Ideally, systems are designed to make life easier for human beings. Some, like the legal system, are tasked to create order in a society that would otherwise go berserk with lawlessness. However, a glitch in the system can quickly turn into a costly affair.
Like a double-edged sword, the system that is supposed to protect you can easily tear you down when its malfunctions. Elizabeth Vihenda, 48, bore the brunt of a system shortcoming that saw her spend a year in jail. Here is her harrowing tale of false accusations, incarceration and finding light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
“I come from Vihiga County, which is where I spent my childhood years. I went to primary school for a while but after I turned 10, I had to drop out due to lack of fees. My dad had left us to seek greener pastures in the city, never to return.”
After dropping out of school, Elizabeth got a job as a house help working for a teacher in their village, a home she worked in for seven long years. As she was about to turn 17, someone referred her to a similar job opportunity, but in Nairobi, the ‘dreamy’ city that she had only heard of growing up.
“I was nervous and excited to travel to Nairobi. I arrived in Kibera and was taken to my new employer. By then I had matured in terms of doing housework, so I got right down to it, working tirelessly for three years.”
In April 1993, Elizabeth met a “handsome” man called Johnson Nyando.
“I had travelled home and that’s where I saw him. He always says that it was love at first sight. That when he saw me, he saw wife material. We got married. I had a one-year-old son from a previous relationship and Johnson took him as his own son. This made me happy and content.”
The marriage thrived, and in 1995, Elizabeth got pregnant with twins. At first, the pregnancy was smooth and being a second-time mum, she was prepared for the journey that lay ahead, and the exciting twist of being “mama twins”. Towards the end of the second trimester, Elizabeth developed some complications, forcing the doctors to deliver the babies preterm.
“I went into labour after the sixth month, and when the first baby was delivered, the doctors said we had to do an operation to get the other baby out. The one I gave birth to did not make it. When the operation was done, I was informed that the child had died in my womb.”
The young couple grieved for their babies with unfathomable pain. As time went by, they got the courage to pick up the pieces of their shattered hearts and willed themselves to move on.
Over the next few years, Elizabeth and her husband led uneventful lives, just a normal family in Kibera doing odd jobs here and there to provide for their son. However, as the boy got into his late teens, he got entangled with bad company. His parents’ warning not only fell on deaf ears but seemingly fuelled his bad habits.
“The problem of raising children in the city and especially in an informal set up such as Kibera is that you cannot control who befriends your child. We tried our best to raise him well but he ran into bad company. He was always drunk, unkempt and a pitiful shadow of the vibrant young boy we once knew. It pained us so much to see him this way, in a way, we felt like we had lost our only child to the dingy drinking dens of Kibera.”
In March 2018, Elizabeth received a call that changed her life, snapping her out of the misery of helplessly watching her son slip away from them.
“There are blessings that come our way just when we need them. I got a call from someone back in the village. The caller informed me that a one-month-old baby girl had been abandoned in a nearby open-air market and they were looking for someone to adopt the baby.”
Even before hanging up or mentioning a word to her husband, Elizabeth knew she was going to be that baby’s mother. You see, even as a little girl, she had always longed to be a mother. Working as a house help had given her the opportunity to be a second parent to her employer’s children, a role she played with utmost dedication and passion. Fate had seen her lose her twins, and become estranged from her only child, but all these never snuffed out her burning desire to become a mum again.
Elizabeth travelled upcountry to go and see the baby. Earlier, she had informed her husband of her mission and he hadn’t objected. On arrival, she got in touch with the close relative who had made the call and they talked some more. It turned out that the baby’s parents were well-known. However, circumstances surrounding the child’s birth made it difficult for the biological parents to raise the baby. She was born out of wedlock, the result of an illegitimate affair frowned upon by the local community.
“The poor girl thought it was better to abandon the baby rather than subject her child to the stigma I was willing to take the child; she was the daughter I never had.”
According to the customs of the people there, a child born from such an affair would bring bad luck to the family and community at large. A few years ago, such children were either killed or thrown in the forest to be eaten by wild animals.
A meeting was organised between Elizabeth and clan elders from the baby’s family. Elizabeth expressed her desire to adopt the baby seeing that the family was not in a position to raise the child. The clan elders agreed to her requests and handed the baby to her.
“I will never forget that day I laid eyes on her. She looked pale and frightened. Her clothes were damp and she had mucus around her nose. I think she had been lying outside for a while before she was rescued. It broke my heart and I felt a strong urge to embrace her.”
Elated, Elizabeth returned to Nairobi, her heart pounding with excitement and gratitude for another chance to be called “mum.”
“I arrived safely with my one-month-old daughter. Before leaving, I had gotten a few supplies in readiness for the baby. The house was clean and warm. I can’t fully describe the joy I felt, it was as if my home had gotten a new lease of life. There is some liveliness that comes with having a baby in the house. We named her Blessings.”
All this while, Johnson, a man of few words, watched as his wife busied herself around the house fussing over the baby. According to Elizabeth, he seemed content to see her happy once again. She was living her dream, watching the baby quickly regain health. Then one day everything came crashing down.
