A long scar on Jackline Mwende’s face travels from her temple, touches her left eyebrow, narrowly misses her eye and traverses her cheek to her lips. Its partner traces an even deeper arc in the center of her forehead. There are other scars in her scalp.
And then there are her arms. She has no hands left. Her wrists, swathed in thick bandages, end in stumps.
Mwende, of Machakos, 35 miles southeast of the capital, Nairobi, is the face of domestic violence in Kenya. Her husband has been charged in an alleged marital assault that shocked the nation. According to Mwende, her husband, Stephen Ngila, 35, attacked her with a machete, slashing her face and hacking off her hands, enraged because she hadn’t produced children in nearly five years of marriage.
“I saw him, and he told me: ‘Today is your last day,’” she says. “I never thought something like this would happen to me.”
Ngila is in police custody, awaiting trial over the attack. Members of his family told Kenyan media recently that Mwende was a woman of loose morals who may have been attacked by a business rival. They claim Ngila wasn’t at home when the attack happened.
Wearing a white hospital gown at Presbyterian Church of East Africa Kikuyu Hospital, Mwende, 27, weeps softly as she tells the story of how she fell in love with Ngila, married him in a white church wedding and watched as the relationship gradually went sour.
Occasionally, she winces in pain, but doesn’t complain.
“As a Christian, I can’t tell anyone to leave their marriage,” Mwende said. “But I’d like to talk about my personal story so other people, or other victims, may learn [from it] and speak up.”
In Kenya, activists say domestic violence is common. The country introduced legislation in 2015 that outlawed domestic violence and provided for restraining orders in the event of marital violence. But the lack of statistics on domestic killings and assaults of women by their partners suggests that the issue is considered a low priority.
According to the Gender Violence Recovery Center at Nairobi Women’s Hospital, 45% of Kenyan women between the ages 15 and 49 have experienced either physical or sexual violence, mostly at home. The center says only 6% of gender violence suffered by women in Kenya is perpetrated by strangers.
Family poverty and alcohol abuse play a role, according to activists, while in some traditional communities husbands are seen as having a right to discipline their wives, using physical punishment if necessary.
The fourth child of impoverished peasant farmers in a remote village near Machakos town, Mwende left school in the eighth grade because her parents, with six children to support, couldn’t afford to pay. She met Ngila seven years ago and the couple married two years later in a church.
“At that time, he was a good man. He was a church man. The first days of our marriage were happy days. We were living well together as a husband and wife.”
Ngila, a tailor in nearby Masii town, set Mwende up with a small business in 2014, where she sold items such as soap, sugar, tea and salt, to bring in extra money. They lived together in a three-room brick house on the top of a hill.
“None of my siblings is employed and my parents are poor. Whatever I was doing running the small shop was because I wanted to help my parents and my siblings,” she said.
But children didn’t come to the marriage.
Mwende says her husband blamed her for the problem. Neighbors told Kenyan media the sounds of domestic fights often drifted down from the house on the hill.
Women in many developing countries, including those in East Africa, face social stigma if they don’t produce at least one child, according to the World Health Organization. Although a husband’s infertility may be to blame, it is usually the woman who is stigmatized.
In 2014, Mwende and her husband sought medical advice at a Nairobi hospital on why they hadn’t had children, “and he found out that he had a problem,” she said. “So the doctor advised him to attend the clinic, but he never went. Every time I reminded him to attend the clinic, he would dismiss it. He would say, ‘I will see if I will get time to go,’ then he would never go.”
A sour seed had been planted in the marriage and it grew, Mwende said. “It reached a point that he suddenly changed. He started to get drunk.
“That man never used to bring anything home. He was very brutal. He used to beat me.” At times the couple would call their parents, who would come and try to bring peace to the marriage.
Her impoverished parents advised Mwende to leave Ngila, but she didn’t want to go back home to burden them. She sought advice from her pastor, who advised her to persist and to do her best to save the marriage.
“In most cases, every time there was a problem, I would run to our pastor,” she said. “The pastor would always tell me, ‘Jackie, please persevere. That man will come to change one day.’ The pastor and the church elders would just encourage us.
“I always wanted to protect my marriage so I decided to stay with him,” she said. “I always hoped he would change, but he seemed not to heed the advice from our church pastor.”
When the attack happened in late July, neighbors heard screaming and called the police. One neighbor told local media how she witnessed the rooms spattered in blood, with a severed hand on the floor. Mwende’s other hand was almost completely detached and couldn’t be saved.
Mwende’s case sparked national outrage. The local government authority promised a monthly stipend for a year and free transport to the hospital when she needs it for medical care. Several corporate sponsors pledged to help Mwende get access to prosthetic limbs to enable her to live and work independently.
Mwende, grateful for the help, is still recovering from the trauma of the attack.
“He thought he had killed me, but God is great,” she said.