On an unusually warm night in early August, Shailja Patel packed her most valuable belongings into a carry-on bag and suitcase, and headed for the airport.
Days earlier, a judge had ordered her to pay damages worth more than $87,000 to the man she said sexually assaulted her, to apologize to him, and to never publish defamatory statements about him ever again.
She refused. And now she was leaving the country.
Once she was outside the jurisdiction of the Kenyan court that handed down its judgment, the 49-year-old writer and activist began to tweet about the alleged incident five years ago, and the subsequent grueling court case that led her to uproot her whole life.
“They will not humiliate me. They will not disappear me. They will not break me,” she wrote, before breaking into a verse style:
Speaking to BuzzFeed News over the phone from a location she doesn’t want to be published for safety reasons, Patel described the turmoil of the past half-decade, and why she needed to leave her home behind in order to feel safe again.
In 2014, Patel and her friend Wambui Mwangi had accused another writer of sexually assaulting Patel at a writers gathering held at Mwangi’s house. They detailed the alleged assault in a series of tweets — Patel said that she did not have any faith in the police, who have been known to harass and victim-blame women for crimes of sexual and other forms of physical violence.
After an investigation, police declined to file charges against the man Patel and Mwangi had accused, a well-established poet, author, and journalist named Tony Mochama. But he sued them both for defamation, arguing that their tweets nearly ended his career.
“We lost because the system is utterly and absolutely corrupted,” Patel said from her self-exile. “I could have saved my time and not bothered to engage it at all.”
BuzzFeed News has reached out to the magistrate who handed down the decision for comment.
Patel’s nightmare began on the afternoon of Sept. 20, 2014. She and Mochama were among those attending a small gathering of around a dozen writers and poets hosted by Mwangi. Despite the event taking place at Mwangi’s house, she was not present. BuzzFeed News reached out to Mwangi for this story, but she was unable to speak about it due to the terms of the injunction that apply to her as well.
According to court documents seen by BuzzFeed News, Patel said that Mochama hugged her without her consent, and later grabbed her breasts when they were alone. Toward the end of the two-hour event, Patel said Mochama tried to hug her again, but she told him, loudly, to back off. Mochama denied Patel's claims in court, but acknowledged that she had yelled at him when he moved toward her at the end of the event.
Three other people who were at the gathering — Tawi Achieng Nyang'aya, Stephen Derwent Partington, and one person who asked that their name be withheld — told BuzzFeed News they heard Patel yell at Mochama, but did not see any other direct interactions between them.
The tension between Patel and Mochama prior to the gathering was known within Kenya’s close-knit writers circle. Patel said in her 2014 statement to police that she believed his writing to be denigrating toward women. She told BuzzFeed News on the phone that back in 2013, she refused to shake his hand at a literary event because of the way he had referred to another Kenyan woman writer, and has held that view of him ever since. Mochama, 44, told BuzzFeed News over the phone that Patel “already had hatred toward me, absolutely,” and that he believed Patel was jealous of his success as a writer.
"I think it really annoyed her that it was 2014 and no one really was recognizing her at all. It wasn’t a good year for her. I had won two awards. I’ve had time to think about motive. So let’s just say she wasn’t the biggest Tony Mochama fan at that moment,” he said.
Patel said in her statement in the defamation case that while she was shaken by the alleged incident, she did not want to disrupt the gathering, which was organized to help up-and-coming Kenyan writers network with international organizations that could promote their work. Once everyone left, she described the alleged incident to a colleague who was there, and eventually to Mwangi.
Patel said she wanted to avoid going to the police at all costs, at least initially. Kenyan women are regularly taunted, blamed, and told that their case won’t go anywhere by the very police they seek help from when they choose to report. In one BuzzFeed News story about a Kenyan woman who said she was raped, a police officer told her that women sometimes want these things to happen, and asked her why she had been drinking alcohol that night.
Patel is a Kenyan woman of Indian descent, and deeply aware of the racial dynamics of her case.
