THE GIRL THEY DIDN’T LOVE – A STORY OF ABUSE, COVER-UP, AND A SILENT BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF KENYA’S OSHWAL COMMUNITY
By John-Allan Namu
A criminal case currently before the Chief Magistrate’s Court is drawing back the curtain on two years of an alleged cover-up of serious abuse from within a community built on the exact opposite. At the heart of this case is a six-year-old girl called Alika* (name changed to protect her identity as she is a minor). This series of reports is based on sworn affidavits filed in Kenya’s criminal court and a number of interviews conducted with parties close to the case.
She is a minor whose search for justice has silently made its way through Kenya’s judicial system. From the Children’s Court to the High Court and now, to the Criminal Court. Alika’s case is a special one, because it essentially pits her, a sliver of a six-year-old, against her parents. Yet this case has every reason to be heard. Alika’s case file carries a series of photographs profiling abuse that she has endured, silently, for years. They were presented in court, and they are horrendous.
Bijal Shah, the headmistress at Alika’s school, took these photographs between February and March 2015. They are now a part of the evidence in a case where Alika’s parents have been accused of physically abusing her for years. In an affidavit presented to the court, Bijal claims that she first met the young girl in November of 2014, when Alika’s mother and her physiotherapist came to the school seeking their daughter’s admission.
“The therapist and the mother said that they would like Alika to attend the school as the child was coming home with very many injuries from her previous school.”
Soon after, Alika was admitted to this new school as a special needs child. However, it wasn’t long before Bijal also started observing that Alika would come to school with an array of injuries. One particularly bad wound seems to have set alarm bells off for Bijal.
“…A chunk of flesh was missing in Alika’s* mouth – inside her cheek – and there was turmeric applied around in that area of the mouth – she was in pain and couldn’t eat.”
Bijal had seen this pattern before. In an interview done months before the start of this case, Bijal told me of a painful incident in which a child around the same age as Alika would come to school with terrible burns. Her inquiries with the child’s parents didn’t bear fruit, as the child was withdrawn from her school. She seems to have learnt from this experience, as she asked a colleague to also take a look at Alika’s* mouth. From then on, she knew that she had to start documenting the evidence of Alika’s abuse, not that there were signs that it was going to stop.
Bijal claims that she started digging into the girl’s past. According to her sworn affidavit, Bijal spoke to the headmistress at Alika’s former school, a Visa Oshwal school.
“Alika used to arrive at the school with injuries from home.” This was the report she received from Alika’s former school, flying in the face of her parents reason for placing her in Bijal’s school.
A pattern of abuse, it would seem, was emerging, except for one key fact. Alika has a twin sister, who, according to Bijal’s statement and other interviews I conducted, is the picture of health. According to Alika’s mother, there is no pattern, but a set of unfortunate accidents beginning with a fall when Alika was just 10 months old.
“…She fell from the sofa set and she was injured in the left side of her brain, which resulted in the right side of her body getting paralysed. At the same time, the doctor responded that the child was epileptic since birth.”
This was Alika’s mother’s first mention of why her daughter would constantly bear scratches and scars in her affidavit. Bijal’s day to day reports of what she saw spoke to a more sadistic narrative, written in staccato statements as if to underline the pattern she was seeing:
“Bruise on chest.
Bruise on hips.
Right side of the shoulder was painful and we could not hold her on the right side,” her affidavit reads.
Through a former member of the Hindu Council of Kenya, Bijal reached out to the then Vice Chairman of the Oshwal Committee, Mr. Narendra Shah. Shah also headed the Oshwal Education Relief Board, which has a role in the management of all Oshwal schools.
Shah paid Bijal a visit, and was shown the photos that Bijal had taken of Alika up to that point.
“What I saw shocked me. I am not a doctor so I would not know, but her teacher said that these were not normal injuries,” Shah told me during a phone call in mid-May this year.
“My personal opinion is that these were inflicted injuries. This is what you may call abuse,” he added.
At the time, Bijal claimed that Narendra Shah said that he would speak to the Oshwal Committee about what he had seen, and get back to her. She continued to document Alika’s injuries.
Bijal’s list of Alika’s injuries now read like a novel. But one of them put things beyond the pale.
“On 26th February 2015 Alika came to school with horrific injuries. She had whip marks across her thighs. There was blood on her ears and inside it. She had bruises on her mouth and nose. She had dried up blood in her nostrils. She had what appeared to be strangulation marks on her neck. Whip marks on her arms and shoulder.”
Upon asking Alika’s parents about the bruises and scars, she received a response that she wasn’t quite expecting.
“The child normally used to come home from school with minor bruises which we asked the school to give us an explanation but the school failed to do so,” reads Alika’s mother’s statement.
Alika’s mother’s affidavit would make reference to these same injuries, saying that she noticed them in March:
“…When I took her for a shower I noticed that she had a very big bruise on both sides of her waist…My husband called the Principal of the school informing her about the injury the child had come home with from the school. The Principal said she would ask the teacher and get back to us.”
When Bijal saw Alika she once again contacted Narendra Shah, who would visit her the same afternoon. Bijal suggested that she contact the Children’s department and the police about Alika’s injuries. Shah allegedly disagreed with her suggestion, saying that the Oshwal Committee would handle it internally.
“He clarified that senior members of the committee were aware of the situation and were trying to decide without jeopardizing the community’s name,” Bijal claimed.
It would not be until the 8th of June, almost an entire school term later that the Oshwal Committee is alleged to have met to discuss Alika’s case. By that time, the injuries she was carrying almost had Bijal at her wits’ end. The community’s name though, was still intact, as nothing had been reported to the authorities. Was this the beginning of a cover up?
Next week, we delve into Alika’s parent’s statements and the attempts by the Oshwal Community to silence debate about the little girl’s abuse.