They come under the cloak of altruism, but many duplicitous volunteers come to Kenya with the intent to prey on the very children they have come to serve. Kennedy Ongor investigates this alarming trend by delving into the alleged molestation charges against 20 –year-old American, Matthew Durham. You will be shocked, if not mortified.
matthew durham

Standing on the edge of a dusty stretch of road in a remote village situated in what looks like the middle of nowhere, Matthew Lane Durham looks joyful as he holds a young boy close to his chest. On his head, he dons a cap embellished with the distinct red, black, white and green colours of the Kenyan flag.

In this snapshot taken while on a mission trip to Kenya, Matthew casts the image of an energetic young man with a sunny disposition, who is enjoying the company he is in: the children from Upendo Children’s Home, the orphanage that he is volunteering at. This was the place where over several years, he poured his heart, time and energies. But behind the wide smile and young hopeful eyes, lies a deep dark secret that would send shockwaves across the local and international stage.

Exemplary Teen

Born in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1994 to staunch Christians, Kyle and Melissa Durham, Matthew is the youngest of three siblings coming after eldest born Joshua and Zachary, his immediate senior. Kyle Durham works for the Oklahoma City’s Fire Department while his wife Melissa is a grade four teacher at Crossings International School where according to her profile on the school’s website, she teaches Math, Bible, Spelling and Social Studies. The two upstanding citizens raised their three sons on biblical principles. Matthew was quick to emulate his parents’ steadfast faith in God, their hard work as well as their compassion and passion for offering service to humanity. Melissa, who long before Durham was born, supported various charity organisations by donating essential commodities such as clothes, toiletries and food to orphanages, states that as soon as Matthew joined high school he zealously immersed himself in mission work whose main goal was to help needy children. While his peers were off enjoying their carefree sunny days, each summer break when school was out, Matthew was off serving the needy at Upendo Children’s Home in Kenya.

So dedicated was the teenager to the humanitarian work that he not only helped raise money, but also gave presentations to members of his hometown community in a bid to raise financial support and awareness for the impoverished children he was helping. Matthew was not only generous, but passionate, committed and an exemplary volunteer who drew praise from the director of Upendo Kids International (UKI), Eunice Menja, who referred to him as a “wonderful man of God.” Pastor Mark Ruff of the New Hope Church of Christ where Matthew worshipped, described him as a polite and well-mannered boy who worked well with the children at his church.

Home for the Homeless

On the outskirts of Nairobi in Gachororo village, Juja, stands the Upendo Children’s home which is the brainchild of Eunice and Robert Menja. After completing their undergraduate degrees at Jomo Kenyatta University in Juja, the Menjas moved to Oklahoma to pursue their Master’s degrees. With a great love for their home country and a desire to give back, the Menjas established Upendo Kids International with the mission of providing education scholarships to orphans and children from destitute families in Kenya and established its headquarters in Oklahoma. With the initial number of almost 70 children under their sponsorship program, the Menjas went on to build Upendo Children’s Home to ensure that the children being supported by their organisation had a safe, secure place to call home, where they would confidently attend school. One of the unique programs that Upendo Kids International offers are its organised mission trips to Kenya, where high school and college students from the Oklahoma community of Edmond are able to volunteer in various capacities in providing help, love and service to children at Upendo Children’s Home. It is through one of these organised mission trips that 19-year-old Matthew made his way to Kenya.

Matthew worked as a volunteer at the children’s home from June 2012, and since his inaugural trip, he visited the home in June 2013, Dec. 2013 and also from April 30 to June 17, 2014. The young man toiled hard and tirelessly, as though he was on a quest to eradicate child suffering from the world all on his own. His entrusted duties were as varied as they were numerous. They included everything from cleaning, cooking, playing with the children to teaching Bible studies. Josephine, the head matron at the Upendo Children’s Home, recalls how industrious the young man was and how he would always be up before the crack of dawn, “It baffles me, how he was always the first person to wake up despite being the last one to retire to bed at night: not once did he exhibit signs of burn out.”

A Shocking Confession

It was during the trip in 2014 that Upendo Children’s Home would be changed forever. On previous trips, Matthew had stayed with a sponsor family off the compound of the home, but on this particular trip he requested to stay on the home’s compound with the children. Even though his request was peculiar, it was nevertheless granted. Eunice explains that this was partly due to the caretakers’ unwavering trust in the teen. One evening, when a caretaker went to check on the children, she allegedly witnessed Matthew in a compromising position with some of the children. The unnamed caretaker, who is also a sibling to the founder of UKI, had no option but to report the matter to the directors. In order to verify the allegation, Eunice says she questioned the children. Nearly all of those questioned, she explains, allegedly said that Matthew had either touched them sexually, raped them or asked them to perform oral sex on him.

