Ms Diana Chepkemoi, who was abused by her employer in Saudi Arabia before being rescued and flown back home on Tuesday, has opened up about her tribulations.
Ms Chepkemoi, 24, told the Nation that Kenyans and other African workers employed as domestic workers in the Arab country had been subjected to mental torture, abuses and threats and many had psychological breakdowns.
“It is good to be home. I am so grateful that at last I am free from slavery. Though I am not in the best of health, this is the highest moment of my life,” she said.
Suffering from jetlag and having travelled by road for five hours from Nairobi to her rural home in Chemalany, Konoin constituency, Bomet County, she arrived at 2am on Wednesday.
She looked frail and deprived of sleep and had to be repeatedly shielded from neighbours who thronged the home to have a glimpse of her.
“I am glad to have my daughter back alive. It is the greatest feeling a mother can have. I am overjoyed," said a beaming Ms Clara Cherotich Maritim.
When Ms Chepkemoi woke up in mid-morning, she was taken to her grandfather’s house, about 300 metres from her parents’ home, where her two sisters – Mercy Chepkirui and Lorraine Cheptoo – were helping plait her hair.
Ms Maritim occasionally popped in to check on her daughters as the Nation spoke to them.
Her parents’ home was a hive of activity, with women from the neighbourhood fetching firewood, water and milk in preparation for celebrations to be held later in the day to welcome Ms Chepkemoi back to the community.
Youths were unloading tents, plastic chairs and a public address system, with some local politicians said to have confirmed participation along with clerics.
“Employers expect you to be perfect. To work like a robot. When a worker makes a mistake, he is abused, insulted and threatened. It is very dehumanising,” she lamented.
Family members had said in an earlier interview that Ms Chepkemoi made an independent decision to defer her education as a second-year student at Embu University.
She wanted to take up a job in Saudi Arabia in order to help educate her siblings. Her father, Richard Maritim, died in 2011.
Ms Chepkemoi siblings – two in university and one in secondary school – are staring at the possibility of dropping out.
Her tribulations started the second month after she took up the job in July 2021. They escalated and she was subjected to horrid working conditions even after she fell ill.
“Unfortunately … the employers out there (Saudi Arabia) have no regards for black people,” Ms Chepkemoi claimed.
“They treat their black employees as slaves. When an employee raises issues, they openly tell you that there is nothing you can do to them, that they have power over your agent and your government.”
Her salary was delayed and she had to keep reminding and begging her employer to pay up so she could take care of her family’s needs. The living quarters and food were not bad, she said.
She denied that she was indebted to her employer, stating that it was not captured in the employment contract and that the issue was solely dealt with by the agent.
Her employer claimed she had debts – without revealing the amount or how it was arrived at – that she needed to pay before being released.
“I understand there is visa processing, medication fees and air ticket costs, but we were not informed how those were tabulated and how they would be deducted from the salary,” Ms Chepkemoi said.
She said she repeatedly protested to her employer and agent about her mistreatment, but no action was taken. Instead, her employer took drastic action and confiscated a mobile phone she had been given.
She was denied medication when she fell ill and was forced to work, aggravating her health and tormenting her psychologically.
Unbeknown to her employer, Ms Chepkemoi still had her Kenyan mobile phone, which she used to communicate with the outside world and which later came in handy as a ticket to freedom.
Having lost hope, it struck her that Nairobi-based lawyer Rosemary Chemutai Kimwatu could help report her case to the authorities as her appeals had not elicited any response.
Ms Chepkemoi said she sent photos of herself to the lawyer, who, along with her husband, reached out to the Kenyan Embassy in Riyadh and the government. The photos were uploaded online and they went viral, triggering a series of events that led to her rescue.
“Rosemary encouraged me a lot. She told me I could not surrender to being a slave and that I must gather all the energy I still had and fight for myself. It was a flicker of hope that gave me a lifeline,” Ms Chepkemoi said.
She added: “It was a gamble that I took, as revealing my situation meant it could further be aggravated. I could even die … But I told myself, what else did I have to lose? I am happy it paid off eventually.”
She said she hoped the next government and the new legislators will in the coming weeks exhaustively address the issue of Kenyans working in the Middle East.
“Bad as my case looks, it cannot be compared with that of thousands of Kenyans working as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. They have a complete psychological breakdown. Honestly, it is a very bad situation,” Ms Chepkemoi said.
“Kenyans and black Africans in general should never consider going to work as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. It is not a good environment to work as human rights and dignity do not exist.”
She said there is a good and bad side to every situation, but it was not worth the risk for Kenyans to be employed as domestic workers in the Arab country.
“That is not to say they are all bad. There are good and respectful families one can work for … But there are no guarantees that you will get a good employer and conflict resolution does not exist there.”
Though she was happy to be back home, she said complete joy will only come when the situation is rectified and Kenyans suffering in Saudi Arabia along with other Africans are rescued.
“I am happy to be back home and to reunite with my family. But what about the thousands of Kenyans and Africans subjected to mental torture out there?” she wondered.
She wants the government to suspend employment of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia until the issue is resolved, with feedback on the welfare of employees and random checks by agencies, adding that agents have failed the workers.
“It is a shame that the embassy cannot respond to distress calls from Kenyans working in Saudi Arabia, many of whom have lost their lives and are brought back in coffins,” Ms Chepkemoi lamented.
Would she consider returning to work in Saudi Arabia if the situation improves or if she gets a good employer?
“I would not go back under any circumstances and I will never advise any prospective employee, however desperate the situation may be, to take up a job, especially as a domestic worker out there,” Ms Chepkemoi said.
Many migrant workers from various countries are accommodated at a rescue centre (Sakan Company) in Riyadh, where she was briefly held before undergoing medical tests and being processed for travel back to Kenya.
Mr Martin Kipkirui, Ms Chepkemoi’s younger brother, commended Kenyans for rallying around his sister and ensuring she arrived home safely.
He said the family received prayers, emotional support and encouragement from people of all walks of life in the last one week.
“As a family, we are grateful to the government, the leaders, media and all those who made their contribution towards the rescue and bringing our sister back home from Saudi Arabia. We will forever be indebted to you,” Mr Kipkirui said.
The Kenyan consulate in Riyadh and the Ministry of Labour were instrumental in rescuing and flying her back home.