On edge and panicked, Wairegi* listened to the slamming door and the approaching footsteps of his father. Wairegi never understood why his father never liked him.
He would torment and ridicule him about his grades and behavior, and yell at him for the most mundane things; nothing Wairegi ever did was good enough.
Wairegi was six-years old when his father started hitting him, hard.
“My dad could not tell me anything gently,” recalls Wairegi. “He would magnify a small mistake and use a whip on me; the beating was terrible. I thought, why is he doing this to me? I did not have a sense of belonging in my family; I wondered why I had to be born in a family where I was rejected,” he says.
For months, Wairegi bottled up feelings of loneliness and sadness without disclosing to anyone. Once a bright student and among the top of his class, Wairegi lost his zeal for school and his performance plummeted. The violence was deeply affecting his mental health.
“I was going through a lot of pain at that time. I took painkillers here and there but the headaches would not stop,” says Wairegi. “I was just a stressed up kid.”
“I came home from school one day feeling low – very low. I was home alone,” Wairegi adds. “There was a bottle with kerosene on the shelf and I took a gulp or two, then I lay there waiting for anything to happen. I pretended everything was okay when my mum came in the evening. To date she does not know about it…”
After a long pause, he says; “I thought maybe the paraffin would mess up something inside my body, the intestines or other vital organs which would end up killing me. But it did not affect me in any way; I just remember the bad taste.”
Finding a happier life with support
Wairegi is now 19; he says years of therapy have made it easier for him to talk about his childhood. He lives with his mother, Salome, and younger brother. The family moved into a two-roomed house in Mwiki, a suburb on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital to get away from the violence and find peace.
Wairegi was 13 years old when his mother took him to SOS Children’s Village family strengthening programme for counselling. “I was a happy person who had suddenly gone quiet. She knew something was wrong.”
“I did not know how to protect my own son from the beatings,” says 34-year-old Salome. “My husband beat him every day until a neighbour complained.” Salome was herself suffering domestic violence at the hand of her alcoholic husband and Wairegi had witnessed it many times.
At SOS Children’s Village family strengthening, Wairegi found Josephine Rombo, a community development worker and trained counsellor. His first visit was short but he kept going back week after week because he needed to talk to her about how he was feeling and thinking.
“The more time we spent talking, the more I discovered that he was very depressed,” explains Josephine. “The depression was hurting him so much and he was not letting go of past events of his childhood – what he called violence and rejection from his father towards him. The funny thing is that Wairegi loved his father and he was looking for that father figure to create the bond between father and son. He pursued it but the more he tried to cling to the father the more he physically and verbally assaulted him,” she says.
Violence against children
Violence greatly undermines the mental health of children, which could result in a long-term mental health condition.
The 2019 Violence against Children Survey in Kenya found that physical violence is the most common form of childhood violence, mostly done by parents or caregivers. It affects two out of every five females and half of males. Globally, the World Health Organization (2020 figures) estimates that 1 billion children aged 2-17 years old have experienced physical, sexual, emotional violence or neglect in 2020.
One of the targets in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to end all forms of violence against children.
Wairegi admits that experiencing violence robbed him a vital part of his childhood and of his life. “The abuse turned me into a silent fearful person. I could not speak up for fear people would judge how I express myself and that took away opportunities from me. It slowed me down. If I had not gone through a difficult childhood, I would be a very different person.”
Healing and the future
Wairegi’s crushing burden felt easier after many sessions of therapy, then more sessions with his mother and the counsellor.
Josephine has encouraged Wairegi to patch things up with his father, and get the reasons behind the violence to get closure. “My relationship with my father is shaky,” says Wairegi. He sighs and looks down at his hands.
“We are not there yet. But I can say my relationship with my father has been better for the last five months than it has been for the last 18 years.”
With education support from the SOS family strengthening programme, Wairegi is a second year student at a local university studying a diploma in information and technology. It has taken him years of therapy to achieve what he calls “90 percent healing.” He continues to have sessions with his counsellor on phone, WhatsApp or face to face until he is fully restored to himself.
“When I have that load completely off my back, I can be free and freedom is what I am going for. When I am happy and confident, then I will have something to offer the people around me. That is what I want to do. If it were not for the inspiration, the talking, and the opening up of the heart, I would be in a bad place. Maybe I would have ended my life back there. Now I have the courage to face my fears, the courage to wake up in the morning and to speak up.”
*Name changed for privacy reasons