On June 12th, 2014, Eunice confronted Matthew with these allegations and he admitted to his struggles with pornography and homosexuality. At this point, Eunice confiscated his passport, which she explains was intended to deter him from fleeing the country before investigations were completed. Eunice also video recorded Matthew’s apparent, voluntary confession on her cell phone; Matthew also made a guilt-ridden and explicit written and signed confession, stating that he had engaged in sexual acts with the children while on his fourth visit at Upendo Children’s Home. Eunice took the confessions to Juja Police Station, which is located less than 6km from the home, and asked officers to detain Matthew while she carried out an investigation. The police informed her that it was impossible for them to hold Matthew unless they conducted the investigation independently and asked her to return the passport to Matthew. A few days later, Eunice reported the case to the United States Embassy in Nairobi and handed over to them the video and written confessions. No action was taken and by the time the police started their investigation, it was too late to get a hold of the teen who had by then fled the country.

A Disturbing Trend

Cases where foreign nationals have come into Kenya and engaged in illegal sexual conduct with minors are rampant. This extremely disturbing trend is a pandemic of unimaginable proportions which has not left Kenya untainted by the heinous practice.

The Kenyan coast is particularly rife with the sexual exploitation of minors. Tourists fly into the coastal towns such as Malindi and Diani with one goal in mind – to gain sexual gratification from children. According to a report by End Child Prostitution in Kenya (ECPIK), more than 50,000 children are involved in Child Sex Tourism (CST). This tragic and illegal exploitation of children continues to occur under society’s nose, yet the problem receives little to no attention from the government or the media at large.

Matthews’s case is not entirely unique. There have been other notable cases of the seemingly altruistic foreign national who comes to Kenya to help the under privileged and destitute children, but instead uses this access to vulnerable young ones to satisfy their own sadistic sexual fantasies. One such case that elicited local and international media attention was that of Italian priest, Father Renato Sesana. The bushy eye browed, white-haired bearded priest was so adored by locals that they christened him “Kizito”.

A Comboni missionary, Father Kizito had come to Kenya in the 80s from Zambia and headed the Koinonia Community, a religious humanitarian project that worked with street children (mainly boys) in providing them with education and shelter. Noted as probably being one of Kenya’s best known catholic priests, Father Kizito ran a Sunday column titled “Father Kizito’s Notebook” in one of Kenya’s popular newspapers from 1995 to 2001. Father Kizito was part of the local community for almost 15 years before the well-crafted façade crumbled when in 2011, the impeccable image of the once loved and greatly adored priest was irrevocably shattered.

The accused priest was arrested in May 2011 after his loyal and long-serving assistant, 26-year-old Collins Ochieng’, reported to the police that the beloved priest had drugged and molested him. According to media reports, Father Kizito was accused by his fellow Koinonia Community board members of “experimenting [in] sexual gratification with boys” and of recording the proscribed acts on video.

Although Father Kizito was taken in for questioning by the police, no substantial evidence was found to link him to the allegations. According to him, it was a well-choreographed smear campaign against him. He was exonerated of any wrong doing, leaving behind a trail of emotionally and psychologically traumatised young people. The Catholic Church, through the Pope, has raised concern over the increased cases of its members molesting children. Towards the end of 2014, the cases increased twofold and led the problem to be infamously referred to as a holocaust by some parties. Members of the public across the world went up in arms demanding that civilian justice be meted upon church members who perpetrate such crimes.

In another harrowing case of paedophilia, that thrust Kenya in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, was the case of Simon Harris, a Briton from Pudleston who allegedly raped and molested children as young as 10-years old. The odious acts occurred while Harris was living in the town of Gilgil, Kenya, where he ran a charity called VAE, whose main aim was to arrange and coordinate volunteer teaching opportunities in Kenya for British students on their gap year. The former Latin teacher, given his initiatives, came across as a man with profound love for humanitarian work. This, however, was not the case.

As early as 1984 Harris – who was at the time teaching Latin at the Devon boarding school called Shebbear College – was accused of molesting students at the institution. He managed to get off as according to reports, the parents of the victims were weary of putting their children through a court case. Later in 2009, Harris was once again accused of committing another sex-related offence. This time, unlike on the previous occasion, he was not as lucky. Aside from being jailed and placed on the U.K. sex offender’s register for life, Simon was slapped with a travel ban that prevented him from making any trips abroad.

