A dusty, bumpy ride up a hill off the Gilgil-Nyahururu road brings us to Simon Harris’ house in the Ridge Mount suburban village of Gilgil town. It is an area populated mostly by White settlers.
Harris’ house, a secluded bungalow popularly known here as the Green House — probably for its green roof — sits on a five-acre piece of land on the slopes of one of the hills that dot the landscape.
However, a young man we shall call Dom — we cannot reveal his identity because of legal and ethical considerations — thinks the house is labelled “green” more for the evergreen lawn and hedge than the colour of its roof.
Harris, a 55-year-old former teacher from Herefordshire, England, moved to Kenya in the 1990s to do charity work under the ambit of an organisation called VAE that flew in English students to teach in deprived Kenyan schools during their gap year. He fell in love with the country, and henceforth divided his time between Britain and Gilgil.
Under the same organisation, he hatched a plan to destitute street children by giving them an education.
This, it would later turn out, was the charade the Briton used to get close to tens of street boys he was found guilty of molesting; young, innocent boys like Dom and his friend Joe, with whom I am visiting Harris’ home.
Dom, now a brawny young man of 25, has been on the streets for as long as he can recall. That is how he became one of Harris’ victims for years. He started coming to this house when he was only eight years old, and says he has been here several times.
As they show me around the house, he narrates the disturbing story of the genial-looking, balding white man who first enticed them with bread and milk. Then with clean clothes.
Harris, a man described by British police as one of Britain’s most prolific paedophiles, left the UK after being investigated for abusing pupils at Shebbear College in Devon, where he had been a housemaster in the 1980s. He resigned from the school while investigations were underway.
It was after this that in the 1990s he relocated to Kenya and started his “social work” in Gilgil. Here he was a revered and respected member of the upper crust of society, and is even said to have been a good friend of area leaders, particularly the local Member of Parliament, before his arrest in the UK.
Friends in high places notwithstanding, Simon Harris will be serving a jail term of 17 years and four months following a sentence handed down to him by the Birmingham Crown Court late last month after being found guilty of eight charges of indecent and sexual assault on the boys in Gilgil, and four for possessing indecent images of children.
At the beginning of his eight-week trial in October 2014, Harris admitted to six offences of abusing the Shebbear College boys in the 1980s. Trial Judge Phillip Parker said Harris would serve at least half of that sentence before being considered for parole.
But all this is almost surreal for many in the sleepy town of Gilgil, for, to them, Harris was the kind old mzungu social worker who crusaded for the education of the less-privileged — the reason no one in Gilgil raised an eyebrow when Harris started carrying dirty street boys around in his white Land Rover and taking them to his magnificent abode for a “warm bath” and a “hot meal”.
To Milka Muthoni, a grocery vendor in the town, Harris was an idol, the epitome of altruism.
“He preached the virtue of education and why all children, even the derelict, needed be in class,” she said last week. “We held him in very high esteem, and so it was hard to believe the story when it broke.”
Indeed, what the locals saw was exactly what Harris wanted them to see. The veneer was the rich opulence that the well-regarded figure shared with the less privileged boys; but beneath it was what can only be described as criminality beyond imagination.
Naked boys wrapped in towels
Nights in his house, according to Dom and Joe, usually featured little naked boys wrapped in towels, smoking bhang, cigarettes and bingeing on alcoholic beverages. As regular as clockwork, that bingeing always ended up in homosexual sex.
In this house — now only a shell of its former self — deeds that still haunt this town’s street boys took place.
Dom motions me to the bathroom, where a magnificent porcelain-enamelled steel bathtub rests, as if patiently awaiting the next visitor.
“It is here that it would all start,” Dom says, pointing at the tub as he walks over to try the taps. They have since run dry.
The cabin shelves where all the exotic shampoos and shower gels, fresh towels and flannels were once stacked are now piling on the dust.
“After arriving at the house, Simon (Dom calls the molester by his first name) would fill the tub with warm water and pour in sweet smelling soaps. Then he would scrub us; one by one,” he recalls with a painful smile.
“After the bath he would smell you and tell you ever so cheerfully; ‘You smell so good, I could eat you’.”
The boys, he recalls, would be wrapped in fresh towels after the bath, then they would go to the sitting room to eat and watch TV as they were entertained with all sorts of alcoholic drinks and smokes. If you wished, you could go to bed.
With a baleful look — one he has worn since we arrived here — Joe, a lean boy who was only seven when Harris started molesting him, nods in agreement. He is now 12, shy, hardly ever looks up and is constantly twiddling his fingers. It is clear the room is a troubling reminder of what he went through.
“He would turn you on your stomach and make you do bad things with him, and sometimes he would make you do it with your friends,” he says timidly when I prompt him as we walk in through a door at the end of the corridor.
Dom interjects: “This is his bedroom.” A tiny, single-size bed stands in the corner. Interestingly, the adjacent bedroom is bigger. It was the boys’ communal bedroom and has a giant bed and plenty of room where the boys would sleep on the floor in sleeping bags, according to Dom.
“Not coming to this house meant sleeping in town on a veranda, cold and hungry,” says Dom. “Every time I came here it was because I thought I could get here and refuse to do the bad things.”
Dom says that one day, when he was aged 10, the old man put the other boys to bed “and then brought me to his bed, unwrapped my towel and started touching me”.
“When I realised what was happening I jumped out of bed and got into a sleeping bag,” he says. “But then he came for me on the floor and said he would beat me and throw me to the dog outside. I was scared.
“He had oils that he would pour on you before he started,” he goes on, but then trails off a few seconds later. Words fail him.
The man favoured boys who were co-operative, and they were always rewarded by being brought home often and given more clothes.
