It was half past midnight.
Alvin Nyangarisa Ongono lay on the cold hard floor of the deportation centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The hunger in her knew no bounds. African women who become “unruly” are usually locked up for months in deportation camps, beaten to a pulp and denied sanitary towels until they fall back in line.
She is one of the hundreds of young women shipped to the Arab world every year as domestic workers. Her heart beating frantically as tears ran down her cheeks, she was afraid that she would not make it to the next day.
“Matiang’i is my neighbour, he will come for us,” a Kenyan woman she had met at the camp screamed, referring to Kenya’s cabinet secretary for Interior, Dr Fred Matiang’i. According to Ms Nyangarisa, their ordeal at that place seemed to have made the woman lose her mind.
This was her fourth camp after spending weeks locked up in Al Hazar, Al Fufu and now Dammam. That Thursday, she had spent the afternoon begging Mr Tukki Saleh Ahmed Baltuor, the man who claimed to own her, to show mercy. He was boiling with rage because of her attempted “escape from Sobibor”.
The workers are seen as a commodity for trade, with a three-month warranty. This means that once a worker is placed with an employer, he can return her to the agency that placed her within the first three months, after which it will refund his money or give him a new one.
Ms Nyangarisa had been there five months. Investigations by the Nation have revealed a well-established and coordinated network of agencies in Nairobi that source young women to work in the Middle East.
Jay-Horizons Travel Agency at Madona House on Mpaka Road, Westlands, according to Ms Nyangarisa, took her to Saudi Arabia. A search indicates that the company is registered as a legal business though it is unverified at the registry.
This means that the identity of the owners of this entity registered as a business, and information on what it does, has been left out. But under Section 83 of the Employment Act No.11 of 2017, the agency pays the government Sh840,000 as a surety.
The women who are taken to households as domestic workers can only go home under two circumstances; in a body bag or when their employers sign off to grant them an exit visa.
Ms Nyangarisa, a small-bodied young woman from Gucha, Kisii County, was born in a family of two boys and four girls.
“My mother passed away and my life changed completely.”
Her mother was the bread winner, so she had to move to her grandmother’s home. She dreamt of studying engineering after attaining a C+ in the secondary school final exams, but the only inheritance her mother left was an emaciated cow that was immediately sold off by her uncle.
“I moved to Nairobi in 2013 after selling bananas for a while, then did cleaning jobs, but the money was unable to raise fees, let alone sustain me.” After being conned of Sh5,000, money she had painstakingly saved, she packed her bags and returned to the village, heartbroken.
“I was paid Sh8,000 from the cleaning agency but the money was so little after deducting tax, NSSF and NHIF.” One day, Ms Nyangarisa’s aunt told her about job opportunities in Saudi Arabia.
“She told me Mr Samuel Omweri, our neighbour in the village, worked as a broker, connecting job-seekers to a woman who takes them to Saudi Arabia free of charge.” The Nation has since established that Mr Omweri is, indeed, a broker who supplies women to Ms Jane Wairimu and Ms Violet Karanu, who run the agency.
“Ms Wairimu is no longer with us,” Violet told Nation. She also confessed that she sometimes feels like quitting from the business whenever she reads stories about the plight of the girls.
“You are very lucky, the next training for the girls begins on December 28 and this will be a life-changing opportunity for you,” Mr Omweri told a Nation undercover journalist posing as a frustrated job-seeker. Ms Karanu is the big player; she mostly transacts with the Arabs, charters flights and takes the women to the airport.
“Wairimu sent Samuel fare for us to travel to Nairobi immediately,” said Ms Nyangarisa. The next step after the broker delivers the women is for them to be “educated”. “They have a school, which I attended for one month, called Competitive Manpower Training Institute in Githurai and Utawala. They make you fall in love with Saudi Arabia,” she said.
