The Theft of Innocence: Voluntourism and Child Sexual Abuse

by Samira Sawlani

Trigger Warning: Article contains stories of rape and child sexual abuse

On the 7th of March 2016, at an American district court in Oklahoma, twenty-year-old missionary Matthew Durham was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $15,863 in restitution after he was convicted of sexually abusing children at an orphanage in Kenya.

I first discovered details about this case in 2014, and it was on the 22nd of July 2014 that I began tweeting about it (and have done frequently since), baffled at the lack of media coverage. As I carried out further research I came across reports about two British men who had also been involved in child sex abuse in East Africa, while both cases had received some media coverage, it had gained little traction.

Between 2012 and 2014 Matthew Durham travelled to Kenya four times to volunteer at Upendo Children’s Home, an orphanage in Nairobi founded by a Kenyan American couple who recruit volunteers from church communities in Oklahoma. In June 2014, a caretaker at the children’s home noticed unusual behaviour on the part of Durham (particularly in regards to his physical interaction with kids under his care). Investigating this further she approached a number of the children whose testimonies confirmed that Matthew Durham had been sexually abusing them. The founder of the home was alerted and five days later confronted Durham who, after initial denials, provided details of his engaging in acts of a sexual nature with the children.

She obtained both a written confession and videotaped his account of events before moving him off-site and confiscating his passport. Local police told her she could not hold on to Durham’s passport and, thus, it was returned and he departed for Oklahoma.

Federal authorities there had been notified and as a result of an investigation carried out by the US Embassy in Kenya, the FBI and the US Department of State, Durham was arrested on the 17th of July 2014. Charges against him included traveling with Intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place, attempt and conspiracy and aggravated sexual abuse with children.  In his confession Durham state that, “a demon named Luke takes him at night and that he is powerless to resist his urges”. Five of the children courageously testified against him.

He was convicted in July 2015 on seven counts of abusing children aged 5-15. Three of these convictions were overturned before he was sentenced this week on four counts of molesting children, involving one boy and three girls aged between 5 and 14.

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Beyond the general horrors of this case, a statement was made by Durham’s Defence lawyer who claimed his confession was false, saying, the events that occurred in Kenya the last maybe five-six days that Matt was there frankly reveal some sort of pseudo-tribal psychological voodoo practiced on him.”

Simon Wood

This is not the first case of foreigners travelling to Kenya and found to be engaging in sexual abuse of minors under the guise of volunteering and charity work.

Last week, British Airways announced that they would pay compensation to 38 girls in East Africa who were sexually abused by pilot Simon Wood. These attacks (and many more it is thought) were carried out between 2003 and 2013 in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Wood was involved with British Airway’s Community Relations Work and legal representatives of his victims have stated that the airline is partially responsible as they had been tipped off about his behaviour previously.

It later emerged that UK Government officials had arrested him in 2001 for assaulting an eight-year-old girl in the UK but charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Despite this, in 2002 he, along with a number of British Airways colleagues, spent the Easter period at an orphanage in Kenya.

A former British Airways employee told me that no questions were raised following the dropped charges against him in 2001 and thus he was able to continue as part of the Airline’s community relations team. It was after a school in Kenya contacted a British law firm regarding Wood that he was arrested. Explicit images of children in Africa were found on his laptop. He was released on bail and in August 2013. Days before his scheduled court appearance he committed suicide.

Simon Harris

Perhaps one of the most disturbing cases is that of Simon Harris, a British school teacher who set up an education charity in Gilgil, Kenya organising teaching placements for British gap year volunteers.

Between 1990 and 2013 Harris spent half his time in Gilgil. During those twenty-three years, he would take boys from the streets to his home promising them food, after which he raped and sexually abused them, often plying them with drugs and alcohol.

In 1989, concerns had been raised against Harris at a boarding school in Devon, parents of the children who were reportedly victims of his “inappropriate behaviour” chose not to take legal action; however, authorities were aware of this incident.

Yet his regular travel to Kenya was not monitored.