Sometimes he would be with just one boy for as long as a week, other times he would stay for a week with groups of about 10 boys before taking them back to town and fetching a fresh lot.
Paedophile Simon Harris went on with his abhorrent activities for more than 20 years using charity work as a front to worm his way into the community’s heart.
The Birmingham Crown Court trying the case heard that there might be as many as 70 boys who are now living with the emotional and psychological scars of his actions.
When British police launched their investigation into his activities in Gilgil, 40 victims came forward alleging they had been abused, although only 11 gave evidence in order to make the trial more manageable.
Kelvin Lay, senior investigating officer from the National Crime Agency’s CEOP command, said Simon Harris is “one of the most prolific child sex offenders I have ever come across”, and that “the full scale of his offending may never be known”.
“He hoped that by targeting the most vulnerable children in a rural location in Africa, he would get away with it,” said Lay. “Given a culture of extreme taboo regarding homosexuality in Kenya, we think those who have testified are only a very, very small fraction of his total number of victims.”
Dom and Joe were some of those who gave evidence. In order to present their evidence in court, officers had to set up a makeshift and secret courtroom in a small hotel where the boys were subjected to examination and cross-examination through a translator over a video link to the court in Birmingham.
Used, degraded and humiliated
Tragically, during the investigations, some of Harris’ victims said older boys had also taken to molesting them.
The judge, while handing his verdict, said Harris’ victims had been left used, degraded, and humiliated, and that “the mental scars will almost certainly never heal”.
The body of one of his victims, a young boy named Michael Mburu, was found hanging from a tree outside the Green House in December last year.
Mburu lived in the boys’ quarters, metres from the main house, with his father, John Gichinga, who had been a watchman of Harris’ since he bought the property in 1993.
Mburu is said to have committed suicide on December 7, just a few days before the jury returned its verdict.
His charge that he was raped by Harris as a 15-year-old had been withdrawn midway through the trial because of a legal technicality over the time allowed in English law for when such accusations can be dealt with by a British court.
Although his testimony was not withdrawn as evidence — as it was considered a material part of both the prosecution and defence case — his father says after the news that his testimony had been withdrawn, Mburu started showing signs of stress.
“I never knew what was going on in that house because I never went in there,” says the old man, “It was my son who frequented it. He would be there till late in the night.”
To him, Harris was a jovial, kind man who loved to play football with the boys. In retrospect he regrets having ever allowed his son near the man.
“I have decided to launch a suit against him for the loss of my son,” he notes.
The abuses came to light in 2013, when Channel 4’s Unreported World travelled to Kenya to make a film about Restart Africa, a charity. During filming, producer-director Wael Dabbous discovered that some of the children they were filming were living in fear of a white British man called Simon Harris. Physical and sexual abuse were alleged.
Working with Dan Nderitu, a social worker at the Restart centre, Wael Dabbous began gathering evidence from street children who alleged they had been sexually abused by Harris. This information was passed on to the Kenyan authorities and the British police.
“In 2010 I reported to the local police that Harris was involved in some sinister stuff and should be investigated but nothing was done about it,” says Nderitu, who adds that he was disturbed when he caught Harris and the young boys smoking in his car once.
Meanwhile, in the UK the Channel 4 team established Harris was a registered sex offender, having served 15 months in a British jail for recording, buying and possessing child pornography.
He had subsequently been banned from working with children for life and travelling abroad after the 2009 conviction.
However, six months into the ban, Harris deceptively appealed the decision by presenting a dossier of letters from the Kenyan authorities to magistrates in Britain, claiming his activities would be monitored and he could safely be allowed to carry on visiting Kenya.
Having been successful in his appeal, he was left free to travel back and forth to Kenya, until he was eventually arrested in the UK in June 2013 by West Mercia Police.
Police were to later establish that while Kenyan officials did send letters, Harris rewrote or heavily doctored the original documents before presenting them to court. Curiously, also, British authorities were making checks with Kenyan officials to confirm they had sent the letters, but no check on the documents themselves.
In June 2013, a sting operation at Harris’s home by British and Kenyan police unearthed a collection of pictures and videos of naked boys.
That set off the trial in October 2014 in which Harris was prosecuted using legislation which allows British citizens to be tried for sex offences committed abroad against children if it is also an offence in that country.
“You assumed a hallowed position among the locals,” Judge Parker said when he read out the sentence to Harris.
“You designed your life to be close to boys — hence social work in education, because it provided a source of boys. But none of them knew you had a sexual motive.”
New resource to combat sexual exploitation by foreign social workers
This is not the first time a charity worker from overseas has been charged for indecent assault on Kenyan children.
American Matthew Lane Durham is accused of engaging in sex acts with as many as 10 children aged between four and 10 while volunteering at Upendo Children’s Home in Nairobi from April to June last year.
He has admitted before an Oklahoma court that he sexually abused boys and girls in a bathroom at the children’s home.
Because of the frequency of the cases, the British High Commission in Kenya, in conjunction with the command at the National Crime Agency (NCA), has launched a new resource to combat the sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the country by travelling British child sexual offenders.
Deputy Director of the UK Border Policing, Hank Cole, speaking in Nairobi recently on the establishment of the Child Protection Network to protect children and provide an early warning system when minors are at risk, said English nationals would now be vetted before they come to Kenya.
“As from January this year, we will issue a Child Protection Certificate for any British national that wishes to work in Kenya to ensure that they have no past records of child abuse and sexual offences” Mr Cole said.
The certificate will be a requirement for UK nationals seeking to work with children overseas, and is only issued once checks have been made against police information and intelligence databases.
It aims to provide reassurance that staff employed in schools and voluntary organisations do not have a UK criminal record that makes them unsuitable to work with children. The ICPC is already in use in several other countries around the world.