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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
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Page 4 of 6

A number of journalists who know Njuguna-Githinji through the 2002 Knight Fellowship say that they never saw evidence that Alice was mistreated, and that they are shocked that Alice would try to sue Njuguna-Githinji, whom they describe as ambitious, courageous, and caring.

"The way [Njuguna-Githinji is] characterized in the lawsuit is totally out of character," says Andy Maykuth, an African correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The allegations about things like long hours ... sure, [Alice] did work long hours, because Wanja was working long hours. She was attending classes, doing a lot of speeches on campus, attending a lot of Knight Fellowship functions, so Alice was taking care of [Njuguna-Githinji's son] for a lot of that time.

"I'm not privy to their private lives, but we need to understand more about how a housekeeper in Africa would work ... what is considered normal there is different than what it would be here. It's a different world [in Kenya], and whatever arrangement they had over there may have been a normal relationship in Africa, but it may not have translated very well into America."

Knight Fellows also say that when they saw Alice, she tended to be quiet, pleasant, and smiling. "There was no indication or hint [of anything amiss]," says Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowship. "I look back -- was there some sign that I could have missed? -- and I find nothing."

"She did have some freedom," adds Maykuth. "She was able to establish some sort of life [outside of work]."

By the fall, Alice found herself in a financial quandary. She claims that though she had come to the United States to make money to send home to her family, her employer had prevented her from doing so for months by telling Alice that she could not transfer the money by herself, but then refusing to help Alice do it. Without her remittances, Alice knew her family would starve. When Alice repeatedly asked to send money home, Njuguna-Githinji allegedly told her that she should not do so until after she had paid back the money for the plane ticket from Kenya. (Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys say their client has documents showing that she wired money to Alice's family on her employee's behalf.)

Alice finally summoned the courage to ask for a pay increase. Because she was afraid of Njuguna-Githinji, Alice left a note for her employer on her desk. When Njuguna-Githinji discovered it later that day, Alice claims, she flew into a rage. "She was so mad with me, so angry," she alleged in a recent interview. "She pushed me, and she started calling me bad names. She called me 'asshole' and 'the most stupid woman who left her own child to come and do baby-sitting.' She said, 'You don't even deserve to be in this country. I only did you a favor [by bringing you here],' and I don't appreciate it. She told me, 'You come from poor blood, from poverty, and you are all arrogant.'"

Njuguna-Githinji screamed insults and threatened Alice with violence until 1 a.m., court documents say. Another time, she allegedly told Alice that her husband would beat Alice's uncle in Kenya if her uncle ever went to the journalist's home in Nairobi again. (Alice says there was confusion about a sum of money that Njuguna-Githinji had promised her family.) She told Alice that she could return to Kenya if she wished -- as long as she paid for her own ticket.

Alice went to see one of Njuguna-Githinji's friends, a neighbor and a former Knight Fellow, when her boss wasn't home. (When SF Weekly contacted the friend, who is now a reporter in Washington, D.C., he declined to comment for this story "for professional reasons.") She explained that she had been unable to send money to her mother and daughter in Kenya, and asked if there was another way to get funds to her family. He told Alice that she could send the money on her own, and drove her to a nearby Western Union one day when Njuguna-Githinji had left for the Stanford campus and her son was at school. When Alice's employer learned of the clandestine trip, Alice says, Njuguna-Githinji allegedly became angry and chastised Alice for not repaying her travel debt first.

The verbal abuse began to erode Alice's spirit. "I felt lonely and depressed," she says. "I didn't expect it. It was not what I had in mind. But I didn't know anyone to talk to."

She hoped to find solace at church. Njuguna-Githinji had recently begun giving Alice a few hours off on Sundays, during which she was expected to attend religious services. In November 2002, Alice walked to Mountain View to attend Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. After the service, she waited until everyone else had left before approaching the priest.

"She seemed kind of fearful, desperate," says Father Bob Moran, who has been with the church for eight years. "She worked long hours, she claimed, and she was always on duty. She said they took her passport and she couldn't really go anywhere. It didn't seem right; she didn't seem to have that much freedom." Moran told Alice that he would get in touch with a nun he knew at Catholic Charities, to see if she could help.

Though she was unsure about what to do next, Alice says, she had slowly come to realize that things were very wrong. "One day when I was taking the child to school, I saw the bus and it was written, 'Home of the free,'" she recalls. "Also, my employer used to say that there is freedom in this country. So I was thinking, 'America is home of the free.'

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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