After the 7 months expectant university student from Migori county was murdered by what was alleged to be a sponsor (The Migori County governor has been charged with her murder and the case is still in court) NFD Dispatch conducted under the radar investigation, to gauge the level of impact so-called Sponsors may have on girls sent from the furthest corners of Northern Kenya to the city of many lights to seek for university education. ‘Sponsor’ is the tag-name given to mostly older, rich men or women, be they politicians, business people or professionals of many shades, who go after young students (mostly young females); students in schools or universities or young single (sometimes married) females for sexual exploitation. ‘Sponsors’ infamously known us sponyos by young girls, female university students and even cougars in the city has acquired a new meaning and dimension. It is now a threat to the very existence of the ‘vulnerable beneficiaries’. Following the shocking death of Sharon, the university medical records student who was brutally murdered and disemboweled because she was 7 months pregnant, we set out to see how much of this vice called sponsorship for sexual favours may have permeated girls from NFD.
The increasing trend of the infamous Sponyos or the older men who mainly target campus girls and other vulnerable young women for sexual favours has been getting more dangerous. Girls from NFD have of late been joining this dangerous gravy train in campus (Campos as they refer to it). Innocent in the first year of study, commonly called fresher, some are quickly swayed into the business by peer pressure, others by supposed luxuries awaiting them. Calling it ‘planet freedom’ (no one is there to monitor you one tells us) they do whatever they feel is right when they leave their homes for ‘Universities’.
A fresher, innocent and conservative young female begins to mingle and make friends with their slighlty older, supposedly more ‘refined’ 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students. In the 2nd year of studies, if at all they survive the numerous anti-social scenes, YOLO (You Only Live Once) kicks in before many throw caution to the wind as the financial straitjacket tightens further and the ‘free unsupervised’ life beckons. In little steps, the young ambitious girl begins removing the Hijab and puts on what they call ‘modern campus outfits’. “When you go to Rome do as the Romans do” is often a phrase you hear from giggling university girls as we mingle. The beginning of a journey where you either throw yourself into or dragged to the stigma-filled and dangerous sponsor business that has already claimed young Sharon’s life few months go. If the girl comes from Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Marsabit, Isiolo or even Tana River and hails from a humble family and financially struggling, she is almost always either renting a small cubicle or stays at the university’s hostels. Few stay with relatives. This grows into more daring incidences and keeps changing with time as peer pressure builds, finances dry up and the pristine urge to study and succeed is eclipsed by the urge of the city life. The city of many lights as the late humour columnist, Wahome Mutahi used to call it, confides some and the tide over powers them. This, according to some city social historians is how Koinange street night-life began.
At the campuses and in rented cubicles, we encounter some of the girls. Meet Alliyah*(not her real name) from NFD; young, exceptionally beautiful as most girls from NFD are, fully ‘Hijabed’. Alliyah is intelligent, bubbly and into politics. She is studying political economics and has ambitions of venturing into politics when she completes her studies. The obstacle is finance to survive the university and city life but nothing is going to stop her from achieving her dreams. Coupled with this burning desire is peer pressure and beautiful features that every fisi (hyena) will salivate to bed. She is nagged and pushed into a life of Vera Sadiki. A life of superfluous luxury and fraught with dangers, broken promises, unwanted pregnancies, numerous abortions and almost always dropping out of university. The fact Alliyah can not sustain the standard of life she thinks she deserves and hails from a far-off land and a financially challenged family, goads her into the the life of SPONYOS. A weekend in Mombasa, a day in Naivasha and another in one of the CBD and Eastleigh hotels, she is fully enjoying life outside classroom but making numerous calls back home to reassure her family that all is well with her studies.
Aliyah has visited most of the big restaurants in the name of meeting with politicians who are ‘mentors’…but she says nothing happens between them. ”She’s a Muslim and that will forever stay the same” says Aliyah .And so we ask her how she handles all the men without them asking for ‘favours’? ”I lie to them,I just play with their psychs and I survive the day. Some give up, others keep waiting for the promise. But I have never slept with any of them” She continues. after a long pause she says ”It’s a hard life to live but what choice am I left with”. More of a statement than a question.
Aliyah wants to become a politician and a very vocal and famous one at that after completing her studies. Completion that may not actually materialize as her new lifestyle stands in the way of good grades and a healthy one at that. Aliyah imagines a utopia where she excels in class despite not attending many and plunging into politics holding a glamorous political economics degree and becomes a famous female politician. In the meantime, she continues with her sponyo lifestyle giving favours for holidays at the Coast and pocket money.
As we converse with Aliyah, Fatuma*, a friend wants to know what it is we are discussing. She joins the conversation hesitantly but then reveals more than she may have intended. She says it is not a choice but she indulges once in a while when finances are tight! ”You see all these suited, honourable-looking politicians, they are all cheap pimps salivating after young girls” Fatuma says. ”Most are as old as our dads but they behave worse than our teenage boys” she continues. She admits she uses them like her ATM machine but with a lot of regrets. With her illicit wealth, Fatuma is thrown into confusion in campus. She wants to contest a seat in the university but her voters demand for ‘Guarana or Kanyweso” as they call it in campus. Professing Islam as her faith she finds herself torn between buying her voters the illicit drinks or losing their votes. She does the buying. ”I am living a life of regret for doing so” she says. To confirm, we ask Fatuma what makes her live in regret; the buying of the illict drinks for her voters or the sponyos life she is indulging? She gazes in the air and does not say anything. Maybe the question provoked her thoughts and we hope against hope she will think long and hard about the dangers lurking therein.