Despite the order, the prolific child abuser was able to travel back and forth to Kenya using falsified travel documents. During these clandestine trips to Kenya, Harris maintained a low profile until fresh allegations surfaced that Simon had abused a number of street children. According to an account given by one of the children he abused, Harris would lure them into his house with sweets, then offer them alcohol and illicit drugs like marijuana. He would then bathe them, smear them with oil and proceed to rape or sodomise them.

Following this revelation, numerous local and international charities have demanded to know why and how Harris – described in the sex offender register as a “manipulative, predatory and dangerous abuser” – managed to travel freely to Kenya. George Mucee, a former Kenyan immigration official, states that this probably occurred due to constraints in jurisdiction, “Unless a red alert is made available to immigration [authorities], it is next to impossible to establish whether or not an individual is a criminal.” He further stated that if Harris was able to travel to Kenya, it was as a result of an oversight by immigration authorities at his point of departure from the U.K. Harris had lived in, and travelled to Kenya on multiple occasions between 1996 and 2013. It is alleged that he had assaulted multiple street boys over the course of 20 years. He was convicted in Dec. 2014 for a total of 20 counts of indecent assault: six against three boys aged 2 to 13, and 14 counts at the private school he taught at between 1986 and 1989. On Feb. 2015, the 55-year-old sex offender was sentenced to 17 years and four months in prison by a jury at Birmingham Crown Court in the U.K.

No Harm, No Foul

In Africa, as it is in Kenya, people serving in or with the church and especially those in positions of leadership, are bestowed with a great deal of respect and an almost unshakeable authority. So much so that individuals in these capacities, some of whom are prone to devious sexual behaviours, can carry on a double life for years without detection. To make matters worse, no stringent example by the law has been made; if these sexual predators are not arrested or publically brought to justice, it is not far-fetched to assume that paedophiles can go on assaulting children without any fear of consequences.

According to Purity Waithera, a human rights activist in Nairobi, no foreign child molester has been prosecuted in Kenya. It is not that the country does not have laws concerning the vice: the sex offender law was enacted in 2006 and the sex offender registry was implemented in 2008, while the official registry database was unveiled in 2012. One way or another, Waithera states that the sex offenders always seem to find their way out of the country even if there is substantial evidence linking them to the crime.

Kevin Wasike, who is a child activist based in Nairobi, explains that the lack of local prosecution is a matter of jurisdiction, but also blames the government for its laxity: “In some countries, you cannot perpetrate an act like this and be allowed to walk away scot-free irrespective of [your nationality],” he says. For years, the issue of jurisprudence has been a big deterrent in trying foreign nationals who have carried out crimes in foreign countries. For crimes like sexual molestation of children, the matter of jurisdiction does not apply.

Dr. Chris Wamalwa, a psychology professor at the University of Nairobi, states that most of these cases go unreported due to the stigma associated with them since it is mostly the victims who feel ashamed of being violated. Another issue that comes into play is the laxity of many orphanage administrators in reporting the cases due to the fear of having their organisation cast in a negative light.

Questions have also been raised on the criteria used to vet the eligibility of volunteers to work in children’s homes. Wasike explains that apart from merely filling a volunteer application form and exhibiting an intense love for humanitarian work, nothing else is taken into consideration. While using Upendo’s case as an example, Wasike says that the management of the orphanage failed in providing adequate security to children. “How could a volunteer be left alone with children at night, without any kind of supervision whatsoever?” Wasike vents.

Knock-on Effect

In March 2015 the End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT UK), a leading charity for children’s rights, published a report that revealed that nearly 400 U.K. convicted and registered sex offenders have gone missing or “off he radar” of U.K. law enforcement.

This frightening reality only amplifies the substantial danger posed to children by the U.K. offenders who may have fled their country and travelled abroad with the sole aim of abusing children in countries where child protection systems are lax, as is the case in most of Kenya.

Harris’ conviction which was the first prosecution of a British citizen under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for sex offences committed against children in Africa was of monumental significance. In an effort to strengthen the ability of law enforcement to protect vulnerable children, Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) in conjunction with the British High Commission of Kenya, launched a new resource to combat the sexual exploitation and abuse of children in Kenya by travelling British child sexual offenders through the International Child Protection Certificate (ICPC).

Any British national seeking to work with children in Kenya, either as an employed teacher in schools or with voluntary organisations, is required to have an ICPC, which is only issued once checks have been made against police information and intelligence databases. This ensures that the individual does not have any criminal record that would make them unsuitable to work with children. The certificate, which is already in use in 73 countries worldwide, is not only timely for Kenya, but a very necessary measure.