“ I was in the house with Blessings when I heard some commotion. I went outside to see what was happening, and to my shock, a group of women were right outside my doorstep hurling insults at me. They shouted and pointed at me angrily. I remember one of them asking, “Wewe mwanamke wa aina gani? Unawezaje fanyia hivio jirani wako? (What sort of woman are you? How can you do that to your neighbour?”
Elizabeth stood rooted outside the door, confused and terrified. Then in a spilt second, two plain-clothes police officers charged towards her, swung her around and cuffed her. She had never been arrested before, everything seemed surreal.
“I later learnt that I had been accused of child theft. It turns out, a few days before the arrest, a woman from my neighbourhood had delivered twins at Kenyatta National Hospital. However, she had come home with only one child after the doctors told her the other child died. This happened a week after I returned from the village with Blessings. Someone had gone to this woman who had lost a child and told her that I had stolen one of her twins. This ill rumour spread like bushfire and climaxed when the angry mob gathered outside my door.”
Kilimani Police Station
Elizabeth was taken to Kilimani Police Station in March 2018. The next day, her husband, a watchman, returned home only to find it unusually quiet. A neighbour informed him that Elizabeth had been arrested and that the police had taken away the baby. He frantically made his way to the nearest administrative police camp in Kibera only to be informed that his wife was not there. He boarded a matatu and made his way to the next police post in Jamhuri Estate where they informed him that she was not there but advised him to try Kilimani Police Station.
“I was worried because no one explained to me why my wife had been arrested. I got to Kilimani but no one paid attention to my desperate attempts to find out my wife’s whereabouts.”
One police officer eventually told him, quite nonchalantly, that his wife was not there.
“I went home dejected, not knowing what to do,” narrates Johnson.
The following day, he made a beeline to Kilimani Police Station. He found a different officer who seemed more empathetic.
“I described my wife as best as I could and the police officer told me to wait. When she came back, she told me that my wife was in the cell and would be arraigned at Kibera Law Courts the next morning.”
Although this was not good news, Johnson was relieved to know that his wife was safe. The intrigues of what she was being charged with brewed in his mind as he made his way home.
The next day, Elizabeth was presented in court. Her case was open and shut. There was no documentation to prove that she was the adoptive mother of baby Blessings. All she had were verbal statements saying that some clan elders had handed her the baby, a laughable submission in court.
In light of the charges she faced—they had been trumped up to include child-trafficking activities in Tanzania—she was sent to remand pending investigations.
“I had nothing to show the court that I was Blessings’ adoptive mother. They even asked for a note from the local chief back in the village, but I didn’t have it. I was surprised to see that even quoting the clan elders didn’t help me at all. I was sent to Lang’ata Women Prison on remand awaiting sentencing.”
Blessings was transferred to a children’s home in Nairobi as her mother went to start a new life behind bars.
Nothing prepared Elizabeth for jail. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, tight spaces and strict rules, her life felt like a never-ending nightmare. Her heart ached for Blessings because no one had bothered to tell her where they had taken her. Every time her husband visited, she could see the sorrow in his eyes and it killed her a little inside.
One day in June, her husband came to visit her. The anguish on his face sent a shiver down Elizabeth’s spine. When he finally gathered the courage to talk, he informed her that their son had died. Alcohol addiction had robbed them of their son at the ripe age of 26.
Grief darkened Elizabeth’s days in jail over the next few weeks. She didn’t get to bury her son. She had no idea where her daughter was. Everyone she knew in her neighbourhood thought she was a child-stealing monster. Everything was going wrong and each day brought a fresh tide of misery.
“I kept replaying the scenes in my mind. From the judge’s tone, I knew that if they believed I had stolen the baby, the punishment would be severe. Nothing was working, maybe even the sentencing was more bad news in store. What if they locked me up for the rest of my life? The thought made me shudder. I needed a miracle.”
Elizabeth’s miracle came in the course of the investigations. Word had reached people back home that Elizabeth was being accused of having stolen a baby. Blessings’ biological mother and a few members of her family travelled to Nairobi on the day of the case hearing at Kibera Law Courts. She came with the birth notification document and testified that she had given up the baby to Elizabeth. DNA samples were collected to ascertain the witness’s identity. Finally, Elizabeth had solid evidence to prove her innocence.
“I remember seeing her (Blessings’ biological mother) on the witness stand. She told the court that she was not able to raise the child and that after I was freed, she hoped I could formally adopt the child. Hot tears rolled down my cheek as I heaved in relief.”
All charges against Elizabeth were dropped and she was set free. She had spent one year in jail.
Elizabeth’s first order of business was tracking down her baby. Next, with the help of Children’s Services, she was able to legally adopt Blessings.
“It was a tearful reunion, tears of joy. Blessings’ little hand held tightly to my finger as I carried her. She had not forgotten me, even though I had only spent about two weeks with her before the arrest. I am thankful I got a second chance, some people are not that fortunate. I think the government should take time to investigate matters before arresting people to avoid jailing innocent citizens. We should also avoid spreading rumours, mere gossip made me spend one year behind bars. But I have no grudge against anyone, I chose to forgive. ”
Blessings will be turning five this year. She is a bubbly sharp child who enjoys reciting the alphabet.
“She is now in PP1. We have enrolled her at a local private school in the neighbourhood. Maybe one day we will afford to move to a better and safer neighbourhood for Blessings, who knows? We want the best for her.”
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