A search by the Nation revealed that the institute has been operating since 2010. It is owned by Mr Moses Opiyo Odala Onyango and Ms Virginia Mwikali Solo. It also has operations in Tanzania, Uganda, Dubai and Ghana.
Milk and honey
During the one-month training, the young women are taught homecare, which deals with maintaining a household; departure, which focuses on documents required to travel, and stories from a faculty that paints Saudi Arabia as the land of milk and honey. There is also childcare which deals with handling children and pregnant women, while also teaching the women about family planning.
The last covers personal grooming, what Saudis dislike and like, among other things expected of them in their new country. The teachers claimed to have lived in this ‘magical’ place while dangling the “lots of amazing opportunities and better pay” carrot. On graduating, the women were taken for a photo-shoot. Tests are also done to ensure the women have no medical conditions and are not pregnant.
“My boss told me that he paid Sh350,000 to buy me. The Sh50,000 was specifically for those check-ups,” she added. They then make a list and send it to Dar Alnokba, one of Jay- Horizon Travel Agency’s many affiliates located in Al-Hufuf City, Hufuf–Muhammadiya district.
The recruitment office is run by an Egyptian called Ahmed and a Kenyan, Ms Mercy Nzomo, who recently returned to Kenya for holiday, but is owned by a Saudi, whom Nation established is a close friend of Ms Wairimu and Ms Kananu. Ms Nyangarisa and 16 other women left Kenya on February 7 on a chartered Air Arabia flight, Airbus A 320-168 Y that stopped over at Sharjah then proceeded on to Dammam Airport.
“Jane Wairimu gave us her bank details, demanding each of us to send her our first month’s salary as payment and gratitude for sponsoring us to Saudi Arabia.” Her monthly salary was 900 riyals (Sh26,762). She would wait for her boss and his family to start snoring away before going back to the kitchen for leftover food.
“It reached a point I couldn’t take it any more, especially because I fell too ill. My boss, a military commander, refused to let me go. He got so angry whenever I brought it up,” she said.
There was no air travel due to the Covid-19 lockdown, so she had to wait, with no pay, and moved around from one deportation camp to another. Women who refuse to work are called back to recruitment offices like Dar Alnokba and brutally beaten.
The Nation also learnt that many Kenyan women shipped to the country have run away from their employers and are hiding in shanty towns and slums, prostituting to get by. There are also many undocumented children sired from the trade. Those who ran away are commonly known as “Kemboi’s”, after Kenya’s marathon legend Ezekiel Kemboi.
“When I approached our embassy, balozi (ambassador) sent me away. He tells girls to go back home the way they came over,” said Ms Nyangarisa. She also revealed that embassy staffers usually advise them to go ask the Arabs for forgiveness.
“My job mostly entails pleading with the Saudi government and writing letters on behalf of our people,” Mr Robinson Juma Twanga, Kenya’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Nation. He added that the fact that embassies don’t have budgets to solve many of the problems remains a big challenge.
Mr Dennis Nkarichia, an associate at Mohammed Muigai Advocates, a law firm based in Nairobi, believes the problem is that Kenya’s immigration laws and policies remain divorced from reality.
“We need to evolve an immigration policy that protects casual and semi-skilled staff sent overseas from exploitation,” he told the Nation.
He sees enacting a Tortuous Claims Act — like in America — that would allow Kenyans to sue domestic companies and agencies for extra territorial conduct as a bold step to take. This would allow minimum labour standards to be imposed on the companies, thus ensuring they recruit and post employees only to employers who meet our domestic standards.
On Wednesday, independent investigative journalist John Allan Namu tweeted that he had spotted many girls at the airport on their way to Riyadh.
“At the airport, saw a long line of young girls headed to Riyadh for work. Spoke to two of them. Barely out of their teens, leaving behind everyone they know for a country that hasn’t treated some of their kin well. God protect them,” Namu wrote.
The Nation reached out to the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Nairobi for three consecutive days but the officials were unwilling to respond to the questions . The telephone operator then diverted all calls to their security desk.