It is a warm tropical morning in Bukuyudi Elara village. Littered with human poo, the muddy path leads to a small compound where Nakhatandi*, who Ambia Africa reckons took the wackiest revenge upon her employers for allegedly mistreating her, lives with her parents. She offers me a cup of gruel after which she begins recounting the events prior to her retaliation.
A Glimmer of Hope in the City
Having dropped out of school at Standard Six, Nakhatandi considers herself a victim of circumstances for she had to sacrifice whatever it took to sustain her aging adoptive parents. Worse still, her diabetic mother had just had both her legs amputated. She later reveals to me that the couple took her in and raised her after she had been dumped in a bush by roadside. One fine morning, one of her friends in Nairobi called her on her father’s old mobile phone, whose battery is now kept intact using rubber bands.
“She asked me to consider moving to the city so that I can find something to do,” she recalls.
After a couple of weeks, the friend called her again saying that someone in Eastleigh was looking for a house help and urged her to consider the offer. She had never been to Nairobi before, but she had heard of Eastleigh a couple of times. Located east of Nairobi CBD, the suburb is predominantly inhabited by Somali immigrants that many locals now refer to it as “The Little Mogadishu”.
“At first, I was apprehensive of leaving my parents in such a pathetic condition,” she pours out, “but I thought that was my last hope.”
Two days later, someone called and introduced herself as Mrs. Abshir.
“She sounded friendly,” Nakhatandi recalls, “and promised that it would be like my second home.”
She managed to negotiate her monthly salary up from the KES 2 500 Mrs. Abshir had quoted to KES 4 000, her prospective employer told her not to worry about the bus fare for she had a personal car to bring her to Nairobi. A day to her departure, she asked her father to request a ride on a neighbor’s bicycle to Busia matatu stage from where Mrs. Abshir’s driver would pick her. She woke up early and prepared breakfast and packed her clothes before noting the date and her destination in her old “diary” and bid farewell to her parents.
After a 5-hour ride to Nairobi, Kinyanjui (as he had introduced himself) drove her to where she would learn was Eastleigh’s Section I. Mrs. Abshir was playing with two kids and three bulldog puppies in the posh compound. She immediately knew that the pile of dirty clothes in the backyard was literally waiting for her. Later, Mrs. Abshir told her to never mind the two naughty boys.
“They could insult me, command me…after all, I was nothing but their maid,” she recounts.
Luckily, they could be home only on Sundays; she could tend the 8-month-old girl while her parents “supervised their warehouse in Eastleigh.” Within the first three months, the couple’s hospitality segued into what Nakhatandi calls sheer wickedness. Her biggest concern was that they had only managed to send her parents KES 2 500 during that period and opted to withhold her remaining wages.
With reference to this, Kenya has instituted various policies regarding minimum wage and maximum working hours for domestic workers, but the government is yet to enforce them satisfactorily. In 2004, the government raised the minimum wage to KSH 3 908 per month in the country’s largest urban areas, Nairobi inclusive, but the figure was further raised to KES 10 954 in July 2015 by the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services. However, a 2015 survey conducted by Youth Alive Kenya revealed that 87 per cent of domestic workers in five suburbs in Nairobi earn an average of KES 4 864 per month. Worse still, the underpayment is sometimes accompanied by overworking and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
“For me, there was no rest when the bosses were around…no sitting down,” Nakhatandi narrates.
One of her most harrowing experiences was when Mr. Abshir raped her in 2015 when his wife was away in India where she had taken her aging mother for further treatment having been diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris (PV). Unfortunately, the mother passed away a few days after they jetted back into the country and Nakhatandi was forced to wash the corpse.
“It was horrifying; I did something I have never done in my life,” she recalls in tears.
For several months, she was forbidden from leaving the compound and making phone calls. As such, she could not even communicate with her parents or even get in touch with the friend who had got her the job. She bore it all before finally unleashing her vengeance.
Literally emboldened by her plight, she considered collaborating with Easleigh’s notorious gang, Super Power, to exact her revenge on the Abshirs but she settled on a “benign” approach.
There Came the Vengeance
Numerous cases of overworked, underpaid and abused maids are rampant in most African countries and parts of Asia.
She found it weird that the Abshirs still entrusted her with their now 2-year-old daughter amid the ill-treatment meted out to her.
“I was denied the opportunity to visit my parents or even talk to them; I was sexually and psychologically abused; I was unpaid; I was overworked,” she goes on in a sour tone.
In several occasions, she fed the little girl her boogers and menstrual blood clots but all the while, she refrained from physically torturing her lest it sound alarm bells for the Abshirs. She could also urinate in the family’s beverages, and spit on their food while cooking. She also caused the family cumulative losses by deliberately making small holes in their clothes, lighting the gas stove without necessarily cooking anything, flushing loads of sugar, cooking oil, and powder soap down the toilet bowl, and leaving various appliances such as the iron box, fan, and audiovisual system running when her employers were away. To inhibit cases of both violent and benign retaliation by domestic workers, experts recommend several measures including installing CCTV cameras around the house, treating house helps like family members, and hiring through house help bureaus to avoid recruiting runaway maids.
“The more they felt the burden of their outrageous bills and expenditure, the better I felt,” she unapologetically reckons.
All for Nothing
The opportunity she had been waiting for presented itself one fine morning when the Abshirs forgot to lock their bedroom door. Although she had never set foot in that room, she had learnt from the children that their parents stuff a lot of money into a safe by their bed. The spare key to the gate was also there, and she managed to escape with well over KES 60 000 just before 11 a.m. while the baby was asleep.
As innocent as she was, she could not locate the bus stage to Busia Town. She tried asking her way around Nairobi’s CBD, but ended in police custody after being rescued from mob justice in Muthurwa Market where she had tried to buy a soft drink using a fake currency note. That’s when it dawned on her that the Abshirs had long been part of a notorious fake currency printing racket, and her arrest saw the couple busted on that day by police officers from Kenya’s Criminal Investigation Department, but they were never arrested.
“I saw them negotiate with the police and I’m sure they bribed them,” she reveals.
All that Nakhatandi left Nairobi with was KES 1 000 that the police gave her as bus fare back to Busia and her clothes. In fact, they even discouraged her against filing a complaint to be compensated for she had already committed a crime of “stealing” the fake currency notes. With hindsight, she confesses that she was ignorant, but she has never regretted her actions. Her case is just a tip of the iceberg for there are numerous cases of abused, overworked, underpaid, and even unpaid domestic workers in the country’s urban areas. Nevertheless, with the changing attitudes, perceptions, and views of employers towards domestic workers coupled with increased awareness and the popularity of such unions as KUDHEIHA, it is apparent that domestic workers are becoming more empowered and treated with dignity by their employers.
*Name changed upon request