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Enslaved in Palo Alto 

A domestic worker from Kenya has accused her employer -- a prominent African journalist -- of human trafficking

Wednesday, Feb 18 2004
Alice B. grew up in Bungoma, Kenya, a district near the border of Uganda with a distant view of the jagged, extinct volcano Mount Elgon. Surrounded by rolling hills and verdant, grassy fields, her hometown has soccer teams, Girl Scout troops, and 4-H Clubs, but its residents eke out a humble living. The AIDS epidemic has left a growing number of Bungoma's children orphaned: Gaunt and glassy-eyed, they sleep in alleyways, beg for change, and get high on glue.

Alice, who asked that her last name not be used, is among the more fortunate in Bungoma in that her family is merely poor. As do most people in the district, she grew up in a house made of mud, with a thatched-grass roof and dung spread on the floor to keep away the fleas. Running water, paved roads, and electricity are unheard-of. Like most children, Alice didn't begin wearing shoes until high school.

Her father, who died in 1996, worked in a sugar factory four hours away from Bungoma and visited home every few months. The family tended a small plot of land, raising sugar cane and corn, though the harvest never yielded enough to survive on; Alice remembers chewing sugar cane to stave off hunger. To keep her children from starving, Alice's mother left the girl in charge and took baby-sitting and housecleaning jobs in Kitale, about 60 miles away, earning around $12 a month.

The third eldest of seven children, Alice dedicated herself to supporting her mother and her younger siblings. Education seemed the clearest road to a better life, and she dreamed of becoming a nurse. In the eighth grade, Alice won a scholarship for poor families to a nearby boarding school. But her high school education would come in fits and starts, and she skipped 10th grade when her father refused to bribe an official for scholarship money. She was only able to finish high school when a cousin from Nairobi offered to help her pay the fees. Without money for more bribery, college was impossible.

At 21, Alice had a baby (she declines to speak about the father), and with few viable jobs in Bungoma, she moved to Nairobi to find work while her daughter and family remained behind. Like many poor young women, she found a job as a baby-sitter for an affluent family. But after three months, her employer moved, and Alice took a job in 2000 as a domestic worker under Wanja Njuguna-Githinji, a prominent journalist whose work focuses on women's issues.

At her new job as a "housegirl," Alice says, she spent her days cleaning, baby-sitting, and cooking meals for the writer and her husband, a member of the Kenyan military.

"In Kenya, it was OK," Alice says of their initial work arrangement. "She leaves everything for me to do. If I finish, then I have free time. On Sundays, I was off duty." Every three months, she could take a week off to visit her daughter in Bungoma.

Njuguna-Githinji, a writer and editor at Kenya's largest press organization, the Nation Media Group, was just beginning to garner international attention for her work. A senior prison officer who had worked for Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi's government for 13 years before becoming a journalist, she was awarded CNN's African Journalist of the Year Award -- considered the African Pulitzer -- in 2000 for her coverage of domestic violence against upper-class Kenyan women. The award included a $10,000 cash prize, a laptop, a cell phone, and five weeks of training at Time's London office. She would go on to write and report several articles for the magazine's European edition.

In 2002, after Alice had worked for Njuguna-Githinji for about two years, the writer learned that she had been selected for a coveted John S. Knight Fellowship for journalists, which would allow her to spend an all-expenses-paid year studying at Stanford University while receiving a yearly stipend of about $55,000, plus an additional $6,000 for child care. A few months before she was to leave for the United States, Njuguna-Githinji asked Alice to move with her.

Alice was hesitant. "I didn't want to, because I didn't know about America and I didn't want to leave my child [for a year]," she says.

But Njuguna-Githinji promised Alice an opportunity she couldn't resist: better pay, easier work, and a chance to continue her education in her off hours. "She said, 'Come with me for one year. I will help you with school. America is advanced and life is better. We will bring your child if we stay more than one year,'" Alice recalls. Njuguna-Githinji helped Alice get a passport and a B-1 visa for domestic workers.

In August 2002, Alice boarded a plane for San Francisco International Airport. "I was hoping to come to America to make more money than what I was making in Kenya, to help with my daughter and family," Alice says. "When I was coming to America, I was excited."

But Alice, a shy, soft-spoken 26-year-old with wide eyes and a round, distinctive face, says the conditions of her employment were not the same as what she had agreed to. She asserts that Njuguna-Githinji, who is now at Harvard University as a Mason Fellow in public policy, promised her a six-day workweek of six hours a day at $6 to $6.75 an hour. Though Alice has never been given a copy, Njuguna-Githinji presented an employment contract to the U.S. Embassy -- a requirement of the visa that allowed Alice to work in the United States temporarily.

But the promises, Alice says, disappeared once they set foot on American soil. In a civil lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County in July 2003, she alleges that she was only paid between $50 and $120 a month, receiving a total of $370 for five months' labor. Court documents also say that Alice was expected to clean the house every day, cook all the meals, and tend to Njuguna-Githinji's son at any hour of the day or night. She was required to do laundry by hand, though the apartment had a washer and dryer. She rarely got a day off, and was told not to speak to anyone for fear of deportation. In addition to the long hours and paltry pay, Alice alleges in court filings that she was constantly insulted, berated, and even threatened by Njuguna-Githinji.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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