In Kenya, the Indian community is so large that it is formally recognized as a tribe, but has often been cast as separate from — and tends to be wealthier than — black Kenyans. Black Kenyans have historically viewed the Indian community with suspicion, due to the number of Indians who own businesses and employ black staffers — an aftereffect of British colonial policies.
Patel said it was another reason that she and Mwangi decided not to go to the police.
On Sept. 22, two days after the alleged assault took place, Mwangi wrote to the Concerned Kenyan Writers Google Group, which Patel, Mochama, and about 50 other people were a part of, detailing her claim and asking how they should handle it in the name of restorative justice.
Mochama vehemently denied the claim in the group, calling his invitation to the meeting a “set up,” asking Mwangi, “Are you fucking insane or suffering cancer of the brain?” and adding that he was going to contact his lawyers, according to an email thread of the group’s conversation that was viewed by BuzzFeed News.
Patel said on the phone that Mochama’s response in the group showed “he had no interest in restoring anything, just in denying, attacking, and reversing blame.”
Mochama told BuzzFeed News on the phone that he was “absolutely not interested” in the Google Group discussion dialogue about Patel’s claims.
“I didn’t do anything. To be asked [to respond] was very insulting,” he said, adding that he believed “the entire aim was, of course, to start the humiliating process.”
The same day that Mwangi wrote to the Google Group, she started tweeting about Patel’s claim, but she did not initially name Patel or Mochama.
She asked why Mochama, whom she described as a “sexual assaulter” in her tweets, had a job, had been awarded with writing scholarships, and had fans.
She added that it was unacceptable for organizations to remain neutral on his alleged offenses, and asserted that it was not the job of Kenyan women to control male journalists’ behavior. She tagged the Standard, where Mochama works.
In several tweets that followed, Mwangi made similar accusations, @-ing other institutions that had been supporting or employing Mochama at the time, like PEN International, on which Mochama still serves as secretary general for Kenya. The tweets have since been deleted; BuzzFeed News viewed them in court documents provided by Patel. Another writer from the Google Group started using the hashtag #StopTonyMochama to draw attention to Patel’s claim, which Mwangi also subsequently used.
On Sept. 23, Patel revealed on Twitter that she was the woman who made the claim about Mochama at the event Mwangi had been referring to.
“I came home. I was on hiatus. Resting. Being with loved ones. This happened. To me. #StopTonyMochama” she wrote.
As the hashtag about Mochama began to spread, several people and organizations in the writers community began to urge Patel to file a report with the police.
Patel said that literary organizations that Mochama was affiliated with told her, “‘You can’t expect us to change our policy based on your word.’”
Muthoni Garland is the founder and director of Storymoja, one of the literary organizations Mochama was associated with at the time. She told BuzzFeed News over the phone that when she heard about Patel’s claims against Mochama, she directed the organization to stop promoting his work and inviting him to festivals. Garland, who is close with Patel and Mwangi, added that she contacted Patel a few days after learning about her claim and urged her to report it to the police — not as the director of Storymoja, but as her friend.
“I told her, ‘You’re a powerful, strong woman with extraordinary powers of communication. If you don’t take this to court and pursue justice, how will uneducated women be able to do it?’” Garland recalled saying.
On Sept. 25, 2014, Patel went to authorities and reported Mochama for sexual assault. The following February, while the case was still being investigated, Mochama filed a defamation lawsuit against Mwangi and Patel, arguing that they had tainted his name.
“[Their tweets were] targeted at the Standard Group, at PEN International where I’m the secretary general,” Mochama told BuzzFeed News over the phone from Venice, Italy, where he is currently completing an Emily Harvey Foundation writer’s residency. “It was a ruinous campaign to totally screw me up in terms of I can’t make a living and so on.”
Then in late November 2015, Kenya’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) informed Patel it did not have enough evidence to charge Mochama. She and her attorneys petitioned the decision, so far with no response.
Mochama’s defamation lawsuit continued, meanwhile.
“It’s wasn’t enough to be cleared by the [Directorate of Criminal Investigations],” he said on the phone. “I needed to do two things: get my name cleared, and make them suffer some sort of retribution, because nobody should be able to smudge the name of any individual.”
