The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Abuse of Black Workers in Saudi Arabia Dates Back to 20th Century

opinion

Saudi Arabia and several countries in the Middle East have every now and then hit the headlines for wrong reasons.

It has either been a house-maid thrown off the balcony by his irate employer or a worker being returned to Kenya in a coffin. What many Kenyans do not know is that Saudi Arabia, and several of the Middle Eastern countries, are very conservative.

We are in the 21st century yet even a female university graduate is not allowed to drive a car. She also has to be accompanied by a chaperon even when she goes shopping. Generally, the females there appear very submissive.

However, there is one exception to this - Dr Nawal el Saadawi. The intrepid Egyptian women rights fighter, who combines medicine with writing to get her points across. But the Middle East needs another 100 of such female warriors - Saadawii is but one drop in the ocean.

Saudi Arabia has gained the notoriety of administering brutal punishment to its alleged offenders. For instance, it was recently reported in a British paper that up to "45 foreign house-maids were to be beheaded". The same source quotes a human rights group insinuating horrendous slaughters where up to 69 were executed last year, 75 the year before. These include five women, one of whom was beheaded for witchcraft and sorcery.

The typical Kenyan teenager would consider this as intrusive authority and chant "Haki yetu, Haki yetu". Not so in the Middle East! This explains why the typical employer there, with the mindset of a slave master, flies into an uncontrollable rage and pushes a "rebellious" Kenyan house-maid off the balcony.

But why do Kenyans travel overseas to seek employment? Jobs are difficult to come by here at home and the salaries are generally miserable except for a lucky few. Hence Kenyans will go anywhere to seek their fortunes. They are all over the world - we are told that Kenyans top the list of sub-Saharan Africans in the US. The truth is that the USA with all its short-comings is a modern democratic state. Saudi Arabia is not.

I had a sojourn in Lesotho. The pay there was much better than in Kenya. However, the black Southern Africans have their own problems. They tend to look down on other Africans, especially those from the north of the Limpopo River whom they call Makoerekoere - those whose languages we do not understand.

Back to Saudi Arabia. She has had a chequered history with East Africa. In the late 18th century, the Sultan of Oman helped drive out the Portuguese from East Africa, pushing them all the way to Mozambique , which remained their stronghold. The reigning Sultan, then known as Seyyid Said, was attracted to the Zanzibar island and the coastal littoral. He however encountered resistance from the Mazrui family of Mombasa

The subsequent heavy-handedness of the Omanis was greatly resented by the Mazrui and their Swahili supporters. The well-known scholar, Professor R.W. Beachey in his book, The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa , surmises "that the local Swahili were restive under Omani rule is evident from their exodus to Mafia, and from letters to Goa from the Sultan and notables of Kilwa, pleading for the return of the Portuguese as preferable to the Omani".

Indeed, the Mazrui had every now and then successfully defied the pretensions of Seyyid Said. But in the 1830s, Seyyid Said became more wily. We are told that he enticed the prominent members of the Mazrui clan into the Fort Jesus stronghold for a feast. The moment they were inside, the gates were locked up and the feast became a nightmare as the hapless guests were bound hand and foot.

They were loaded onto boats heading for the Persian Gulf. We are also told that several were tossed overboard into the shark-infested waters and the remnants languished in Omani dungeons. Thereafter, Seyyid Said made Zanzibar his capital and turned East Africa into his commercial hegemony based on the odious ivory and slave trade.

This explains why several employers in the Middle East maintain a mindset of a slave master, especially when dealing with Africans. And in Africa itself, countries such as the Sudan, Mauritania, Northern Mali and Niger still practise a form of slavery on the dark-skinned segments of their populations. A dark-skinned African in the Arab world is still regarded as a slave unless proven otherwise.

Yes the African diplomats are feted with cosmetic dignity in the Arab world but the ordinary African is treated with contempt. This, in many ways, explains why the Kenyan workers there are generally treated as lesser humans.

The government did the right thing to suspend travel arrangements to the Middle East. This should be supported by all patriotic Kenyans.

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