Horrifying tale of a Kenyan woman trafficked to Saudi Arabia

The cover of Up for Sale: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery by Alison Marie Behnke.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Kenyan woman travelled to Saudi Arabia for what she thought was a white-collar job, only to find she was a slave to a woman named Amira and her huge family.
  • Her passport was confiscated and police officers laughed, derided, and then sexually abused her when she went to report her ordeal.

Up For Sale: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery illustrates the atrocity of kafala, a Middle Eastern systemic racist legal framework that warrants the oppression of migrant workers.

It allows human rights abuses, including confiscation of passports and endurance of long working hours. It restricts mobility, hinders vacations, confines external communication, promotes inordinate poor accommodation and enhances gender discrimination.

In late December 2019, Sophia Achieng’, a student at the Kenya Institute of Management, worked as a waitress at Mr Yao restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi. A trafficking agency situated on Ngong’ Road, Nairobi, which scouts for workers to go to Saudi Arabia, recruited her.

Her flight from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport aboard an Air Arabia plane arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport in the port city of Jeddah. Achieng’ instantly noticed the locals' unquenchable thirst for racism. Black people, including her, queued in segregated sections.

An Air Arabia operative promptly confiscated her passport and she did not see it for the rest of her Saudi excursion. She asked for her luggage and was met by demeaning stares that sneered at her presence and earned gratification from the mistreatment of black people. They covered their noses when she approached them and applied deodorant on their hands to detest her.

She began noticing a disparaging word used to describe black people, himaar (donkey). She was also disrespectfully laughed at and told to yallah (hurry up and leave) when she requested evidence of her promised white-collar job.

After a three-day confinement, on a mattress on the floor, surviving on juice and biscuits, Achieng’ was led to a taxi, and driven to a terminus where she boarded a bus at 1pm. She endured a hungry 14-hour bus ride to the south-western hilly city of Abha.

A young bearded man received her and drove her to a palatial estate commandeered by Amira, the driver’s tyrannical mother. Amira lived with numerous members of her extended family. Achieng’ was tasked with cleaning the 30-bedroom residence, clothes and utensils.

At 10am daily, she prepared breakfast for Amira's husband and each individual in the house, depending on the time they awoke. She made lunch for the entire family at midday, and prepared supper. Every hour of the day and night, she brewed gahwa (coffee) for the family that stayed up late into the night, which they had with local bread bushra.

Achieng’ only slept for a maximum of four hours daily, on a tiny, uncomfortable, makeshift bed with a thin mattress, in a small storeroom. Every night, she would be awakened by a naked Muhammed, Amira's son, who would attempt to rape her, but she would consistently fight him off.

She would be beaten and spat on daily, and an elaborate compilation of derogatory expletives was directed at her. These included "dirty black whore," kaffir (unbeliever), shagallah (maid) and abeed (slave), by Amira and her children. Whenever she took a break to rest, Amira would physically assault her.

Achieng’ avoided eating the leftover food she was instructed to eat, and survived on sugarless green tea, dates and apples. She had a bad chest, which worsened. She developed ulcers, haemorrhoids and chronic gastritis. She told Amira of her illness, but she blatantly refused to take her to hospital.

On the brink of despair, Achieng’ began recording videos and audios of her mistreatment and continuously sent them to her sister, Mary, in Nairobi. After a month, she escaped from the compound and walked for an hour.

Every motorist who stopped by her demanded sex in exchange for a lift — she refused. She arrived at a police station in Abha, and was met with insults, mockery and laughter when she reported her ordeal.

She was sexually assaulted repeatedly by the police officers who exploited her desperation by groping her breasts and rear. It dawned on her that due to kafala, her human rights were immaterial. The police phoned her employer, Amira, who drove her back to her residence.

Upon her return, she was reprimanded and endured a vicious beating from Amira, together with one of her sons, and her daughters. She was flogged with the intention of confiscating her phone and eliminating its evidence. Achieng’ managed to free herself from the assault and ran up a staircase.

Amira dragged her back and she fell, injuring her back. She freed herself, hid in the toilet for respite, skipped work and contemplated suicide.
On February 14, 2020, Achieng’s mother began paying the trafficking agency Sh350,000 in instalments for her daughter's return. This culminated in Achieng’s release to a safe house in Jeddah, where she met hundreds of rescued trafficked women.

At the safe house, Achieng' awaited the revocation of her iqama, the Saudi Arabian resident's permit. Just before the Saudi Covid-19 lockdown in late February 2020, Achieng’ travelled back to Nairobi, without a single coin, but happy to be alive.

Jeff Anthony is a novelist, a Big Brother Africa 2, Kenyan representative and founder of Jeff's Fitness Centre; @jeffbigbrother