It was her first time at Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach. It was also her last. Agnes (not her real name) had visited the beach, popularly known as Pirates, to have a great time and experience what she had been missing since she arrived in Mombasa to pursue her university studies.
However, the great expectation turned into a nightmare.
“I was swimming with two of my friends when some boys came where we were and kept pestering us. Initially, we thought they were part of the crowd enjoying themselves around us and we didn’t make much of it.
“However, we noticed they were now getting really close, with one of them swimming towards my floater and trying to drag me into the deep waters. It kept happening and every time I told him off, his friends got aggressive. I had to swim out,” said Agnes, 20.
The Technical University of Mombasa student, who had visited the beach after classes, was forced to leave and vowed never to return.
“I could not stand the harassment. When I narrated that to my friends, they shared similar experiences. Ever since, I prefer going to Nyali or Mombasa beach where there are fewer people,” she said.
Agnes’s experience is one dark side of the public beaches in Mombasa, where teenage gangs from Bamburi and Kisauni are reigning terror on visitors.
They take advantage of the weak policing of the beaches to sexually assault their victims in the deep waters.
The gangs usually prey on girls and women who lack swimming skills or look like first-time visitors, according to police reports and vendors at Pirates.
They are very active during holiday seasons when Kenyans flock the beaches to make merry.
At first, they pose as swimming instructors, offering free lessons to visitors, then suddenly demand sexual favours in the deep seas where the victims are vulnerable.
The boys are so brazen that they have ‘watch parties’ to protect those sexually assaulting their victims, while scaring away onlookers.
Another young woman, who sought anonymity, narrated how they rescued a friend from a sexual attack. She had gone to the beach with a friend and was sunbathing on the shore as her colleague swam.
“We were sunbathing while one of my friends swam. From a distance, two boys swam next to her, then surrounded her.
“We had to go in and stop them. It happens quite often, especially to visitors who have zero swimming skills,” the woman said.
Another case was reported at Bamburi Police Station under Occurrence Book number 39/27/12/2018.
Some women who spoke to the Nation said they had either experienced or witnessed bullying and other forms of harassment.
These include forcible touching, catcalling and long looks. The gangs usually pick out their victims at the shore.
They then pounce, with offers to help them ‘float’ while surreptitiously dragging them deeper into the ocean, where the victims are at their mercy.
Mr Charo Katana, who leases floating tubes at Sh50 and Sh100, said the gangs use the floaters to bait their victims.
“They lease the tubes only to target ladies who have no swimming skills,” said Mr Katana, who has been in the business at Pirates for a decade.
However, he said the cases have gone down since a police booth was put up.
Mombasa Police Commander Johnston Ipara said such cases haven’t been reported since they launched 24-hour surveillance.
A sergeant is in charge of the new marine ‘station’. Officers have been swimming with visitors to ensure their safety.
“An officer would pose as a normal reveller while on the lookout for those who prey on women,” said a vendor at the beach.
Mr Ipara confirmed that the tactic has been successful.
“We decided to establish the police post to curb these cases. So far, we have been successful,” Mr Ipara told the Nation.
The police booth used to operate during holiday seasons only, but it was made operational throughout the year in October 2017.
Mr Ipara said officers with excellent swimming skills have played a big role in combating the crime.
“Not everyone going to the beach has good intentions. Others are just there to take advantage of vulnerable women,” Mr Ipara said.
There is no publicly available data regarding the number of sexual assault and harassment cases committed at the beach as a majority of the victims do not make formal complaints.
However, according to the 2019 Economic Survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the number of offences involving tourists reported increased from 19 in 2015, some 15 in 2016, another 15 in 2017 to 93 last year.
Other reported offences included drug abuse and theft by juvenile criminals. Pirates draws thousands of visitors from within and outside Kenya every year.
Most visitors prefer the public beach due to its accessibility and availability of many hotels and affordable eatery joints around.
More than 15,000 visitors go to Pirates daily during the holiday season, making crowd control a big challenge.
Last Saturday, the chairman of the National Assembly’s Agriculture Committee, Adan Ali, said the menace had caused negative publicity for beaches on the Coast, threatening the tourism industry.
“We are seeing these people giving our tourism sector bad publicity. We want the Tourism ministry and the police to take stern action,” Mr Ali said.
The boys deny visitors a good time and peace of mind. If the mess is cleared, the country’s tourism numbers would increase by 25 per cent, which will benefit Coast residents and the country at large,” he added.