Enslaved in Palo Alto

A domestic worker from Kenya has accused her employer -- a prominent African journalist -- of human trafficking

Identifying and prosecuting cases of such domestics, who toil behind the closed doors of private homes, is a challenge. The workers' isolation makes it difficult for them to access outside help and corroborate their stories for authorities. "Domestic worker cases -- they're like this dirty secret," says Jenny Stanger of Los Angeles' Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking. "They're working in the private sphere, where you are least likely to detect slavery. I think it's an enormous problem; I think there are a lot of them out there."

"In many of these cases, it's one person's word against the other," adds Dr. Mohamed Mattar of Johns Hopkins University's Protection Project, a research institute dedicated to human trafficking. "In many cases of domestic servants, we're talking about [accusations made against] high-profile people, because who can afford domestics except somebody like a diplomat? So they could try to shift the credibility question to the domestic. But we believe that the servant should be allowed to testify, and his testimony should be viewed as credible, too, absolutely."

Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys, for example, say that Alice's story is a distortion of the truth. "There were some instances where full wages either under state or federal labor laws were not paid, inadvertently," says Peter Nohle, one of Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys. "As far as the remainder of any of the claims, claims that are not purely a failure to pay full wages, Wanja adamantly denies those -- the allegations of involuntary servitude, peonage, the false imprisonment claim."

After speaking with attorney John Rinaldi 
(pictured) in December 2002, Alice  decided 
to leave Wanja Njuguna-Githinji's 
Paolo Vescia
After speaking with attorney John Rinaldi (pictured) in December 2002, Alice decided to leave Wanja Njuguna-Githinji's employment.

"Wanja is a journalist of significant reputation, including a reputation for courage for reporting related to human rights," says Abrams, another attorney representing Njuguna-Githinji. "She has stood for and fought for human rights her entire life. ... This [lawsuit] is just an outrageous and unjust attack on her integrity." (Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys advised the writer not to speak with SF Weekly.)

Advocates, academics, government officials, and attorneys who routinely handle trafficking cases acknowledge that it's possible for people to lie about having been trafficked as a way of remaining in the country. A number of experts interviewed by SF Weekly, however, say they have yet to encounter such a case. These experts also say people would achieve very little by fabricating such charges, since applying for a visa or government assistance involves a rigorous process.

"They have nothing to gain," says Mie Lewis. "The only thing they would gain is getting themselves fired and deported. ... This conspiracy theory about poor and legally unsophisticated domestic servants making stuff up and tricking everybody -- the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], the prosecutors, the professional immigration adjudicators -- is pretty far out."

Palo Alto, Calif., is a long way from Bungoma, Kenya -- geographically and otherwise. Paved roads, tree-lined sidewalks, palatial homes made of stone and stucco: For Alice, everything in the Peninsula town was foreign. Her first impression of her new and temporary home was that everyone was wealthy.

The change was more than scenic. Soon after their arrival Njuguna-Githinji announced a set of rules. According to court documents, Alice worked an average of 16 hours a day as a domestic servant and nanny for Njuguna-Githinji. In an interview with SF Weekly, Alice said that she would cook breakfast for Njuguna-Githinji and her son, following a weekly menu that her boss had drafted, and at night, she'd sleep in the same room as the 2-year-old. (According to court documents, Alice was expected to tend to him at any hour.)

Alice also said that three days a week, she took the boy to school about a mile away, which she did by carrying him on her back, then baby-sat him after she fetched him from school. Alice claims that she was told not to speak to anyone because, according to Njuguna-Githinji, anybody could be an FBI agent ready to deport Alice. (The lawsuit also alleges that Njuguna-Githinji told Alice -- erroneously -- that she could not venture far from the apartment because her visa did not allow her to go anywhere without her boss.)

For the rest of the day, legal documents say, Alice was to clean the apartment, do all the cooking, either wipe down the exterior of Njuguna-Githinji's car by hand or wash it with water, and hand-wash her boss' clothes and bed linens. (Alice claimed in an interview that her employer didn't want her to use the washer and dryer in the apartment because "[Njuguna-Githinji] was paying me to do the work.")

Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys dispute the description of work alleged by Alice in her civil complaint.

Alice's relationship with Njuguna-Githinji had clearly soured, though she wasn't sure why. "When we reach here, she really changed," Alice says. "In Kenya, she talked to me sometimes. We reach here, she would just command me to do something: 'You have to do this.' 'Why haven't you done this?'

"I used to fear her, and even if I feel I have a question, I didn't ask her. ... I was not free with her like before."

Out of fear, Alice didn't complain, not even at the end of the first month, when Njuguna-Githinji gave her only $100 in pay -- $800 less than her employer had promised, and significantly less than California law requires.

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