All Anne* wanted when she left her poor home in rural Kenya after finishing high school in 2014 was to make some money in Nairobi so she could go back, clear her fees, and redeem her certificate so she could apply for college.
But in late 2016, she hadn’t made enough money yet. She was still living in a low-income neighbourhood of Nairobi with her elder sister, who worked at a local restaurant to support her family, alcoholic husband included. Moreover, Anne was pregnant. The father of the child, a college student, threatened to abandon her if she didn’t abort. In short, life had put her in a corner, and she didn’t have too many choices.
Desperate, and with time running out, she turned to her friends, asking them to help her procure an abortion. In the process, she stumbled upon Katherine, an Australian lady, on Facebook. She referred Anne to another lady back in Nairobi.
Katherine had never met the woman, didn’t even know her name; she had extracted the phone number from a Facebook page. When Anne called, she was greeted by a lyrical voice belonging to a senior woman who introduced herself as Domitila and set up a meeting with her.
Anne went to the meeting expecting to be rid of her baby. Instead, Domitila persuaded her not to abort, telling her that it would not only harm her body, but that it would amount to taking away innocent life. Furthermore, Domitila offered to support her if she had any difficulties keeping the baby. Anne capitulated and decided to carry her pregnancy to term.
She continued to stay with her sister. However, as her pregnancy became even more noticeable, her sister and boyfriend became even more uncomfortable with the fact. So, to keep her safe from them until she delivers, which might happen somewhere in early June, Domitila now hosts her in a little house she owns inside Kibera, that infamous slum at the heart of Nairobi.
There, Anne stays with another girl, Jackie*, who has two children. Jackie grew up in Kibera with her parents, both of whom are now dead. When she discovered she was pregnant with her second child, she strongly considered getting an abortion. But Domitila, to whom she is related and who had somehow come to substitute her parents, made her aware of its dangers and persuaded her to reconsider.
She decided to keep the baby. Her first child has started school, and she has now applied to college and will be starting classes soon. Last year, together with a group of young men and women from the neighbourhood, she completed a short course on pro-life work and now moves through schools in the slum imparting morals to the youth.
Saving the unborn
Last year, a video was posted on YouTube featuring the story of Domitila Ayot, the little 68-year-old woman at the centre of this story. In it, she talks of her work, which has seen her assist many girls – like Anne and Jackie – to keep their babies against incredible temptations and social pressure to abort.
“It was normal to see an aborted baby lying in sewage,” Domitila says in the video of the slum. When I met her in her daughter’s house just outside Kibera in late March, where she now stays, she added more detail to this gruesome truth.
Once aborted, the babies would be wrapped in polythene bags and thrown next to the railway, under the bridge, or in the many open sewers of Kibera amidst the slum’s famous flying toilets (human waste wrapped in polythene bags and thrown out at night).
“The one that shocked me most was to see an aborted baby inside a clear polythene bag dangling among the little branches of a shrub,” she said, cringing.
It disturbed her so much, she says, that she decided to do something about it. She started doing pro-life work with Marianist Brothers in the slum and later got attached to the Catholic Parish there. It was through this work that Domitila made a reputation for herself as a zealous defender of life.
She had her way with the girls, combining truth and a firm resolve with a mother’s tenderness. In most cases, she convinced the girls to change their minds. When she stepped aside a few years ago, wishing to retire, she had made too many connections to have her peace.
Calls kept coming in. Doctors with disturbed pregnant patients. Pregnant girls thrown out by their parents. Neighbours of confused pregnant women. And girls in need of help who got her contact details from strangers on the internet. From all parts of the city. In the end, she decided to get back in the fray and joined together with other people to start St Martin’s Crisis Pregnancy Centre.
She says she tries to help solve the problem in each case; because each case is different. Sometimes it’s just a matter of calming the natural indignation parents feel when they discover their daughter is pregnant, or reassuring sponsors that the girl can resume her education once she delivers. Sometimes she has to provide material means – baby clothing, food and the other assorted goods that women know best – to make the prospects of motherhood more manageable for the girls.
And sometimes, as in the mentioned case, it involves taking the girl completely out of an environment that may induce her to have an abortion until and after she has delivered and things have cooled down. She follows up on them long after they have left, and enlists their help with other girls. It’s a little community that’s growing each day.
A pillar of the community
After the meeting in her daughter’s house, she offered to show me the house where Anne now stays. As we walked into the slum through one of its eastern entrances, I couldn’t help but notice the simplicity with which she eased herself into its labyrinthine alleyways and human commotion.
