When Mariam Samba Mkanjumwa, 26, packed her bags and left the sleepy Mwatunge village in Mwatate in April in pursuit of a better life for her three children in Saudi Arabia, no one stopped her.
If anything, her grandmother, Mama Nancy Wawuda, even offered a small prayer to the heavens to keep her granddaughter safe in the strange lands she was heading to.
Having endured decades of stinging poverty that condemned them to live under horrendous conditions, the old woman knew fortune and success would never come from sitting idly at home. One must venture beyond the boundaries of the known and try their fortune in unknown lands.
Six months later, Mama Wawuda thinks she might have made a terrible mistake by letting her granddaughter leave for Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic house help on a two-year contract.
“I just want her back. We do not have much but it is safer here. She needs to come back home and we will survive with what we have,” says the grandmother.
Seated on a low kitchen wooden seat inside her ramshackle mud-walled house with huge gaping cracks on some walls and some walls missing, it is easy to understand why work; any kind of work; might have appeared like a godsend for a family that has never known any form of luxury. Everything inside the house; from crumbling walls, the sparse furniture, tattered clothes dripping murky water on the earthen floor, the leaky roof and the gaping holes in walls, reeks of poverty and great wretchedness.
This was the poverty that Ms. Mkajumwa was fleeing. Tragically, the young woman might have found more misfortunes where she went seeking salvation that makes home look like paradise.
Mama Wawuda says her granddaughter was excited when the offer to work for families in Saudi Arabia came. Though the contract terms remain fuzzy, the old woman says her daughter reported it would be a two-year contract expected to lapse in 2024.
In April this year, the granddaughter left Saudi Arabia. What followed was laboured communication done through a benevolent neighbour who would bring Whatsapp voice notes to Mama Wawuda to catch up on how her granddaughter was doing. The grandmother has no phone and could only rely on the neighbour’s goodwill.
“She sounded upbeat and hopeful. I kept praying for her,” says the old woman.
Then the tone of the message gradually changed. From being upbeat and hopeful, the sporadic voice notes became gloomy, anxious and even desperate.
By the end of August, it was clear that all was not well. The bubbly girl who had left Kenya to seek greener pastures in the gulf was not herself.
“She was hurting. She sounded so depressed and under a heavy burden. I could sense it,” says the grandmother in subdued tones.
In the first three months after leaving Kenya, Ms. Mkajumwa worked on suppressed pay. According to details from a neighbour who was in touch with her, a chuck of salary was deducted to pay for the expenses incurred by the employment agency in facilitating her travel. They included costs of acquiring passport, visa, medical tests and other requirements.
Mr. Japeth Righa, the neighbour, says the absence of the contract makes it impossible to know how much was deducted and whether she had agreed to that.
“There is no way to know how much she was being deducted from her salary but she was unhappy. She said she wanted to come back home,” says Righa.
Righa adds that details painstakingly patched together reveal Ms. Mkajumwa worked for two employers without significant salary before she was taken back by the agent in Saudi Arabia.
By this time, she had been complaining of working under inhuman conditions including working for long hours and without meals. She had also complained of severe headaches due to the sweltering heat.
Then in September, all communication ceased. Text messages and WhatsApp voice notes sent were never replied to.
“It has almost been a month and there is no word on how she is doing. This is very terrifying because we have seen other girls return to Kenya in terrible condition or even worse,” says Righa. He even says that reports showed the worker had even paid for her air ticket from her salary to enable her come home but could not leave because the agent could not let her.
Mama Wawuda says the government should use its influence to bring her granddaughter back home. Her fears are justified by a stranger’s call she received in early September from a Kenyan girl who said she knew Mkajumwa and had left her at the agent’s holding station.
“The caller said we must do whatever we can to bring her back. She said my granddaughter was in bad shape,” says the grandmother.
Documents of her travel show she was recruited by Percific Creative; an overseas recruitment agency. This was the same company responsible for recruiting Diana Chepekemoi; the Meru University student whose plight in Saudi Arabia caused public uproar and forced intervention by leaders that brought her back.
Ms. Nelly Chelagat, one of the workers rescued from Saudi alongside Ms. Chepkemoi, confirmed that Ms. Mkajumwa had paid for her ticket to return to Kenya but was barred from travelling by her agent.
“I was with her and she is unwell. She even paid for her air ticket but was barred from leaving by the agent. She needs to be brought back home,” she said.
By Wagema Mwangi