In 2009, Harris was jailed and placed on the sex offenders list in the UK for possessing child pornography. Upon release, he managed to obtain forged documents and overturned a travel ban which allowed him to resume travel to Kenya.

Harris was exposed in a Channel 4 documentary after which he was tried in the UK and jailed for 17 years, in December 2014.

Judging by the amount of time Harris spent in Kenya it is thought he abused hundreds, maybe even thousands of street children, taking advantage of their vulnerability.

A senior investigation officer at the National Crime Agency Kelvin Lay said, Given a culture of extreme taboo regarding homosexuality in Kenya, we think those who have testified is only a very, very small fraction of his total number of victims.”

So traumatised was one of Simon Harris’ victim’s that after testifying he committed suicide.

This begs the question, exactly why were British authorities not monitoring his travel? Why had some form of communication between the UK and Kenya not taken place regarding this man?

The Implications

The cases involving Durham, Wood and Harris all raise a number of questions regarding “voluntourism”, access to vulnerable children in non-Western countries, the automatic trust possessed by foreigners from the West and the role of governments in each story.

In the case of pilot Simon Wood, British Airways allowed him to access vulnerable children despite being aware of the allegation against him involving indecent assault of an 8-year-old girl in the UK. Simon Harris was known to British authorities for years yet was able to travel to Kenya unmonitored. In Durham’s case, he was able to leave Kenya and travel back to America following his confession. Surely Kenyan authorities should have acted as soon as they were notified about the charges?

Furthermore, no extradition application was made in any of these cases, a failure on the part of the British and Kenyan Governments (and, in the case of Wood, the Ugandan and Tanzanian authorities too for failing to make British Airways act).

Another question is whether all three men benefitted from “white privilege”. Did this contribute to them having access to vulnerable children and obtaining a level of trust which delayed the discovery of their crimes? In many non-Western countries foreigners from the West, particularly those that are white, experience privilege through receiving preferential treatment in public places such as hotels and restaurants and being given priority over members of the local population.

In my article on white privilege in East Africa I wrote, Almost every person in Kenya that I interviewed cited the example of how security guards at shopping centres will often not frisk or search through the belongings of white mall goers yet non-white visitors are always subject to a thorough check. Is this in itself not reinforcing the view that white people cannot be involved in criminal activity?”

Whether all three men took advantage of their whiteness and British/American passports to gain access minors cannot be determined, particularly in the case of Matthew Durham.

In the cases of both Simon Harris and Simon Wood, there is no doubt that both used their wealth and their status as charity workers to target vulnerable children. (Harris in offering food to street boys and, in the case of Wood, the mother of one of his victims said he loaned her money and took her five-year-old daughter to the Intercontinental Hotel). A resident of Gilgil told me that Harris being white and running a charity meant, “many of us would never have suspected anything strange about him.”

Changes to the Voluntary Sector

“Voluntourism” and the foreigners doing charity work in “Africa” reinforces a particular kind of hierarchy: the freedom with which westerners will take photos with little brown babies and upload them on social media and Tinder (an article for another day). Yet would they do the same with a random group of children they see at a playground in London or New York? Highly unlikely.

In fact, this is also visible within international media. In February 2010 columnist Nicholas Kristof revealed the name of a nine-year-old rape survivor in the Democratic Republic of Congo; she also featured in his video report. In December 2013, Mr Kristoff tweeted that he was at a police station in Kenya with a 13-year-old who had been raped by a neighbour. Accompanying the tweet was an image of the girl and though her face could not be seen it is still a violation.

Had these two girls been American survivors of rape somewhere in the USA would he have done the same?

Photos of Durham, Wood and Harris with African children are strewn all across the internet, taken during the time they were convincing the world of their “helping poor kids in Africa”.

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Some British placement schemes such as Volunteer Africa have a mandatory requirement that all volunteers undergo a Criminal Records Bureau Check. Perhaps it is time that volunteer receiving countries make this compulsory? In the case of Matthew Durham, a former employee of Upendo Children’s Home told me volunteers are not subject to any background checks. Their role at local churches in Oklahoma and being known in the community are thought to be enough.

