It is 4.30am. As the rest of the city drags itself from sleep, Kiamaiko Market in Nairobi is abuzz with activity.
At an open field, business is booming and around 20 trucks are parked. On one side, women with makeshift eateries are busy making tea, chopping vegetables and preparing for the long day. On the other side, the bleating of goats rents the air. A group of about 20 people cluster the goats into groups under the cover of darkness.
Behind the veneer of normalcy lurks a little dirty secret: the market, situated around eight kilometres from the capital, runs on the sweat of young boys, aged between seven and 15 years old, trafficked from Ethiopia.
Abdi Youssef is one of them. He came to Kenya when he was seven. He is now 27.
“My uncle brought me to Nairobi when I was seven. He told my parents that he would take me to Kenya to educate me.
I saw how other people who came to Kenya returned to build homes for their parents and I convinced them to let me go. Life here was completely different. My uncle brought me to Kiamaiko and sent me to work at the slaughterhouses.
Every day he would demand the money I made and give me just enough for food. At the end of the month, he would send my parents Sh1,000,” he says.
On average Youssef made Sh1,000 a day and his employer took Sh800 and gave him Sh200 for food and other expenses.
Youssef says he was brought in together with other 10 boys, smuggled in trucks with the goats. The trucks have two compartments; the goats are kept on top, and on the lower compartment, separated by thick sticks, the boys huddled together.
Once they arrived, their job was to receive goats, take them to Kiamaiko Slaughterhouse as early as 3.00am and clean the market for Sh10. As they grew older, they slaughtered goats for Sh20 per head.
Adapting to life
At first, they slept in the same sheds as the goats, with the doors securely locked to keep them from escaping.
Over time, they made enough money to rent rooms where they lived as many as five boys.
Despite this tough life, they don’t want to leave the area at all: they have become addicted to working in the slaughterhouses.
“Life here is difficult. When I was younger, our master used to beat us up if we attempted to hide money from him.
We could hardly afford to buy food or clothes. The masters sodomised some of the boys and beat them up. They had no choice but to bear it,” said Youssef.
He is now married to a Kenyan and does not know any other home other than the market. He rarely ventures out of the area because he does not have papers.
Khamed Negasi was brought into Kiamaiko when he was just 11, lured with the promise of a better life, only to endure untold suffering at the hands of his master.
“One of the traffickers came to our home in Ethiopia and promised me a better life in Kenya. What I found here was completely different. At one point I tried to run away but my master had me arrested and put in jail until I agreed to go back and work for him.
With time, I was able to make my way around and find a new employer. Now I cannot go back home because I have made a life for myself here. I’m now 30 years old and married to a Kenyan girl. We have two children,” he said.
Like Negasi, some survivors learn Swahili and adapt to the lifestyle, and even negotiate and work with new employers on their own terms. Others get into the trafficking business, creating a vicious circle of abuse and exploitation.
Francis Mutuku from the Counter Human Trafficking Trust East Africa says trafficking is rife on all porous border points around Kenya and since 1990, thousands of Ethiopian boys and girls have been trafficked through Moyale Border to Nairobi.
“It involves a complex web of actors, mainly communities living on both sides of the border, brokers who identify final destinations, transporters, security agencies for protection and the end clients who victims are delivered to.
The problem is more pronounced on the Ethiopian side due to ‘structured’ recruitment, transportation, disposal of victims and the attendant abuse,” he said.
Investigations by The People Daily reveal the travails of the trafficked boys such as Youssef and Negasi. At the slaughterhouses, the boys do backbreaking work: slaughtering animals, cleaning the market and calling out to customers.
Some of them are hardly seven years old and cannot even speak Swahili. Sometimes they herd animals as far as Kasarani in Nairobi.
The slaughterhouse and the human trafficking trade have spawned an economy in the area, where several flats have sprouted. Traffickers use the money from the boys to build houses and later rent them out to older boys who are able to make their way around.
The Trafficking in Persons Report 2019 by the US Department of State states that traffickers often deceive parents living in rural areas in Ethiopia to send their children to major cities to work as domestic workers.
“The trafficker promise families that the children will go to school and receive wages for their work, thereby enabling them to send money home,” it says.
Kenya, being a source, destination and transit point for victims of human trafficking, is one of the cities many of these young boys come to eke out a living.
Mariam Habiba, the Kenyan-Ethiopian human rights activist, has tried to fight the vice in Kiamaiko for years.
Her grandmother was one of the women given land in Kiamaiko by President Jomo Kenyatta in 1966 and as an inhabitant, she has witnessed the suffering the boys and girls trafficked from Ethiopia go through.
Bribes and warnings
The trafficked girls some as young as eight years are often married off to the trafficker or one of his relatives or forced to work as domestic workers. The trucks are also a conduit to bring in bhang from Sheshemani and small arms.
Habiba’s attempts have all failed, as she is often confronted with the harsh reality of a well-connected network of traffickers willing to go to any lengths to bring the boys to Kenya.
In 2012, she tried to trace the trafficking route from Ethiopia, Moyale Isiolo, Nyeri or Nyanyuki to Nairobi. She boarded one of the trucks carrying the boys, girls and the weapons.
“The boys were put in trucks with two compartments. The first was carrying sacks of beans while the boys were hidden in the same compartment. They were crying throughout the trip begging to be let out.
Some were unable to breathe because of the heat and when we reached Marsabit, I alerted police at one of the checkpoints. The truck was driven into a police station. To my surprise, I was the one who was arrested and the truck was allowed to proceed,” she said.
Habiba was freed a day later without any charges. In 2009, she alerted police and a major swoop was conducted in Kiamaiko.
A day later, she went to the police station to inquire what would happen to the boys, only to be told they were set free. She claims that their masters walked into the station and “bribed” to get their slaves back.
“I was told the cell did not have enough room to hold the boys and their masters had come for them. They paid a thousand for each and on that day, the police officers made more than Sh200,000,” she claimed.
Contacted for a comment, Police spokesperson Charles Owino said he could not discuss the issue until they conduct independent investigations. “We will first have to carry out preliminary investigations before I can give you an official statement. Give me some time,” he said.
Kenya is placed at Tier Two in the Trafficking in-person report 2019, which means that although it still does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of the vice, it has made significant efforts to fight to traffic.
“Traffickers sometimes fraudulently obtained identity documents from complicit officers and police often took bribes to warn traffickers of impending operations and investigations,” the report said. *Names of the victims have been changed to protect the identity of the victims