Mochama said that after Mwangi and Patel’s tweets, the regular invitations he used to receive to deliver university lectures and lead writing workshops in Kenya and abroad had “dried up,” and that some of his funding from various organizations had been withdrawn. Publishers cancelled book tours he had planned, he stopped winning scholarships, and only recently resumed work at a local NGO that supports women’s creativity, he added, all because he had been labeled a sexual molester.
“Emily Harvey is the first thing I’m back on for five years internationally, or at any intercontinental level,” he said on the phone from Venice.
One of the writers who was at the September 2014 gathering, Partington, told BuzzFeed News that after the incident spread across social media, he and one of the organizations he volunteered with began to distance themselves from Mochama.
“Previously, I had been asked by include Tony in an anthology for Kwani” — an African literary magazine — “and to edit some of his poetry, but agreed with the publisher to put that on hold until the case had been settled,” Partington told BuzzFeed News on the phone from Machakos, about 42 miles southeast of Nairobi. After Patel’s claims were made public, Partington also asked the organization to find someone else to edit Mochama’s work. He only witnessed Patel telling Mochama to back off, but felt that women should be believed when they say they have been harmed.
When Magistrate Addah Obura handed down her judgment on Aug. 5, she condemned Mwangi and Patel for looking for justice from social media, rather than the police — the very thing Patel was trying to avoid because of how unfair she felt the system was to victims of sexual violence.
“Every person has a right to have their dispute resolved by application of the law and fair administrative action,” Obura said in her ruling. “They should have known it is reckless and ill-advised to resort to social media to give damaging information concerning a person without any evidence or legal basis.”
Patel was shocked. “I had mentally steeled myself for anything that could go wrong, but given how weak his case had been, and how he presented it to the court, it didn’t seem like the judge had any basis,” she said.
The added punishment felt like a huge blow.
“It wasn’t just a judgment in his favor. It was a massive sledgehammer to silence and punish us,” she said.
After investing five years’ worth of energy and money to support her case, Patel said she realized she would have to leave home in order to get her voice back. In her Twitter bio, she now calls herself an “exiled Kenyan whistleblower,” but she now realized that she’d been feeling like an exile even when she was still at home.
“One of the things that came to me after I left is that I was internally exiled,” she said. “I had moved out of Nairobi and couldn’t go to many literary events or spaces that didn’t implement sexual harassment policies to protect people. There was a narrative about me that I had no way of defending myself against. When I left, I was geographically exiled, but I could reclaim the right to tell my own story.”
She’s been comforted by her fellow African feminists who have made the same difficult decision to leave their home countries in order to escape social stigmas. Many of them, like Patel, are queer, and fled because of the anti-gay laws and prejudice they faced back home.
On Aug. 22, the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW), a feminist organization that represented Patel for part of the defamation case, announced in a Twitter thread that it was reviewing the judge’s decision.
“This decision has far reaching consequences and seeks to not only gag survivors from speaking out about violence but also to completely silence them through the fear of being slapped with massive punitive damages for speaking their truth & speaking out against sexual abuse,” the organization said.
Patel also said that several women have reached out to her on Twitter, offering to raise funds for the $9 million Kenyan Shillings (or about $87,000) in damages she was ordered to pay Mochama.
“I was just like, ‘This is crazy. This is insane that we actually have to pay these evil men,’” she said. “I cannot and I will not ask a single woman any more [for help] against this fucker. I’m just so done with letting this system drain us like this.”
Mochama, meanwhile, is still celebrating. “Shailja’s just running away,” he said when asked how he felt now the case had been decided. “She’s a failed poet.”
He added that Patel “doesn’t like to see black people succeeding within the areas she thinks she’s in,” building on previous statements he’s made about her accusation being rooted in racism.
Mochama told BuzzFeed News that he’s working on a new novel while on his writer’s residence in Venice.
“It’s called Italian Trial, and it’s about an African immigrant footballer who gets falsely accused of rape in Italy,” he said.
Then he added, with a laugh, “You have to make vodka lemonade out of everything.”