By John-Allan Namu
Five years ago in June, I first set eyes on Alika. She was asleep in a private room within the children’s ward of the Aga Khan hospital in Nairobi. It was just a few days after her fifth birthday, but the journey to that anniversary was fraught with some of the most brutal challenges that I had seen a girl her age face. Nearly all the injuries she had pointed to continuous abuse while she was in the custody of her parents. In the years since, I have written six articles about her (see links at the end of this article), spent hours in court following her case, and am in the process of completing a documentary about that time. Yet none of the work that has gone into following her young life pales into insignificance when I think about the lives of the Mehtas*, the family that took guardianship of Alika in June of 2015. Here’s an update:
The sun rose over a slightly overcast sky on Christmas eve 2019. People in towns and countrysides would be going through the last paces of preparing for the biggest event on the Christian calendar. The household of Mr and Mrs Mehta had also been preparing, but not for a holiday. After a four-year fight to protect Alika, one with as many twists as the plaited hair that Alika sometimes wore, officers from the Kenyan government’s Children’s unit* were at their home, ready to take Alika out of the Mehta’s custody, and to a children’s home. Mehta took out his phone to record the last moments that his family would share with a girl who changed all of their lives. A majority of their goodbyes were said in the living room, and the mood in the house matched the weather. Mehta’s two daughters can be seen and heard sobbing and clinging to their mother and each other. For all intents and purposes, they were losing a sister. Mrs Mehta cupped Alika’s slender face in her hands, drawing near to her and telling her to take care of herself – between sobs that escaped her attempts at suppressing her sadness. Alika’s former school principal, Bijal Shah, the lady who first brought the sad case of Alika’s abuse to the attention of the Mehtas, was also there to say her goodbyes.
“Mommy and daddy tried their very best, ok”, she said in tears. Her farewell was interrupted only by the faux-stoicism of Mehta’s voice trying to break the sense of loss that they were all feeling, with an “it’s going to be ok, you are going to be ok” reassurance. To me, it felt as if he was saying it to himself as well as to Alika, his wife and children and all who were gathered that day. Outside, Mehta’s youngest daughter gifts Alika a doll and says goodbye, again. Alika is helped onto the back of the white double-cabin that is to take her to her new home – a children’s home. The youngest of the Mehtas makes as if to cling onto the window nearest to where Alika is seated as her elder sister cries into her father’s chest. “I don’t want her to go!”. This heart-piercing drama would not have been out of place in a movie theatre, because the sadness and the fact that all of this could have been avoided is beyond belief. Frankly, most of Alika’s stay with the Mehtas could have been part of a movie.
Almost every December since 2015, when Alika came into their lives, has been marked by some sort of negativity. In 2016, Mehta had to take Alika into hiding after a letter threatening him and Alika was mailed to his father-in-law. On December 13th 2018, Mehta and his wife were pulled over by a uniformed police officer, who got into the back of the car and pointed a gun at Mehta’s head, telling him to “stop visiting all the big offices he had been going to”. When Mrs Mehta screamed, the officer hit her on the head with the butt of his gun. The year 2019 should have gone better, but after an extrajudicial expulsion from the country of Alika’s biological parents on May 27th, unknown members of the Oshwal community began spreading rumours that Mehta had bribed the Director of Public Prosecutions, Noordin Hajji to deport the duo and Alika’s twin sister.
“Things got so bad that it caused serious divisions in my family,” Mehta told me in September of 2019. By October 2019, the Mehtas had made the painful decision that the Kenyan government would have to care for Alika. It wasn’t an easy one to make. Mehta had been threatened several times and had been to various police stations as well as to the DCI to report these threats, not least the one in which a uniformed officer assaulted him and his wife. The decision to become temporary wards to Alika put the Mehtas at odds with many in the Oshwal community – which Mrs Mehta had come from. They had endured abuse from strangers, distance from friends and harsh words from relatives, but what made the decision final was months and months of pleading with the government for security for Alika, who after the December 13th incident was pulled out of school for fear that she may become a target. Handing Alika over to the state would mean that she would likely spend the rest of her childhood in a Children’s home. The injuries that Alika had sustained after years of abuse meant that the expensive medication that the Mehtas could afford, as well as her weekly physiotherapy sessions, might become luxuries. That the strides she had made in the four years she had been in the Mehtas’ care could be eroded. “That weighed on my mind,” Mehta recalls.