Unfortunately, this certificate has its limits. What of those individuals travelling to Kenya who are not working with a specific organisation in the country? According to the BBC, Simon Wood was a former British Airways pilot who repeatedly travelled to East Africa and allegedly assaulted at least 50 children in Kenya and Uganda over a period of 12 years. Where does that leave individuals like these who the certificate cannot prohibit from travelling into Kenya, which seems to be the choice destination for child molesters?

In the United States, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, also known as Sexual Offender’s Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) was passed by congress in 2006. This Act, named after Adam Walsh, a six-year-old who was abducted and murdered in 1981, not only widened the jurisdictional scope, but also facilitated for the registration of juvenile sex offenders. Through this Act, sex offender registries have been adopted in Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Japan, Ireland, the Republic of Korea, the U.K. and Kenya.

The Grand Hearing

“It was unbelievable,” says a distraught caretaker of Upendo Children’s Home, who requested anonymity. The news of Matthew’s alleged sexual exploits at the expense of the children of the home was received with a lot of apprehension. According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) press release, Matthew was arrested on July 17, 2014, at his parents’ home in Oklahoma. According to FBI records, on his last trip between April 30 and June 17, 2014, Matthew allegedly had sex with as many as 10 children, aged 4 to 9, one of whom was HIV-positive.

Matthew’s preliminary hearing was akin to a well-scripted legal drama with accusations and counter accusations. During the entire legal battle, a nervous Matthew had his head bowed as high profile attorney Steven Jones spoke to maintain Matthew’s innocence. Jones has a history of taking on high profile cases: he defended Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and was hired recently by Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) alumni to manage the ensuing controversy over a racist college video. Matthew’s defence attorney vehemently refuted the accusations levelled by the prosecutor. He claimed that apart from a video and a 10-page written confession obtained through coercion, there was no conclusive evidence that linked his client to the crime. The state prosecutors in a bid to prove Matthews guilt gave public evidence of Matthew’s interaction with a non-verbal male with Down syndrome who they alleged was molested by Matthew. The most damning evidence, however, was obtained from medical exams done on orphaned girls allegedly abused by Matthew.

The judge’s ruling to release Matthew on a USD 10,000 dollar bond (approximately KSH 850,000) with conditions that prohibited him from having any contact with minors or anyone else directly involved in the case, was appealed. Matthew is being held without bail.

Forgotten Victims

Meanwhile, as all attention shifts to the alleged perpetrators of these heinous crimes, the victims are left to suffer in silence. Often, their voices get muffled amidst the raucous created by the long inquests and dramatic court proceedings which at times require the victims to testify, something that may be akin to them reliving the ordeal. It is precisely because of this that Niven Sululu, a pro bono lawyer based in Nairobi, thinks that the victims are entitled to compensation due to the psychological and bodily harm inflicted onto the victims.

Organisations such as the International Justice Mission (IJM), whose Kenya office was established in 2001, work to mitigate the abuse of power and bring perpetrators of sexual violence to justice by assisting the authorities with investigations and arrests. IJM Kenya played a pivotal role in conjunction with the British and Kenyan governments in bringing Harris to book. The IJM not only provided the after-care and support for victims molested by Harris, but also acted as translators during the victims testimonies which were done over Skype from Kenya.

According to Dr. Oketch Oboth, a psychology lecturer at the University of Nairobi, although the monetary compensation proposed by the lawyer is not a bad thing, it does little to provide relief to the victims who almost always suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “If the PTSD is not treated immediately, it might lead to dire consequences which might include stress and depression, and at times [lead to] death,” says Oboth.

In 2013 a 15-year-old victim, one of the many children raped by Harris, suffered severe PTSD from his ordeal. Although he was one of the few boys brave enough to testify against Harris, he did not live long enough to see justice being meted: He succumbed to PTSD and took his own life. As for the innocent children who were allegedly affected by Matthew’s work at the charity, they can only try and put their lives back together as best they can. In Jan. 2015, a grand jury added 21 additional charges to his initial charge of travelling with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, by charging him with engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places and aggravated sexual abuse with children. According to The New York Times, Matthew’s lawyer has requested that the trial be rescheduled as he has gotten no cooperation from the orphanage, and has not travelled to Kenya to investigate the allegations because of concerns about terrorism in the country. “It is risky for anyone to go to Kenya at this time,” Jones is quoted as saying.

The emotional impact on the victims of the actions Matthew allegedly committed are impossible to quantify. If convicted, Matthew could faces life in prison. Kenyan authorities are also investigating the matter and could file charges against him. For now, he remains behind bars.