The harrowing journey through human trafficking

Survivors and anti-human trafficking advocates Brenda Anyango Odhiambo, Purity Mbogo and Everlyne Adhiambo Kioko.

Photo credit: Photos I Wilfred Nyangaresi I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Haart Kenya, an NGO fighting human trafficking, says the mean age of survivors is 26, with 85 per cent of them being females.
  • It says most victims are from the Coast, followed by Kakamega and Kiambu but recent figures show an increase in Kisii, through referrals.
  • This year’s theme for UN World Day against Trafficking in Persons (Sunday, July 30) is: Reach every victim of trafficking, leave no one behind.

Imagine being in a foreign country, huddled together with hundreds of others in a small room, waiting for days on end to be deported to your home country.

You endure a continuous menstrual flow, with only one undergarment (panty) to manage it. In the process, you contract a urinary tract infection (UTI) from using shared toilets and find yourself battling against pneumonia without any access to medical attention. This is not a mere figment of imagination; rather, it is the harsh reality Brenda Anyango Odhiambo faced back in 2021.

I meet 26-year-old Brenda in the company of two other women, 32-year-old Purity Mbogo from Kirinyaga County and 37-year-old Everlyne Adhiambo Kioko from Homa Bay County, at an undisclosed location in Nairobi. They are preparing for the World Day against Trafficking, which is happening on Sunday, July 30.

Brenda’s ordeal at the hands of agents, who take advantage of vulnerable women and girls, started in late 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. She had been fired from the thrifted clothes shop, where she worked as an attendant. She had been her young family’s breadwinner since her husband had been jobless for a while.

With no source of income and the impact of the pandemic biting hard, Brenda joined a Facebook Group called Kenyans in Saudi Arabia and put out a plea to anyone who could help get to the gulf country to try her luck in getting a job.

“A representative from an agency called Afaq Alhkhtyear reached out to me almost immediately and arranged for us to meet in the Nairobi CBD for better planning,” offers Brenda.

“The meeting was successful and the agent told me that all my medical, passports and training fees would be catered for. In January 2021, I went for medical tests, but the results showed that I had a chest problem and so I wasn’t fit to travel.

"The agency, however, offered me some medication to suppress the condition and at the same time, took me to Athena Training College in Gilgil, where I learned the basics of taking care of a home, for one month.”

In March, she went for a second medical test and this time, thanks to the medication from the agency, her results were okay. The travel date was set for April 7.

She signed a contract detailing that she would be working as a house help in a medium household of four occupants; two parents and two children. All this while, Brenda had never set eyes on her passport or visa, but that was the least of her worries. She trusted the agency.

“I only got to see my travel documents at the airport. Even then, I wasn’t allowed to touch them. We were quite a number of girls. It turned out we were all on a three-month visiting visa. I later learnt that this was a cover-up to make it look like we were travelling for Ramadan prayers, which were happening around that time.”

When she got to Saudi Arabia, she was received by her boss. To her shock when she got to the home, she found the household had 10 children and not two as per her contract. The house was a four-storey building. She was the only house help.

“When we got to Saudi Arabia, we were received by the same agency and they handed us over to our employers. There is a Kafala system in the country that dictates that all the travel documents are kept by your employer. When I got to the house and found that my job description was not what I had signed up for on the contract, I immediately contacted the agency, but my number was immediately blocked.”

With no one to turn to, Brenda endured working long and tedious hours with little to no sleep and physical abuse from her employer.

“The family was very big, yet I had to attend to every member. I was also expected to do daily cleaning of the entire house, including the walls. Further, being that it was the Ramadan season, my employer was constantly hosting many guests, and it was my role to clean after all of them.”


After one month, she started experiencing chest pains and would often nosebleed. Because of the long working hours, her feet also started swelling up, but she still couldn’t access the agency.

“I tried pleading with my employer, requesting that she take me to hospital, but she refused and kept saying ‘Africans never fall sick, so you are just acting up.’

“At this point, I also developed a continuous menstrual flow. My employer made it clear that if I wanted to leave her house, then I’d have to refund her Ksh600,000, the amount she claimed to have bought me for. In the fourth month, I started a constant menstrual flow that didn’t stop until I came back to Kenya and sought treatment,” she recalls.

