Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast has stunning beaches and is often seen as a tropical paradise, attracting thousands of foreign tourists every year.
Unseen, however, are villages where children are trapped in a cycle of exploitation as they seek to fend for their parents and siblings.
Child exploitation is endemic in Kwale and Kilifi counties, where a chunk of the population lives below the poverty line.
Some roam the beaches, becoming targets of sex predators, while others are willing to try their hand at fishing in the rough ocean waters.
The children have abandoned school, losing out on an important stage in their lives.
During a visit to Maweni, Mwaroni and Kibuyuni villages in Kwale, the Saturday Nation interacted with several children who have been exploited sexually.
On the opposite end in Kilifi, the story is strikingly similar.
While some are coerced by their parents to help put food on the table, peer pressure is the other reason pushing children aged 10 and 17 to the hands of local and foreign tourists.
Some relatives also exploit the youngsters.
Those exploiting children include boda-boda operators, taxi and truck drivers, matatu operators, fishermen and small-scale traders.
Orphans, children heading households, those with sick parents and minors from single-parent families are the most vulnerable.
The exploitation mainly takes place in bars, homes, nightclubs, disco halls, lodgings, video dens, fishing villages, on streets, at boda-boda and matatu stages and in homes that produce and sell illicit liquor.
Ann*, from Maweni, dropped out of school five years ago.
She did not want to but was pulled into working on the streets because her younger siblings and HIV-positive mother were desperate for food and other basics. Her father died in 2002.
One evening, when she was just 12, she went to the beach and ended up sleeping with a white man, who gave her Sh500.
The following day, Ann returned to the beach and it appeared like her mother was happy when she brought the money home.
Days, weeks and months passed. She never stopped. During low tourist seasons, she slept with beach boys, who paid her Sh100.
Men who paid for sex knew she was desperate.
Ann would at times sleep with five strangers per day.
She has been exploited by not less than 50 men — the ones she remembers.
Some were violent. She recalled an evening when one spiked her drink, raped her overnight and dropped her off by the road unconscious.
Ann was rescued from the streets by Kesho Kenya, an organisation fighting the exploitation of children. She was enrolled in a technical institute for a hairdressing course.
Counsellors say stories like Ann’s have become common.
Social worker Jane Karisa said Kilifi and Kwale are greatly affected.
“Women tell their children to go out and look for money for the family. The children naturally are being exploited,” she said.
Peer pressure and the need for material things drives children into the trade too. Friends with expensive clothes or shoes show them where and how to get the items.
Many a time, girls are taken to Sengeli dances, especially in Makongeni and Msambweni. They are trained to dance in seductive ways.
The children use the skills to entice men in exchange for food or sanitary towels. A child may get as little as Sh50.
Seventeen-year-old Kelvin* looks like an average boy but has a dark past.
“I completed primary school last year. My dream was to be an engineer but I scored just 187 marks in the KCPE examination. If only I can be sponsored to a technical institute,” he said.
Kelvin frequented the beach in his early teens where he met a tourist, who introduced him to drugs.
“He used to give me money and promised to take me to Germany if I cleared secondary school. The drugs almost destroyed me. I want nothing to do with him,” he said.
Khadija*, now 15, was introduced to commercial sex at just 13. She says her stepmother refused to provide her with basics.
“Go get money from men,” her stepmother would shout at her.
The sex work earned her Sh500 daily. Khadija cannot remember the number of men she has had sex with.
For Amina*, a broken family drove her to the streets. Her parents separated when she was seven. She followed her mother when her stepmother began harassing her.
“My mother was poor and we could go for days without a meal. Most men know a desperate child and will not use condoms during sex,” Amina said.
At 16, she became pregnant and gave birth after completing the KCPE exam.
“I need support but my father says he can only give me food. I have gone back to school,” she said.
The four children are among dozens of others being supported by Kesho Kenya.
The organisation offers psychosocial support and counselling to victims and those at risk of exploitation and enrols them in school. They are screened for any ailment.
Ms Karisa says among the 35 girls in the programme, some have HIV and are on medication.
Ms Grace Marura, a counsellor at Kesho Kenya, says sexual exploitation of children is real.
“We must stop burying our heads in the sand and end this problem,” she said.
The situation is the same in Kilifi, only that most of these children have turned to the ocean and pools.
When Rueben Katana, 13, was sent home for Sh250 in tuition fee, he joined his fishing friends in Magarini.
The Saturday Nation found the boy in the company of his six friends, aged between six and 15, on the Mjanaheri-Ngomeni road.
They fish in pools left by salt extraction firms. Standing barefoot in the middle of the pool, Katana leads the band of boys with a hook, line and sinker. He has a bag for the catch.
“When I arrived home, my parents said they did not have the Sh250 demanded by the school,” the Standard Four pupil said.
His friend Dickson Kahindi said he can make up to Sh400 “on a good day”.
“Nobody wants to do this but we must support our families,” he said.
About 10 kilometres from Mjanaheri is Ras Ngomeni, an old village where about 60 per cent of its fishermen are school dropouts.
Ras Ngomeni also hosts the San Marco space station and has a Kenya Navy camp.
Ngomeni Beach Management Unit (BMU) chairman Farouk Amin admits that most of the children who drop out of school take to fishing.
“Their parents cannot afford school fees so they have to make ends meet,” he said.
Mr Amin added that the BMU does not allow children in the ocean and that they are usually driven away by members of the Kenya Coast Guard Service.
Magarini education chief Josephat Ngumi said the region faces many challenges, ranging from poor school infrastructure to teacher shortage.
“Parents must invest in the education of their children. Many are used to free things,” he said, adding that this year, the government only sent five teachers to the sub-county that has 14 public schools.
Mr Ngumi said the Sh300 paid by every pupil is used to settle salaries for teachers hired by schools.
“Schools employ teachers to address shortages. Parents have been told that basic education is free but that does not mean they should not support schools whenever there is a need,” he says.
“Once we tell parents not to pay anything, it will mean the children will be in schools that have no teachers, chalk and other learning materials.”
Reported by Eunice Murathe, Brian Wachira, Winnie Atieno and Charles Lwanga