Having worked in journalism for the past 13 years and also working for a social media management company, Claire Wambui knows the power of effective communication. The art of gathering information, reconstructing it to suit the intended audience and disseminating it to the masses through the most appropriate vehicle is a skill she has mastered. But when it came to her personal life, she had an untold story she could not process – one she kept secret for 25 years.
Claire was raised in a family of five children in Kirinyaga, on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. It was the kind of place where neighbours were viewed as an extension of the family unit and trusted to be the eyes and ears of parents in the community.
Both her parents were primary school teachers and would often return home for lunch before heading back to their respective classes for the afternoon session. When classes finished at 3:45 p.m., Claire would walk to a neighbour’s house, get the keys to her home and proceed to do her chores.
One particular neighbour made Claire uncomfortable. From the first time she knocked on his door and he instructed her to come in, her intuition went off.
“He left the keys on his bed and told me to reach for them from his bedroom window,” Claire told The Weight She Carries. “Although his bed was close to his window, I couldn’t reach the keys. So, he told me to go through the back door into the house to get the keys from his room. He followed me and then raped me.”
Claire was just seven years old. After the assault, the neighbor took Claire into the bathroom, roughly cleaned her up and threatened her, saying that if she told anyone what had happened, he would kill her only brother.
“My brother was our protector when we were being bullied by other kids. I didn’t want to fail him, so I didn’t tell anyone,” she said.
That was the beginning of the sexual abuse that went on for over a year. Her mother continued to leave the keys with the neighbour on most days and he continued to rape Claire.
Claire began to avoid being home alone. If she wasn’t the first one home, she wouldn’t have to go to his house. So, she would stay at school or with friends until she knew someone else was home. Upset she wasn’t coming home to do her chores immediately after school, her mother would tell Claire’s father, who would beat Claire as punishment.
One day after exam week, Claire couldn’t take the pain any longer. The repeated rapes had left her with sores and bruises in her private area. In fact, wearing underwear was unbearable.
“I told my mother how much pain I was in and opened my legs to show her how bruised I was. She told me to shut my legs and went and got a stick which she beat me with. To her, it was wrong for me to show her my private parts,” Claire said.
After the beating, her mother remembered that days earlier, she had caught Claire eating sugar without permission and had not punished her yet. So, she poured sugar into a cup and told Claire to eat it all.
“Of course, after the first few spoons you cannot eat any more, but she would force us to. That was her way of disciplining us for stealing sugar,” Claire said. “From that day forward, my mother never believed me or trusted me.”
“Ruined spirit, crushed self-esteem and feeling alone became my siblings. I didn’t know what to do next since those who were supposed to protect me at that time beat me mercilessly or punished me at will, without giving me the benefit of a doubt.”– Claire Wambui
Sadly, there were more predators in plain sight.
It was common in her community to buy milk from neighbors who owned goats. Parents would send their children to get milk unaware that they were sending their kids into the hands of a pedophile. This man worked for a particular family who sold milk. That family trusted him and often left him in charge when they were away.
“He took advantage of so many kids. He would tell us to collect the milk near his home, and when you got in, he would rape you,” Claire said. “He walked around with a sword and would threaten to slash us if we said anything.”
One time during mango season, Claire went to buy milk and the man grabbed her, placed his hand over her mouth so no one would hear her scream.
“He had all the time to do what he wanted. Then he took me to the gate and threatened to unleash his dogs on me because I threatened to report him. I ran as fast as I could despite the pain from the rape. I told no one. It continued for a while and his employers wouldn’t notice anything.”– Claire Wambui
Claire gave excuses each time she was sent to buy milk. She asked for another sibling to accompany her but her mother accused her of being disobedient.
A few years later, Claire was relieved when her parents informed her their family was transferring to a new school far away.
For 25 years, she told no one about the abuse.
“After keeping quiet for a long time, it began to eat me up. As I grew and got a lot of pressure from [my] family telling me to get married and have kids, I was now of age and they were comparing me to other people my age,” she said. “It was so painful because they didn’t understand what I had gone through.”
Unsure of her worth, Claire believed the negative words people said about her. If someone told her she was useless, she believed it. But everything came to a head in October 2019.
“I asked God for strength because I was contemplating taking my life. I needed Him to help me because I was so desperate,” she said. “I decided that whatever the consequences I would face from my family, I was going to tell them what happened.”
Claire took out her laptop and typed out everything that had happened.
“I let the words just flow out, and on the 31st of October, I posted it on Facebook. That was the greatest relief. Seventy percent of my burden just lifted,” she said.
Her family, however, did not support her decision to speak out about the abuse she had endured. After posting it on Facebook, Claire’s sister saw it and alerted the rest of the family.
“My mom didn’t ask, and none of my sisters asked me anything about it. Unfortunately, I was able to overhear some of the words they were exchanging about me and I was heartbroken. They ridiculed me and talked about me, and I felt like this is not what I would have wanted from my family.”– Claire Wambui
A woman from a local TV station reached out to Claire and asked her to share her story on TV. It was aired in November 2019.
“I posted the link on Facebook and my sister watched it and I became a laughingstock, and someone who was out cast from my family. I was left all alone and they were telling [me] to go find another family. Till today, my mother has never asked me about what happened to me.”
There were a couple of counsellors who reached out to Claire and offered to help her following her appearance on TV. So far, she has attended nine sessions and encourages others to seek therapy.
“I have learned to look at myself through a different lens. I realized even the shame that I used to feel is now gone. I can’t change the past, and I cannot change others’ opinion of me, but I can define my own life,” she said.
Claire hopes other survivors of childhood sexual abuse can remember that they matter.
“I know that the issue of confidence is very hard because sometimes you trust somebody and then they betray you and tell other people. I know how painful it is when people don’t believe you because no one in my family believed me. No matter how dark it gets, suicide is not the answer,” she said.
Claire also advises survivors to seek spiritual guidance from a pastor they trust.
“Ninety-nine-point nine percent of my strength comes from God. Pray, pray and pray. Fasting gives you the greatest strength to overcome. God has never let me down. Even during the times when I felt alone, I knew God was with me.”– Claire Wambui