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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 6 of 6

As she sat trembling across from Rinaldi, Alice tried to explain her situation. When he asked her if she wanted to escape, she told him that she was too afraid to leave. He gave her his cell phone number and told her to call him any time. After Alice left, Rinaldi consulted the notes he had taken during the conversation, and when he got back to his office, he called the acquaintance who had been bringing Alice food.

Rinaldi recalls, "I spoke with this fellow -- and he's not going to gain by talking about this -- [and] he said, 'You have no idea how powerful [Njuguna-Githinji] is.' He had visited the home and befriended Alice, and he said [to her], 'Look, you can't continue to live like this.' He corroborated what she had indicated to me. The way it came through, he was also fearful of the ramifications on him." (Repeated attempts to contact the neighbor, whose name SF Weekly has agreed not to publish, were unsuccessful.)

Rinaldi then did an Internet search on Wanja Njuguna-Githinji and came across the CNN Web site announcing her as the media organization's African Journalist of the Year.

"I thought about the ramifications of this for the lady -- and for Alice," he says. "Knowing what [Alice] is going up against, you weigh that. Why else would this person come here, to this humble place, and tell us what she's going through? The power difference between those two was not lost on me."

A few days later, Alice called Rinaldi. "She was concerned for herself and her family," he says. "I told her ... 'You can be protected here. We can acknowledge that [Njuguna-Githinji] has all this power and she is in a position of strength, but it doesn't mean that you have to suffer or continue to suffer. You don't have to endure this.'"

Rinaldi gave her a phone number for a local domestic violence shelter that had agreed to take Alice in. (There is only one shelter for trafficking victims in this country, recently opened in Los Angeles.)

"I had doubts about whether I'd hear from or see her again," Rinaldi says. "I didn't know that I had gotten through to her that she could be protected. I didn't know that she believed it."

Njuguna-Githinji returned a few days later, with even stricter rules. "I was thinking that when she came back she would change and be the way she was in Kenya," Alice says. "It wasn't. When she come from home, it got worse. She didn't even greet me, and she had been gone for one month. I thought it would be hard to stay there again."

Alice called Nalini Shekar, the director of the domestic violence shelter whose name Rinaldi had given her. After a few conversations with Shekar, Alice was ready to leave.

On Jan. 8, 2003, she got out. She waited until Njuguna-Githinji had left for the university, and took the child to school. Returning quickly to the house, she put some clothes in a plastic trash bag and nervously called Shekar, who picked up Alice and took the young woman to a Bay Area domestic violence shelter. Alice rotated through a number of shelters for a year before recently moving to temporary housing.

At Alice's new dormitory-style apartment, she shares a kitchen with everyone on her floor. To buy groceries, she uses gift cards for local supermarkets that she has received from charities. Her clothes are donated. Whenever Alice receives a cash donation, she sends about half of it home to her mother, who still believes Alice is working under Njuguna-Githinji, because Alice hasn't had the heart to tell her mother about her troubles in the United States. She can't work legally in this country, and she hasn't seen her daughter, now 5, since she left Kenya in August 2002.

Shekar helped Alice sign up for computer classes at community centers. "She is nonstop," the director says. "She will come in and eat and go back to class. She is really determined."

When she's not in a classroom, Alice visits the local library or the flea market -- and sometimes she just sits. Her civil lawsuit against Njuguna-Githinji is pending; in court documents, her former boss has denied all of the allegations. Njuguna-Githinji has also filed a countersuit against Alice alleging that Alice stole $950 before she left Njuguna-Githinji's apartment. (Alice denies taking any money from Njuguna-Githinji.)

Those who met Alice before she fled Njuguna-Githinji's house are surprised that a woman who was once fearful and shaking has become emboldened enough to file a civil suit in a public court.

"It took enormous courage for Alice to come forward and assert her rights against a powerful and influential woman," says Nancy Harris, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who is handling Alice's case pro bono, along with Kathleen Kim of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. "We're confident that ... a jury will agree with us that Alice was terribly mistreated in violation of California and federal law."

Alice, who still speaks in a near-whisper when addressing strangers, admits it is not in her nature to openly tell others about her problems.

"I used to be shy, and [when] life was really hard, I used to be patient most of the time," she says. "If there is a hard thing, like going without food, living without my mother ..."

She lowers her head and begins to cry so silently that it is not clear, at first, that she is upset.

"It's difficult," she continues, after pausing for a few minutes. "It's frustrating, too. It's really hard. Sometimes I feel a stress, but I always think it is better if it doesn't happen to other people. The only reason I'm doing it is because the person that I came with is a person who ... was doing the same thing that she is fighting against."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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