Before coming to the decision to allow the state to take Alika, a frustrated Mehta made one last effort to get her placed in the hands of family members who could take care of her. Mehta would make the decision to approach the Indian High Commission, hoping to broker a meeting with some of Alika’s relatives to see whether they could take her in. The meeting did take place, with three relatives of the young Alika in attendance. Mehta made his proposals, which her relatives were amenable to.
After this meeting, on October the 24th, a representative of the Indian High Commission wrote to Alika’s parents outlining the outcome of this meeting:
Mr & Mrs Mehta* requested this Mission to facilitate a dialogue between your relatives residing in Kenya in connection with the custody of Ms Alika*. Mr Mehta has expressed his willingness to hand over the custody of Ms Alika through due process of law to anyone responsible, family or otherwise, who will ensure that her health, safety, education and wellbeing is taken care off.
In view of (the) above, you are requested to provide the contact details of any of your relatives, who is (sic) willing to take the custody so that the same could be shared with Mr Mehta to move the process forward.
Days after this, a most curious chain of emails would be sent from India by Alika’s father, Mr M. The strangest of these emails was Mr M’s first response.
On October the 29th at 6:06 pm, he wrote the following:
Wish You a Happy Diwali and a Prosperous New Year.
We are still in the process of finding (a) suitable relative who can take good care of our daughter Vidhi and if we are unable to find, we have no objection in Mr and Mrs Mehta* adopting our daughter.
Thanks and regards
“Why are people targeting us if this is Alika’s father’s response?” Mehta asked me, still baffled by the strangeness of Alika’s father’s email. In an email of fewer than one hundred words, he was effectively handing over his daughter to the Mehtas. “Baffling”, Mehta concludes, as he reflects on the two years that he and Alika’s parents spent in court as adversaries.
The emails wouldn’t stop, though. Almost as if Alika’s father had realised, or been made to realise what he had done, he began to walk back his assertions.
On Wednesday, 30 Oct 2019 at 10:29 a.m, Mr M wrote:
Your Excellency sir,
I would appreciate if you can arrange to provide us with the latest full health report of our daughter Alika*”.
Then came another email on the same day at 5:31 p.m:
“Mr M and Mrs M as parents of Alika would like to have custody of our daughter.
The court case done against was malicious and we were acquired (sic) innocent.
Thanks and regards.
This isn’t the first time that attempts have been made to hand Alika over to the Mehtas as if she was stock to be traded. The first time this happened, very powerful members of the Oshwal community met with Mr Mehta days after she had been rescued from her parents’ house and was still admitted in the hospital, nursing injuries she sustained while in that household. Mehta secretly recorded that conversation, and two years later, presented it before the court. I had occasion to listen to a copy and had a transcript of the conversation written. It makes for damning reading and will be part of a subsequent article.
As this article is being posted, Alika will be celebrating her tenth birthday in the company of other children living in the home that she has been placed in. For the third time in her life, Alika is adjusting to living in a different setting. The first was when she was two when she was sent to live with her grandmother in India. The second was when the Mehtas came into her life. I titled the series of articles about Alika The Girl They Didn’t Love. For a portion of her life, this was true. So true that numerous medical reports pointed to abuse that turns the stomach. She was also deeply loved for the past five years, love that the Mehtas beam with every time we are in conversation. Hopefully, she is loved where she is today. Happy birthday, Alika.
Read more about Alika: