstanding the hot and humid atmosphere.
At Jomo Kenyatta Beach, popularly known as Pirates Beach, a boisterous group of young men are playing volleyball under the mid-morning sun.
In the nearby shore, idle boats dance on the waters as a white couple holding hands, walk on the shallow waters near the shoreline. Near them is a mother cheering on her two children on floaters, to enjoy the swim.
There are countable people in the waters and dozens of Africans on the white sands, some selling bikini, sun hats, soft drinks, ice cream and water.
Some minutes after 1 pm Nyali Beach is nearly empty of tourists, save for the chatty boat operators and business people in makeshift shades.
Faraway, three men are walking on the sand. Some boats are docked, while others are far off in the sea.
“Come after 2 pm. This place will be full of people,” one of the boat operators who springs up to strike a deal with me brings me to light.
“I’m interested in hooking up my girls with wazungu (White tourists). They are 17 years old each. Can you help me?” I am blunt.
He looks into my eyes for a moment, in silence. “That doesn’t happen here,” he breaks the silence.
“Go to Diani – on the South Coast,” he says looking over the quiet shore. “I can’t find one here?” I pester him.
He is impatient with me and blurts: “You know, I don’t know what you want.”
“I can take you for a two-hour boat tour into the sea for Ksh1,200($9.70),” he changes the subject.
I fear deep waters and so, I am not ready for such a trip.
My next stop is Bamburi Beach, and my visit here is a shocker.
It is busy with many African people bobbing on the shallow end of the sea.
Lovers stroll on the waters, while dozens of hawk-eyed young men sit under a shade of suspended floor from the nearby beach hotel.
I later find out they are beach operators, including traders and boat operators, licensed by the Ministry of Tourism to operate here.
The ministry has also trained them to protect tourists from harassment, including sexual harassment and report such cases.
But going by N*’s narrations (read the first instalment of this series) and Lisa*’s (second instalment), they apparently look the other way, allowing sexual exploitation to go on before their eyes.
Two light-skinned women in multi-colored bikinis stand under a palm tree with arms crossed, looking into the sea.
Before them are two men – one lying on the sand face up, while the other covers him with sand. I’m intrigued. The men are sunbathing.
My moment of fascination is interrupted with “Wataka boat (do you want to go for a boat tour?)”
This is Bamzoka Ali, a boat operator. He is in his 50s. “I’m from Nairobi and I’m here for business,” I tell him.
“What kind of business?” he asks.
“I have three girls, aged 11, 16 and 17, and I want to hook them up with a mzungu who will pay me in return,” I respond. This draws his attention. He’s interested in the business.
“Let’s go to that shade over there and have a further discussion over this,” he tells me.
He leads me to a grove of palm trees in between two hotels at the beach. We sit on the trunk of one of the fallen trees.
16 years and above “okay”
He warns me that it’s risky to hook up with an 11-year-old girl because they are obviously “too young” and draw attention, that a vigilant person can tip off the police.
But those above 16 years appear older, and can go without causing “trouble”.
He says girls without identity cards (IDs) don’t spend time in hotels as the hospitality facilities demand for identification documents to book them.
To overcome the obstacle, they take them to the villas, cottages, guest houses or Airbnbs, he says. “Hotels are very strict,” he warns me.
“They can even report you to the patrol police who often visit the facilities to check on whether there are visitors who have booked in with underage Kenyan girls. But villas have no such rules (as providing an ID card for booking),” he spills the beans.
“If she stays for one week, you’ll be paid Sh50,000($404.20)” he informs me.
“But mzee wa beach (beach operator) is the gateway to hooking up with well-paying foreign tourists. We have worked with them for so long and we know the mean and generous ones,” he entices me.
He speaks French, Dutch, German and Swedish, which works to his advantage when negotiating for business such as the one I am about to seal with him.
He says December “ndio mwezi wa bahati ( is the lucky month)” when plenty of foreign tourists look for Kenyan women and girls.
He boasts of his success of having linked up four young women aged 18-22 with the foreign tourists and now “wanaishi maisha mazuri (live a better life).”
“I’ve created friendships with some and whenever they are planning to visit Kenya, they send me a short message with a request to find them girls to stay with them for a month,” he says with a sense of pride.
In fact, he already has three German tourists at a hotel less than 10 minutes walk from the grove.
They had tasked him with finding them, companions. They are in Kenya for a three-week vacation.
“Are you not afraid we will be arrested for selling off underage girls to foreign tourists for sexual exploitation?” I ask him.
“Hatushwiki Madam (We won’t be arrested Madam),” he assures me.
He, however, warns me that he doesn’t deal with natives of Italy and Poland because they are blatantly racist. But he loves the Germans, Belgian, Swiss and Welsh because they are friendly and generous.
He says for every hook-up, he gets paid Sh5,000 ($40.42).
For the three decades he has been at the beach, he hasn’t hooked up with anyone from the United States of America, he says.
But as long as the multi-billion sector continues to draw international tourists to Kenya, Mr Ali for sure has an extra source of income in pimping underage girls.
The sector contributes 10.4 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2021 alone, the travel and tourism sector contributed $ 5.4 billion to Kenya’s GDP.
This is after the 2021 annual international visitor arrivals closed at 870,465, a 53 per cent growth compared to the previous year’s arrivals which were 567,848.
A bulk of white tourists came from the Americas region with those from the USA leading at 80 per cent (136,981) followed by nine per cent(13,373) of Canadians.
Europe region came second with the United Kingdom having a 32 per cent share (53,264) followed by German at 17 per cent (27,620), Poland (9,809), Switzerland (6,535) and Belgium (5,697) at the tail end of the list respectively.
All these countries have laws that prohibit child sexual exploitation, yet their natives export their criminal behaviour to Kenya.
On September 10 2013, the Swiss House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Penal Code provisions addressing child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse.
Under the new law, a criminal convicted for sexually exploiting a child under 18 years, is to be punished with up to 10 years in jail.
While Serious Crime Act(2015) and Sexual Offences Act (2003) make it illegal in England and Wales to incite or cause a child aged under 16 years to engage in sexual activity.
In Belgium, article 10 of the Belgian Code of Criminal Procedure, warrants Belgian authorities to prosecute any individual, regardless of their nationality, for committing a sexual offence against a minor on Belgian soil.
Poland too has committed to the safety of children. In 2015, it ratified the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.
In Germany, whosoever engages in sexual activity with a child under 14 years, or allows the child to engage in sexual activity with himself, is liable to imprisonment of six months to 10 years under Section 176 of the German Criminal Code.
Back to Mr Ali. After 28 minutes of ostensibly negotiating a deal and sealing it, he asks for Sh500 ($4.03) as a service fee.
I, however, tell him I only have Sh300($2.43). He accepts to take the money.
Then comes a red flag. I ask him for his mobile number but he claims he has not mastered it.
Instead, he tells me I will get it from their office at the hotel, the environs within which the hotel where his German friends in need of companions, are putting up.
So, he is to collect his number soon as he confirms with the tourists whether they are ready for “my girls”.
He tells me to wait for him for only 10 minutes. And off, he leaves.
But my intuition tells me I may be waiting for trouble; I choose to obey it.
So I depart, albeit, with a heavy heart filled with anger at the imagination that on a daily basis, people like Mr Ali sit down to discuss how they can give away girls for child sexual abuse for as little as Sh300($2.43).
He is a manifestation of just how Kenyans aid commercial sexual exploitation of children and child prostitution in outright defiance of the laws prohibiting such worst forms of abuse.
Hence, going forward, law enforcement officers ought to target the boat operators in cleaning up the system taking advantage of girls who have no alternative means of survival.
Anti-child sexual exploitation champions and experts are concerned that the government is doing little to arrest the situation.
“In Kenya, we have a legal framework that protects children like the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act (2010), Children Act (2022) and the Constitution of Kenya, regional and international frameworks to which Kenya is a signatory like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child,” says Yvonne Oyieke, who worked at Equality Now as a program officer for End Sexual Exploitation at Equality Now, at the time I interviewed her for this story.
“But what we struggle with is the implementation of the laws, especially in the face of evolving problem whereby the children are recruited through the internet,” she adds.
This exemplifies the case of Lisa* who was sex trafficked to Tanzania courtesy of a pimp her elder ‘sister’ got on Facebook.
Breakthrough from poverty
More worried is Ms Oyieke that the sexual exploitation of children at the coast has been normalised: “Families have adopted it as a way out of poverty and they don’t see it as a problem.”
“Even if they are sensitised, for them the benefits far outweigh the reporting,” she asserts.
Yet, the government reckons that creating awareness is crucial to ending exposure of the children to exploitation.
Head of Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection Unit (AHTCPU) Mueni Mutisya, says they are partnering with various organisations at the coast to sensitise locals and stakeholders in the industry against the crimes.
But she agrees with Ms Oyieke that raising public awareness has to be in sync with the economic empowerment of the local communities.
With improved livelihoods, the likelihood of families sending their children to engage in sex in exchange for money will be eliminated, she affirms.
“We have partnered with some organisations and we’ve done a lot of training for hotel operators in Mombasa because that is where we experience lots and lots of sex tourism,” she says.
“And we have told them it is wrong to harbour sex tourism. Most hotels are now aware that it is a criminal offence.”
Over time, the perpetrators have become aware of the stringent regulations and they have now shifted base to non-restrictive facilities such as Airbnbs, villas, cottages and guest houses, Ms Mutisya says.
With these new challenges, she says the greatest asset to ending the abuse is an informed public, describing them as the foot soldiers on the ground who can monitor, report and protect the children from exposure to the abuse.
However, there are other foot soldiers on the ground.
Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers (KAHC) and the Tourism Professional Association(TPA) are among them.
The member organisations of hospitality players and academia are equally taking the lead by training their members to spot and report the cases.
