HLI Teacher blogger – The Kayayo Girls Part 2
I had arranged to meet George the interpreter the following week when we would go and visit the girls ‘ homes’, where they slept… As we walked along we saw that the patch of ground under The Mango Tree was empty, the girls had already gone, getting ready for the night. As we entered the Tonga Market, it got darker, no light at all was coming from the now boarded up kiosks so bustling during the day. A few dimly lit shadowy outlines of hundreds of young kayayo girls and their babies could be discerned in the dim light, many were lying asleep on the wet bare concrete and some small fires had been lit in several places, casting an eerie red glow around patches of wretched humanity.
We walked deeper into this normally seething, but now dead market, which was very large being about one square mile. Soon we were confronted by a huge metal gate that served as the entrance to a more secluded inner market, which was surrounded by a 4 metre high walls on all side. It was now so dark that we had to use the light from our mobile phones to find the way. Eventually we came to a narrow alleyway and we saw a large group of kayayo girls squeezed along a ledge, 4 feet wide. I soon discovered this cement ledge was home to the “Mango Tree Girls” including Rebecca, Aysha, and Latifa.
The place reeked of urine, thin emaciated babies with swollen bellies were running around naked partly illuminated by the red glow of a fire that had been recently lit. Some of the kayo girls turned round to smile at me as they hung up their evening washing.
“We can only hang our clothes out to dry at night as people shop during the day, the wet clothes drip on us during the night when we are sleeping,” Aysha said.
“We can lie length ways on this ledge, we have to lie like this,” Rebecca said and showed me how, “so our legs hang off the edge.”
I saw the last shopkeeper leave, now the daytime normality had disappeared the place took on a eerie quality of hideout for the wretched. The actual awning which was supposed to protect them from the rain was in fact a narrow rusted piece of corrugated iron full of holes.
“When it rains we get wet as well as our babies, the wind blows the rain on us and we have to get up and stand up all night with our babies so we don’t get wet,” said Rebecca.
George pointed to large black shiny cockroaches scurrying around which we could see from the light of our mobile phones and the girls said these together with the rats disturbed their sleep.
“They run over us at night,” Rebecca said, “when we wake in the morning there is often blood on our legs where the rats have been biting us.”
Suddenly we heard shouting. Three heavies, gangster looking types, approached us angrily. One rushed towards Rebecca who was at the time the only person talking to George and flung her against the wall. She fell over hitting her head badly, she looked up from where she landed but was afraid to move. The older man was screaming and waving his arms around and the other girls backed away uneasily. I asked George hurriedly what was going on, he replied: “That man said he takes care of the girls and we just can’t come in here and talk to them without his permission.”
I suggested that we try to make a run for it through the metal gates which were just yards from us, though we couldn’t see them. Then I remembered when the last shopkeeper was locking up, he told me that he was going to lock the inner gates but we didn’t take much notice of it at the time. I was really starting to feel uneasy and I could see the girls were petrified.
Just as suddenly the man started to walk away and told us to follow him and leave. We followed the gangsters in the pitch darkness. I was scared and disorientated and didn’t have a clue where I was. We felt we were being frogmarched out of ‘his territory’.
As we moved further into the enveloping darkness I started to discern tiny shacks dimly lit inside by candles and mobile phones. Inside the shacks lots of men, some with women, were smoking marijuana and drinking local gin. I realised the girls were surrounded by a whole colony of low-life men who could just walk into their caged alley at night and do whatever they wanted.
The kayayo couldn’t even escape, they couldn’t even complain. Who would believe them? If they complained they would be ejected from their home, their tiny patch of cement full of rats and cockroaches. And then where would they sleep? Their predicament was dire but as the weeks and months went by I was to learn even more devastating facts about their lives, and how the citizens of this city preyed on and abused these helpless girls…