We ask Fatuma about the sponyo lifestyle and anything in particular that may have attracted her to it. At first she was hard to crack but in the end she tells us that she needed the money. Her parents cannot afford and has to find other means to afford the life she wants away from the eyes of her parents, relatives and friends. ”Sponyo is at her beck and call” she says. Conscious of the pitfalls of her lifestyle she says as an afterthought ”I will repent later and Allah is aware of my struggles”.
When Sharon was murdered allegedly by her sponyo, a top KCPE candidate in her day who had a sponsor ( the traditional sponsor, a different kind of sponsor) has sent her a posthumous letter.
I too had a sponsor. In 1986, I was the top candidate nationally in the KCPE. Actually, if I may brag a little bit here, I still don’t think that my record has ever been surpassed.
Anyway, back to my story. Larry Hart, an American tourist traveling in Kenya at the time that the results were published saw my name in the paper, and asked the staff at the Norfolk Hotel, where he was staying, if they knew my family. Luckily, one of them did, and called my father who was then a teacher at Nyeri Primary. I remember that it was one of my first trips to Nairobi, and when we met with Larry, I kept kicking my father under the table, because he was actually agreeing to a proposal for me to leave Kenya, at the age of 13, to attend a high school in the United States!
So, at 13 my father and I traveled to Wallingford, Connecticut, and I registered at Choate Rosemary Hall, which to this day is still one of America’s most elite high schools. The tuition fee back then, if I am not wrong, US$30,000 per year (shillings 3 million). Only the best and the richest could attend. Larry paid my fees, supported me with out of pocket expenses, and paid for my ticket home every year. Larry and his wife Sally did not have children, but over the years, they had sponsored deserving young people. Unfortunately, Sally passed away very soon after I went to the US. She barely knew me, but she left me $15,000 in her will, which Larry invested in US Treasury bills for me.
In 1991, I graduated top of my class at Choate Rosemary Hall, and Yale University gave me a full scholarship. Larry was so excited and was such a proud ‘grandfather’ that he bought me a ticket to fly around the world. I remember the itinerary- I started in San Francisco, went to Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, then Germany, before ending up in Nairobi! I was 17 years old, and I had already seen the world.
Larry kept supporting me (that is what sponsors do), although frankly I no longer really required that support. You see, I was a full time student, but I still worked 40 hours a week (in the cafeteria, cleaning rooms, I even cleaned toilets!) Why did I work? Because I had a family to support back at home. Like you, I wanted to support my family. Those were the Moi years, after all. However, despite my 40 hour work load, I still graduated Cum Laude- with top honors- from Yale University.
When Larry first met me in Nairobi in 1986, he had asked me what I wanted to be. I said I wanted to be a lawyer, in Kenya. After Yale, we discussed how we could best accomplish that feat, and he suggested that I go to the UK. Unfortunately, the Brits were not as generous as the Americans, so the University of London did not give me a scholarship. Larry paid the fees for my LLM degree. He also gave me a credit card with a limit of $25,000. Essentially, as a 21 year old, I could have gone into Marshalls Kenya (back then) and bought a brand new car, and driven it out. Actually, I did just that (not the driving bit, because I failed driving school), but that is a story for another day.
Sharon, a sponsor does not have to get something for giving something. Larry got his full reward for being able to brag to everyone he met about his Kenyan protégé. By now, you must have figured out that Larry was a very wealthy man. He was a multi-millionaire, who did good things with his money.
You may be wondering if I have ‘paid back’. Yes I did. If you were still alive, I would tell you to talk to Ken Opalo, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and he would tell you what role I played for him to get there.
Rest in peace, Sharon. In Kenya, we have a way of corrupting all good things. Sponsors are supposed to be good people.”
To you my people in Kenya: Yes… Sponsors are supposed to be good people. It’s only the devil who wants something back in return. Kenya has no sponsors, Kenya is full of Red Devils. Run away from their evil money – coz they will kill you, kill your unborn baby, kill your family and everyone who cares about you. Eat your problems and keep praying – God will send a REAL Sponsor to you one day – For free expecting you to do exactly the same to someone else – For free.. Rip Sharon. Shalom.
That was a very loaded letter sent to the late Sharon. As much as our girls have the responsibility to preserve their dignity and the right to pursue education, we the parents and relatives have more responsibility to guard them from evil, care for them and not expose them to dangers. The safety and dignity of our young girls should not be sacrificed at the alter of pursuing education. Many girls come from Garissa to Nairobi to pursue their education in various university campuses in the city while the fully fledged Garissa University that could accord them the same education in a safer environment where they revert to their parents’ homes after classes is right in the middle of the town. While indulging in evil is a choice that does not necessarily depend on location, it is a lot less safer in an environment like the city of Nairobi. While some of the physical impact of the abuse girls go through in a big city like Nairobi may be visible, the emotional and long term psychological effect is less so but more impactful. We may be ruining their lives in the name of educating them. The world over, the relatively new phenomena of ‘University education’ is overrated and much misplaced. The lessons we learn should aid us benefit our children. They say experience is the best teacher and for many decades what was becoming ever more apparent is the realization that one need not go to class to learn. It is more obvious today in the era of online studies where someone with a little support system around them can pursue better quality education from their sitting room armed with only a computer, books and internet connection. The well being of our children is more important than risking their lives in the pursuit of elusive education.
The somalis have a saying hawar karis xun idana kaal ku leh. We will be aiding and abetting a sexually permissive society that does not shy away from evil. We must come together to keep our girls away from tempting situations and find a solution to this problem.