At the age of 15, Lucy Wambui was already peddling her flesh to earn a living. She had five younger siblings to fend for, as well as a child of her own.
Wambui’s family was poor and her mother, a single parent, could barely support her children; getting a decent meal was a pipe dream. Things were so bad that Lucy had to drop out of school.
“I could not complete my education. I dropped out in Standard Six due to family problems,” Wambui recalls.
The young girl was heartbroken. She had considered education her means of escape from the misery she was living in and had harboured dreams of pursuing a professional course. It did not help matters that mother and daughter had a strained relationship.
“I got the feeling that Mum never really liked me. I sincerely had no idea why, but I think it was because she was struggling to take care of me as well as my brothers and sisters. I harboured the dream of being either a teacher or a doctor, so I only dropped out of school because she said so,” Wambui says.
Her mother, who was a commercial sex worker, argued that if her daughter joined her in the streets of Naivasha, they would be able to better provide for the younger children and even send them to school. Being the first born, Wambui was told she had to take make sacrifices for the sake of her siblings.
“I never knew what I was getting into when I agreed to sell my body so that I could put food on the table,” she admits.
Wambui has tears in her eyes and the pain is evident when she recalls what she went through; 30 years have not made it easy to bear. By the time her mother introduced her to prostitution, Wambui was in a relationship, albeit an abusive one, and had a child so there was an extra mouth to feed.
They might have worked together, but mother and daughter did not get any closer. In fact, Wambui’s desire to find love and acceptance drew her further and further from her family.
“When Mum and I started to work together, I was 15 years old. At that age, I felt nothing that resembled love for my mother and instead diverted my love to a man I thought loved me. We eventually got married,” she says.
The marriage turned out to be far from the solace she had sought though. Her husband was physically abusive.
“I thought he loved me, but he constantly beat me up. One time he beat me so badly that I had a miscarriage. I was hospitalised but he did not even bother to come and see me.”
Despite the beatings, Wambui persevered for seven years and had four children with her husband. When the violence became too much to bear, she went back to her mother’s house but found little comfort there and was soon kicked out.
Determined to support herself and her children, she sought odd jobs and eventually became a house help in Limuru. However, her employer assaulted her sexually for close to two years. She chose to keep quiet because she was afraid of losing her job and being unable to provide for her family.
When Wambui finally quit, it was hard to find another job and she drifted back into prostitution to make ends meet.
“It was the only thing that made sense to me at that time and I was not shy. I was so courageous that if I went into a bar and at the end of an hour no man had approached me, I would take matters into my own hands and approach one. I could not afford to go home empty-handed.”
Deep down, she was ashamed and did not want her friends and family to know what she was doing. She, therefore, never went to the same bar on two successive nights.
One night in 2004, she was so frustrated about lacking clients that she went to the highway to look for some. There was some construction work being carried out on the road and she decided to try her luck there.
“I was standing at the side of the road in my shimmering blouse, hoping to catch the eye of a potential client, when a truck stopped a few metres away. A white man came from the truck and spoke to me in a language I did not understand and I answered him in my own language,” she laughs.
Winds of change
That is how Wambui came to join Life Bloom International; an organisation that sought to reform women from the streets in 2004. Officials from Life Bloom approached the women and asked for them to volunteer in the project.
After some training on peer education, Wambui became bold enough to face her fellow colleagues and appeal to them to change.
Now a reformed woman, she is on a mission to educate commercial sex workers, showing them that it is possible to survive in other ways and urging them, at the very least, to protect themselves from HIV infection. She recently started an organisation, Kenya Network for Life Transformation, to reach out to these women.
“I just want the ladies out there to know that there is always the option of quitting; that you can always start afresh,” she says of her mission. “If women knew how much they are worth, they would not allow men to misuse their bodies.”
Women, Wambui says, just need to be shown love and not lust, so that they can feel accepted in the society. Her house has hosted numerous women who come to seek solace and find some hope.
“Sometimes a hug or a simple smile is just what is needed. There are times when people just need the simple assurance that they are loved.”
She challenges young girls to love and accept themselves instead of accepting small treats from men who will in turn exploit them sexually. According to her, prostitution and substance abuse go hand in hand and are used as a means to escape from reality.
She urges prostitutes to obtain alternative employment and to never consider violence “normal” or “part of the job”.
When Wambui quit her old life close to five years ago, the hardest part was facing her four children.
“Facing my children and pleading with them for forgiveness was not easy, but it was certainly worth it,” she says.
Her children, aged between 35 and 27, run different businesses.
Apart from seeking to transform her former colleagues, Wambui is in charge of a micro-finance organisation in Naivasha. She also attends adult literacy classes.
“I still can become a doctor; my dream has never died,” she concludes.