Close to 300 hotels, lodges, villas and resorts and restaurants, guest houses across Kenya, constitute KAHC. And they are bound by their Code of Ethics which obligates them to “Discourage sexual tourism or exploitation of human beings in any form, especially when applied to children and the mentally or physically challenged persons.”
While TPA, which has been in existence since 2016 with 3,000 members already enlisted, has even created an e-learning module for training its members on how to prevent the sexual exploitation of children and get a certificate of proof of completion of the training.
Dr Sam Ikwaye, the Executive Officer at KAHC and secretary of TPA, says none of their members tolerates the sexual exploitation of children.
But the trained “eyes” on the lookout are just a drop in the ocean considering that more than 990,000 people are directly employed in the tourism sector.
Furthermore, in 2021, Kenya had 22.5 thousand available hotel rooms, an indication that the 300 hospitality facilities that have signed the code under KAHC are a mere count of the five fingers on the hand.
To establish the truth of the claims Mr Ali made and the assertion of the head of AHTCPU, Ms Mutisya; on December 15, 20, I make a move. I called six hotels and three resorts distributed across Nyali, Diani and Mtwapa, to book my ‘Italian’ friend planning to spend a month at the coast, with his girlfriend, who did not have an ID.
The women and men who receive my call, all decline my offer telling me “they must have an ID,” to be booked in. Six of the facilities were non-KAHC members.
But when I meet a woman administrator of an Airbnb located along Nyali Road, the offer is taken without care that I am talking about an old Italian man coming to stay at their premises with a 17-year-old girl.
“Haina shida. Umeona hapa nipatulivu. Hakuna mtu atawasumbua (There is no problem. You can see this is a quiet place. No one will disturb them) ” she tells me.
This hospitality facility administrator and many others like her who put profits before the rights of children dampen efforts to end child sexual abuse in the East African nation.
But there is one organisation that has all ears for the children who have been mercilessly abused by domestic and foreign tourists in and out of the country. Trace Kenya.
The non-government organisation(NGO) based in Mtwapa, Kilifi County, monitors the trafficking of persons, rescues the victims, puts them through a recovery and empowerment program, and unites them with their families.
Trace Kenya Executive Director Paul Adhoch says they “fight human trafficking in pursuit of gender justice because it manifests itself in a gendered way.”
“Women and girls are inordinately burdened by trafficking and they are more likely to be victims of trafficking,” he explains.
He says: “Whenever they are victims of trafficking, they face multiple exploitations including sexual exploitation. Children are more vulnerable to trafficking than adults because they are just children, and no one asks for their consent.”
The NGO runs a shelter, a transitional facility, in Mombasa County for the trafficked victims, which accommodates eight of them at any given time.
It can take up to 12 if they are mothers with children – four mothers and eight children – for a stay of a maximum of 90 days.
The facility also houses victims of other forms of abuse including domestic and sexual violence.
For any victim they rescue or who is a referral from its partners including the police, the NGO uses a vulnerability tool to assess how badly they have been damaged physically, mentally and psychologically.
The information helps them to determine the kind of support they need.
“Always psychosocial support is the first service they need,” says Mr Adhoch. “This is because any person who faces trafficking is often traumatised,” he elaborates.
The psychosocial sessions help them to identify the physical injuries they may be having that require medical attention.
“And if they have a mental issue that is beyond our counsellor, we refer them to a mental hospital,” he says.
After their psychosocial, mental and medical needs have been met, the organisation proceeds with offering them long-term rehabilitative services.
“This includes soft and hard skills that can enable integrate back to the community properly,” he says.
It also offers legal services, but rarely two out of 10 pursue legal justice because often family members or relatives are the ones who sold them off, and they fear taking legal action would implicate them, observes Mr Adhoch.
Sexual exploitation of children in the travel and tourism sector manifests in two ways, he says.
First, it is through sex tourism in which the children “entertain” local and international tourists for monetary gains.
He says in the past, the majority of the perpetrators were mainly paedophiles from Europe but domestic tourists are increasingly becoming the major criminals violating the children.
“A tourist comes to the coast with the intention of having fun and part of the fun is engaging in sex with a child, and on the ground, there are the pimps or people willing to link up the children with the tourists,” he says.
His explanation befits my encounter with Mr Ali, the boat operator ready to sell “my three underage girls’ to the Germans.
Second, is commercial sexual exploitation of children, which he describes as hard to tell because “it’s not straight on your face.”
“It is a transactional arrangement in which communities have generally accepted it to be the norm, but this is where children are used for sexual exploitation,” he says.
He singles out the “general normalised attitude”, of the coastal communities as the greatest challenge to fighting the sexual exploitation of children.
The communities ask: “Who are you to come to tell us how we should behave this is part and parcel of our lives.”
With this attitude, children will continue to be abused before the eyes of everyone at the beaches or hospitality and accommodation facilities, because in the current criminal justice system, a detective investigates a crime only after it has been reported.
And so the question is; will you be one to look the other way when a child is a risk of being sexually exploited, or will you be the one to dial 116, the national child helpline or 1195, the national gender-based violence hotline, to report violence against a child?