“All this while, I had managed to contact my parents via WhatsApp and told them the agency office in Saudi Arabia had blocked me.

"I directed them to the Nairobi office, but when they got there, they found that the office had been raided and ultimately shut, following a case where a girl they had assisted to go to Saudi had been killed by her employer.

"They hit a dead end and I decided to reach out to local media back home. I also contacted a local YouTuber who carried my story.”

The publicity somehow led the employer to become less hostile and around this time, with the help of Kembois’ (other Kenyans who had managed to escape the hostility of their employers), she was able to flee. She did not leave with a single thing save for the clothes she had on.

Even though she had never touched her travel documents, she knew that by this time, her visa had expired as this was her fifth month in the country. She found her way to the Kenyan embassy although she admits one of the officials there was hostile to her. She was cleared and sent to the deportation centre.

“I was at the centre for one straight month. I was still bleeding, I got a UTI, had swollen feet as well as chest problems. I also contracted a skin disease that I treat to-date as a result of borrowing clothes while at the deportation centre since I didn’t have a change,” she says, balancing tears.

She landed back in the country on October 28, 2021, empty-handed and sick. To her dismay, her husband, to whom she had been sending all her earnings, had abandoned their daughter and moved on with another woman.

Purity and Everlyne too, were lured by close friends with the promise of making fast cash during the Covid period. In 2020, while Purity worked in a hardware store in Kirinyaga, a male friend who worked at a neighbouring cafe approached her with a sweet deal.


“He said he knew of a woman who was taking women to Qatar for teaching jobs, and suggested that I give it a shot. My boss previously paid me Ksh300 daily and a retainer at the end of the month, but the proceeds had now been cut to the daily pay because of Covid-19, which had just hit,” she says.

An excited Purity requested to meet the lady, who, in turn, invited her to Nairobi for medical and passport processing.

“She paid for all the expenses. One month later, I was enrolled to a homecare training college in Utawala. It was at this point that I learnt that I was going to be a housekeeper in Saudi Arabia and not a teacher in Qatar, as promised.

"I tried to resist but was told if I did not comply, I would have to refund all the money they had spent on my medical tests, passport processing, and training.

“I could not raise the amount, so I complied. She signed a contract indicating that she was to take care of a family of five, earning a total of 900 Riyals (about Ksh34,000),” says the mother of two.

When she got to Saudi Arabia, however, she was to take care of a family of 11. “The family had ten children, with the eldest being 15 years and the youngest seven months old. I did all the house chores and fed all the children while carrying the youngest on my back,” she recounts.

Purity fled Saudi Arabia after her employer’s daughter placed a hot iron on her hand, leaving her with a scar. “I had endured so much mistreatment and disrespect, even from the kids, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she says, circling the scar.

Winnie Mutave, the Advocacy and Partnerships Development Manager at Awareness against Human Trafficking (Haart), says they receive an average of 10 human trafficking cases monthly.

Winnie Mutevu, Advocacy and Partnerships Development Manager at Awareness Against Human Trafficking (Haart Kenya) during an interview at South B, Nairobi, on July 25, 2023.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi I Nation Media Group

“The biggest problem we have is lack of, or limited, awareness among people. Human trafficking manifests itself in so many forms, including child marriages, child labour, and online sexual exploitation. We also have about 44 per cent of trafficking cases being local, just within the country, but most people do not view this as trafficking.”

She notes that detecting trafficking is becoming harder with technology. “Traffickers have integrated technology into their business model at every stage of the process, from recruiting to exploiting victims. Many children are approached by traffickers on social media,” she offers.

According to the latest Global Estimates, 50 million people, or one in every 150 people in the world, live in modern-day slavery. Of these, 28 million are in forced labour and 22 million in forced marriages. In the last five years, the number has risen significantly. Figures from a 2021 study show about 10 million more men, women, and children have been forced to work or marry since the previous estimates were released in 2017.