In the UK when applying to work with children, be it as an employee or volunteer, one must provide a criminal records bureau check and, of course, go through an interview process with the prospective employer. In Australia, one must obtain a Working with Children check, while every state in America has its own individual processes to obtain the right to work with vulnerable populations.

A Kenyan Government official spoke to me on condition of anonymity stating, “These are isolated cases, we would not put the lives of our vulnerable children at risk. Regarding the overseas volunteer sector in general, it brings a lot of business to the economy – that’s why despite the many criticisms we would not encourage a crackdown or get too strict.”

I challenged him on this arguing that these “isolated cases” were discovered too late due to a lack of checks and this may therefore also mean that there are many cases which we do not hear about.

He proceeded to end the call saying, “To police every organisation sending volunteers to Kenya would be impossible. We appreciate concerns around this serious issue and it is my opinion that staff at orphanages and charity projects do their part by keeping a close eye on volunteers.”

matthew-durham

Convicted Child Rapist Matthew Durham

It’s about time the Western world stopped looking at children in ‘Developing Countries’ (whatever that means) as something to be saved, a status symbol, or an opportunity for a few Facebook photos.

Following his sentencing, the prosecution in the Matthew Durham case stated that his actions, have had a chilling effect on the lives of dozens of foreign volunteers in Kenya, leaving them “under the cloud of suspicion, distrust and apprehension when they volunteer their time, talent and resources for the betterment of children in East Africa and beyond.” (No offence to all those volunteers but, in this case, they don’t feature highly on my list of concerns.)

It is time all organisations earning money or karma points from sending volunteers out to work with children on the African continent or elsewhere, understand that these children are no different to those in the West and thus deserve the same level of protection.

It is time governments begin to insist that all international volunteers must face stringent checks; the same goes for foreigners setting up and running charities within their borders.

White skin, a foreign passport and affiliation with a Christian organisation are not qualifications, they are not achievements and they are certainly not an indication that you don’t have the ability to carry out horrific crimes.

We will never know the number of kids in total abused by Matthew Durham, Simon Wood and Simon Harris. We will never know how many young, vulnerable people are scared to go to sleep at night for fear of flashbacks and nightmares.

The question we must ask ourselves is if we are doing enough to ensure that no other child will suffer what they did.

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Samira Sawlani is a writer and journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani

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9 replies

  1. Thanks for this. I did a volunteer placement in Ghana in 2005 aged 18 and was allowed to work in primary schools with not a single reference being taken, either by the Uk volunteer company or by the the school. This was one of many issues – I mean, the idea that an 18 year old with no training can go and teach a class?! So much Western privilige. Now that I’m older and wiser this really bothers me. I checked with the volunteer company and am pleased to see that they have changed their policy and require DBS checks, but I shudder to think what could have happened if someone had used this as a way of getting access to vulnerable kids.

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  2. Note for correction: the CRB ceased operations in 2013- it’s now the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).

    Otherwise, an interesting view. I’ve worked at summer camp facilities in the US, and you have to jump through every possible hoop to get there. Travelling in Asia, I was able to waltz into an orphanage with a group of fellow white tourists because we were on a charity trip. Certainly makes you question the perceived value of these children’s safety.

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  3. If middle aged men, often with no training in education, were keen on spending a lot of time with children in white neighbourhoods the western world, people would justifiably raise their eyebrows and take a very hard look at who those men are and what they are doing. Make the children brown or black and poor and those men we’d at least call creeps become heroes and saints.
    I think that answers the question of white privilege.

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  4. “Between 1990 and 2013 Harris spent half his time in Gilgil. During those thirteen years”
    That*s 23 years.
    Thanks for the article.

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  5. So tragic. I can’t believe background checks aren’t a requirement! It’s not unreasonable at all, and I don’t think it would stop the volunteers that are already there and *not* engaging in this…horrendous activity. Horrendous doesn’t even do it justice. There are no words!

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  6. Another point to this is whether the host countries view street/homeless children as less than deserving of concern/care despite the money foreign people bring in.

    Liked by 1 person

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