Nairobi — Amos Kareithi talks to Kenyans who have fallen victim to seemingly lucrative job offers in the East only to find themselves in a form of slavery with no easy way out.
Susan Wanjiku narrates her ordeal in the hands of her employer in Riyadh.
Because of unchecked poverty and runaway unemployment rates, Kenyans are prepared to do anything to get out of the damn trap of want.
Those with means, skills or the right connections, seek and often get decent employment abroad. But the lesser citizen is just an easy target for manipulation, fodder for conmen and in extreme cases, the right material for enslavement, literally.
Crooks are, for instance, known to operate fake employment agencies - purported to secure employment for young Kenyans in foreign lands - only to swindle the gullible jobseekers of millions of shillings.
But the law seems to have driven the tricksters underground, only to re-emerge with a more formidable approach of exploitation.
Harrowing experience 'working' for a prince
As if to underscore how history repeats itself, many Kenyans are indeed in slavery in the Middle East, which was the capital of slave trade just a few centuries ago - thanks to employment bureaus. Figure this one out: -
In King'eero village, Kiambu district, the family of Susan Wanjiku Thandi is still reeling in shock after their daughter spent two harrowing years in Saudi Arabia 'working' for a prince.
Wanjiku was only saved from 14 years of slavery in the foreign land by her mother, Esther Wakanyi Thandi, who kicked up an international storm. That saw her daughter unconditionally released by her employer.
"When my daughter rang me from Riyadh, last September informing me that she would not come home after the expiry of her two year contract, I was devastated. She also tearfully told me that she was to be detained for the next 14 years.
Treated like a prisoner
Wanjiku with her mother, she displays scars she incurred while at work.
Fired by a mother's love, Wakanyi started a flurry of phone calls which ultimately cost her over Sh10, 000 as she approached one government officer after another, pleading for help.
Two weeks ago, she camped outside the embassy of the Saudi Arabia demanding to be told why her daughter was being treated like a prisoner.
When Wanjiku finally jetted back at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on October 18, the entire family and the country collectively breathed a sigh of relief.
Since she flew out on December 5, 2004 to Almajil palace of the governor of Riyadh, prince Salman bin Abduaziz Alsaud, she never knew peace
"It was the most difficult period of my life. I was a prisoner. I worked the whole day and part of the night for a paltry Sh11, 000 most of the time this money was slashed on allegations that I had made a mistake," Wanjiku says.
Broken china flower vase
Her worst nightmare came when in September this year; she attempted to lift a 50-kilogramme china flower vase at her employers new palace at Aqra. The vase broke.
My supervisor, who was from Sri Lanka, reported me. It was decided that since I could not afford to pay the $20,000, I would be detained for the next 14 years. I was made to commit myself in writing that I would work for duration without pay," Wanjiku recounts.
She says she realised this was not a joke when the prince, his seven children and all the other domestic workers, among them fellow Kenyans, relocated to the new palace, leaving her alone.
Wanjiku says she was overjoyed when she learnt that she would be repatriate back to her country although she claims that her employer owes her Sh500, 000 in underpayment and deductions on her salary.
"My knees are still very weak and painful. I would scrub the floors the whole night. My body too is very feeble since I had given birth to my two children through caesarian operations," said Wanjiku.
Contract terms were breached
She recounted how she was always under camera surveillance and a supervisor would be detailed to stand watch as she showered, three times a day.
The woman feels cheated that her contract terms were breached immediate she flew out of the country and had to return to Kenya poorer in health and wealth than she was two years before.
The agent who recruited Wanjiku to work in Saudi Arabia, Wahida Saida, has refuted allegations that she misled and exposed her to exploitation in the foreign land.
"I have contract forms she signed. Let her stop lying. Her mother came to me crying to allow her daughter to travel abroad. She agreed to be employed as a housekeeper. Why is she saying she was supposed to be a beautician? posed Saida.
Women lured to work as domestic slaves
The agent believes it is unfortunate that after trying to assist Wanjiku work abroad, she is being paid back with cruelty and malicious accusations, adding that she (Wahida) was instrumental in her release.
"I saw her mother crying on TV that she was ready to pay the return ticket to have her daughter. How much money did she pay? Does she know how her daughter came back?" poses Saida.