For Everlyne, she was told she would be serving the Royal family in Saudi Arabia. On reaching there, however, she found herself working for the agency’s head mother-in-law.

“For a month and two days, I survived on sweets (given by the employer’s kids) and water. My employer denied me food until I could earn a whole month’s pay,” she painfully recounts.

While the size of the family was fairly small, I never rested. There’s a time I fell off the ladder while cleaning the wall and when my boss found me on the floor, she scolded me “for taking breaks in-between working hours”.

At some point, one of her employer’s son attempted to rape her and she fled. She figured her way to the Kenyan embassy, but was met with hostility.

“I was accused of being ‘among Kenyans who come to prostitute in Saudi Arabia and after succeeding, want to go home.’ I was then taken to a shelter, where I stayed for more than a year, awaiting deportation back home. I was jobless all this time. Actually, I was in Saudi for two straight years, but only worked for the first six months, between December 2019 and May 2020."

When she was finally deported in December 2021, Everlyne came home to find her four children living with a neighbour, an unmarried man who was ailing from cancer. “My husband had fled and left my children without rent and they had ultimately been kicked out," she signs off.

Sexual exploitation

A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that the most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation at 79 per cent. In 30 per cent of the countries that provided information on the gender of traffickers, women make up the largest proportion.

In a 2021 report, Kenya reported identifying 383 victims of trafficking—51 adult males, 176 adult females, 104 boys, and 52 girls—a significant drop compared with the 853 victims identified in 2019.

Data by Haart reveals that most trafficking victims are from the coastal counties, followed by Kakamega. Kiambu comes third. The mean age of those trafficked is 26, with 85 per cent of victims being females.

“In 2023, however, we have seen an increase in trafficking referrals from Kisii County, making it a vulnerable community,” Winnie says.

She says the greatest push factor is the desire to escape poverty.

“It is also important to note that some people are being forced by their close relatives to go and look for better lives in foreign countries. Before the pandemic, most of the victims were mostly low-qualified individuals, but in the last three years, we have seen a spike in the number of educated and civilised Kenyans easily falling for the trap. This could be due to the current economic situation.”

The Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2010 criminalised sex and labour trafficking and prescribed penalties of 30 years to life imprisonment, a fine of not less than Ksh30 million, or both.

In February, the Labour ministry launched an initiative to tackle human trafficking in counties affected by drought. The Protection of Trafficking in Persons in Climate Change-Affected Counties Project was launched by Cabinet Secretary Florence Bore.

This year’s theme for World Day against Trafficking is: Reach every victim of trafficking, leave no one behind. The survivors work closely with Haart to mobilise people and sensitise them to the vice.


The government has enacted the Counter-Trafficking in Persons that defines the offence of trafficking in persons and acts that promote trafficking, and provides sanctions for traffickers. It is one the most punitive laws with a jail term of 30 years, or a fine of Ksh30 million, or both.

It has established the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Advisory Committee, which came into force through the Trafficking in Persons Act and has been operational since inception in 2014. The committee is supported by a full time Counter-Trafficking in Persons Secretariat responsible for implementation of counter trafficking in person programmes.

The National Assistance Trust Fund for Trafficking in Persons has been established and operationalised to provide assistance to victims. From December 2019 to May 2023, 159 victims have been assisted through the Trust Fund (Kenyans and non-Kenyans). Most of the assistance has been repatriation to their home countries or areas. Many others have been assisted by partners through the Secretariat.

To strengthen the operationalisation of the fund, guidelines have been developed to provide a framework for disbursement of funds and procedure for assisting identified victims of trafficking.

Capacity building of law enforcement officers and other stakeholders has been ongoing supported by development partners like UNODC, IOM, ILO, CIVIPOL and local civil society. This is to enable detection, investigation and prosecution of cases and the protection of victims.

The ministry is refurbishing a facility in Nairobi to set up a government-run shelter for victims. Trafficking in persons is complex and multi-faceted in nature and requires a multi-sectoral approach. The Counter-Trafficking in Persons Secretariat continues to work with other state agencies like the Transnational Organised Crime Unit, the Anti Human Trafficking and the Child Protection Unit to rescue and place victims in shelters.