It had rained a bit the previous night, and we had to squeeze around patches of black mush, a mixture of mud and waste. We skipped over bundles of green and purple plastic water pipes, owned by cartels for ferrying water from the city council outlets on the edges of the settlement to sell to the residents deep inside.
At almost every turn, some person or other would call out to Domitila. Many people. Mostly women. The woman selling peeled fruits next to the railway line; the other lady sitting outside her house cradling a baby; the girl who had just walked out of the new recording studio abutting the road which she had built with her friends.
They all said hi, and asked how she was. She lingered to talk to some; to others she waved back a joyful hi. To the recording studio girl, she said – half-joking and half-serious – that she would soon need some of the money from the profits.
She led me through one more alleyway, hemmed in by mud walls and darkened by a low-lying iron sheet roof overhang, to a house set off a little from the road. The house had mud walls on the outside; inside, the walls were plastered and the floor was tiled. A tarpaulin sign hanging on the wall opposite the door had the picture of a woman cuddling a baby under the text “Edel Quinn Centre of Hope.” Edel Quinn was an Irish lay missionary who died of Tuberculosis, contracted in her native Ireland, while working in Nairobi in 1944.
Anne was sitting at a desk next to the wall on the right when we walked in. She was twiddling with a pen, on a break from writing something on a piece of paper spread before her. Her eyes brightened when she saw Domitila walk in, then fell somewhat when she saw me. But she recovered quickly and, when Domitila walked through a second door to the room in the back and left us to talk, she comfortably told me her story, with which I introduced this article.
She had been staying in the centre for slightly over a week, she said, and was liking it there. She had even gotten to know the neighbours, and would frequently chat with them. She didn’t know if she would have a boy or a girl when her time came, but she told me that she had made a few inquiries of Dr Google and thought it would most likely be a boy.
As she spoke, she had a ready smile that conveyed a certain sense of relief; things wouldn’t be as bad as she had initially thought. She had escaped the dangers of abortion, which she had feared. We talked about a few more seemingly trivial things before Domitila walked back from the other room, bringing with her Jackie, the other girl staying in the centre, to whom it had fallen to take care of Anne.
Before she moved out in 2009, Domitila lived in Kibera. In fact, she was one of its very first residents, when there was still space between the houses and shrubs had room to grow; she moved in with her husband in 1979 when the slum was just starting to sprout around Nairobi Dam.
She knows her way through it like the back of her hand. And because she has seen most of them move and settle in, she knows a lot of the residents, knows their problems; mundane things like when their first-born has problems eating, when their house stands in need of repair or the husband becomes abusive.
It is the kind of knowledge that bureaucrats sitting in posh offices in foreign capitals would do well to acquire before pushing abortion and contraceptives the way they do in the slum.
The impact of ‘reproductive health’
Everywhere I turned I saw signs reading “Family Planning” on shop fronts. Some even offer “Organic Family Planning.” The international abortion behemoth, Marie Stopes, has a clinic right on the edge of the slum. Its outreach program has tentacles all over the settlement, where it promotes contraceptives and clandestinely solicits abortions.
“They even grab your arm and drag you towards their tents when you walk by,” Jackie told me. “And when you tell them you are not interested, they look at you as if you just insulted them.”
Sadly, their efforts seem to be working with the poor of Kibera. “Some girls in the slum… it’s like they have a cooperative. When one gets pregnant, they all contribute money to finance her abortion,” Jackie continued her narrative, giving voice to the level of decadence that has been visited on this neighbourhood.
It is easy for Marie Stopes and organisations like it to describe this as “choice” and “reproductive health” for the most vulnerable women on their slick websites. It surely cannot be anything other than that; certainly not the offensive notion that the poor are less worthy of their human nature and would do the world a big favour if they stopped breeding like rabbits.
At the end of my visit, as she gave me directions for getting out of the slum – I had forgotten the way – I asked Domitila how she finances all her work. “By the grace of God,” she replied, laughing easily. “Sometimes a friend sends something. Sometimes I have to use the money my children send me for my upkeep… you see, I’m an old woman now; I get money from my children.” She stopped to give another hearty laugh. “But one thing I know is that, whenever we have needed money, God has been gracious enough to send something just in time.”
Walking across the railway line on the way out, I couldn’t help but remember that, just the other day, the Dutch elicited commitments for more than $250 million for women’s health – a term now used to mean abortion and little else – in the developing world. A mere fraction of a percentage of a portion of that amount, if it fell into the hands of a woman like Domitila, would achieve far more good than all the abortions in the world ever will.
But then again, without abortion poor women don’t really have a choice. Or do they?
* The girls’ names have been changed for their privacy. Likewise, some details have been omitted to aid this.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.