She warns those seeking jobs abroad to make sure their contracts specify the jobs they want before flying out so as to avoid being heartbroken.
"I have assisted many people go out. Why is it that it is only Wanjiku who has a problem. I am not the only agent involved in this and such allegations will ruin my business.
Investigations by The Big Issue indicate that there are thousands of Kenyan women - most in their 20s and 30s - who are being lured to work as domestic slaves in the Middle East.
In May this year, ten Kenyan women were deported from Saudi Arabia under controversial circumstances, which soured relations between the two countries.
Favourite destination for job seekers
Some of those who claimed to have been victims of breached contracts were Nur Said Kituku, Margaret Njeri Ndung'u, Aisha Abdi Dagane, Hafswa Mwatime Said, Pauline Wanjiru Gicheru, Fatuma Wanjiru Majid and Jane Kinyua.
Frustrated, Beatrice Njeri says she was driven to the point of attempting suicide by slitting her throat. Pictures by Ann Kamoni
The Kenyan envoy in Riyadh, Mr Yusuf Nzibo, initially contended that the women we being deported after breaking Saudi Arabian laws but this was hotly contested.
Saudi Arabia has been a favourite destination for job seekers, but it has at times climaxed with scandals involving millions of dollars as desperate jobseekers are duped.
There was a case in 2002, when at least 10, 031 Kenyans were duped by a bogus agent promising them employment on luxury ships operating in the Middle East.
In August this year, a Middle East firm placed an advertisement in the local press in a bid to recruit medics with promises of hefty salaries ranging from Sh36, 000 for ward nurses 140,000 for specialist doctors.
Had to play hide-and-seek with police
Saida confirmed there were more than one thousand Kenyans working in Saudi Arabia, adding that besides her agency in Eastleigh, there were other agents in Nairobi, Mombasa and other parts of the country.
The Big Issue traced another enterprising Kenyan who had to cheat her way back to Kenya after she ran away from her work place when she realised she had been duped and saw little hope.
Anne Nyokabi, who also hails from Kiambu, narrated how she fled from Saudi Arabia after working for five months and had to play hide-and-seek with the police in various Middle East cities to avoid being arrested.
Nyokabi, who travelled to Saudi Arabia on February 7, 2004, said she had paid Sh35, 000 to an agent to secure a job, which turned out to attract too low a pay but was backbreaking.
"I lied that I had misplaced my ticket and could not remember its number. I played dumb and had to be assisted by the Kenyan Embassy in Riyadh. It was very dangerous working illegally in Saudi Arabia for one year," Nyokabi said.
Captured by Iraqi forces
Perhaps the most chilling ordeal for a Kenyan who ventured into Saudi Arabia is that of David Chiira Mukuria, who was captured at the height of Iraq bombardment by the United States of America and her allies.
Mukuria, who hails from Murang'a, says he is still traumatised by his capture by the Iraqi forces trying to depose Saddam Hussein who later detained him as his captors made numerous threats.
"Several times, they threatened to kill us. We were kept in a dark room and never allowed to wear any clothes. We had been driving from Iraqi to deliver food supplies when our convoy was attacked," Mukuria recalls.
More than ten people are in captivity
Mukuria, who was later rescued by American commandos who stormed the place he was being held captive, explains that owing to the harsh beating he received, he cannot drive again.
"'I am partially blind and cannot even drive; I was never compensated for the suffering and maiming I received," he says.
According to the Muslim Human Rights Forum coordinator, Alamin Kimathi, hundreds of Kenyans are languishing in Middle East after paying agents through the nose to get them there to work.
He challenges the Government to make sure its citizens are not reduced to slaves after being promised well paying jobs by the sweet talking agents.
We know of more than ten people who are in captivity in Saudi Arabia. This is not acceptable. The Government must protect its people from exploitation," Kimathi says.
And as if to awaken the world to the reality in the Middle East, another female Kenyan treated residents of Riyadh to a horror spectacle after what she claims to have been unbearable suffering in the hands of her employers:
With a knife protruding from her chest and blood gushing from the gaping wound, the 29-year-old woman angrily waved away the crowd. Grimacing in pain, the woman's message was simple and clear - "Stay away or I will come flying down on you. Leave me alone."
And as panicked police officers watched helplessly, paramedics rushed to the scene, hotly followed by a body recovery van from the local morgue.
Although the melodrama was being played thousands of miles away from home, the subject of the panic watched nonchalantly as some police officers tried to cushion the anticipated 50-foot fall.
But what could drive a 29-year-old Kenyan mother of two to pay Sh50, 000 to secure a job broad only to try and take her life a few months later in a distant land?
Paid to be employed as a house help
Beatrice Njeri, the daughter of a peasant farmer in Kiambu's Wangige area, says she paid the ultimate price for daring to dream about becoming a millionaire through an unconventional route.
She paid to be employed as a house help in a foreign land to change her life for the better but today she says she is lucky to be home, and alive.
Her journey to hell started on September 2, 2003, when an offer too good to ignore was dangled before her eyes.
The police tried to ring the scene with inflated balloons but the mother of three quickly found an alternative place to carry out her 'kamikaze' mission.
"I was growing weak by the minute. I had lost so much blood. I was frightened but determined to end my life. Nobody was going to deter me. When I thrust the razor-sharp knife in my chest, I prayed for the end to come quickly, but it never did," Njeri recalls.
Came across scary paraphernalia
Only after she fell unconscious did the medics attempt to remove the knife wedged in her chest. Her neck too was bleeding profusely from yet another self-inflicted wound.
As medics rushed Njeri to a hospital in Riyadh, scenes of her two children, her husband Victor Wainaina and the lush fields of Wangige in Kiambu fleeted through her partly opened eyes.
She recently recounted how she had reached the end of her tether and was sure she would never leave Saudi Arabia alive. This was after she allegedly came across paraphernalia that scared her in her employer's house.
This, coupled with what she describes as a diet of rotten refrigerated rice, had driven her out of her mind.
Njeri, vividly retraces the final journey which cost her sanity and robbed her a year of her precious life, as she languished thousands of kilometers away from home.
Brother deported from Greece
She had just taken a loan of Sh50, 000, which was guaranteed by her mother, Winnie Muthoni from a local institution. The arrangement was that she would repay the money once she secured the job in the fabled Middle East.
Njeri's mother-in-law, Nelly Mwaura, still smarting from the humiliation of her son, Victor Wainaina, who had earlier been deported from Greece would hear none of the poverty eradication grand plan.
It was with a heavy heart that Njeri's husband and other members of the family escorted her to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to fly to Riyadh. She was leaving behind two children.
"I had entered into a two-year contract. I was to work for an elderly lady in Riyadh for Sh11, 000 per month. This money was to be sent to my family to offset the loan I had borrowed. The money had been used to pay the commission demanded by the agent," Njeri says.
Got disoriented and strayed in Dubai
After the botched suicide attempt in Riyadh in May of 2004, she says her life became pure hell.
"I tried to run away from hospital. I refused food and somehow survived on drinks and tea. I was under 24-hour police guard. When they caught me at the gate running away, they knew I was serious and loaded me on to the next flight to Nairobi," she adds.
As fate would have it, however, Njeri says she got disoriented on the way and on reaching Dubai she strayed away as her fellow travellers were waiting for a flight connection.
This saw her roam the airport for three days as she slept on a bench near the duty free shops. Both her husband and mother-in-law confirm that they have no idea how Njeri returned from Saudi Arabia, penniless and with no luggage, but they were overwhelmed with joy to see her.
"She was on a wheelchair. We had to quickly rush her to hospital. She was not coherent and neither could she stand on her feet. She was so weak she looked like a ghost," recalls Wainaina.
Scar shines like a badge of honour
Njeri was rushed to Thogoto hospital, where she was to spend the next two months bedridden as doctors tried to revive her from the severe depression.
"She appeared confused, and could barely walk. Her legs were swollen and she was very weak. It is a miracle that she can now walk and talk," Nelly told The Big Issue.
Njeri's little scar shines like a badge of honour and dances like a gold medallion prominently displayed she goes through her nightmarish ordeal.
The mere clatter of a spoon on the kitchen floor is enough to reduce her into a nervous wreck. Her bedside cabinet is full of drugs. At times she is so confused that sees crowds of people waiting to decapitate her.