Enslaved in Palo Alto

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

"[Njuguna-Githinji] said, 'You should not complain; this is enough for you,'" Alice recalls.

As the months passed and Alice became trapped in a web of drudgery, the confident and outspoken Njuguna-Githinji blossomed into a noted member of the local community. Having published articles about the importance of female government leadership in Kenya and exposés on police brutality, she seemed vocally committed to social justice. She gave talks titled "Issues That Affect Women in Africa" for Stanford and UC Berkeley audiences and moderated a panel discussion on African oil exploration and its effect on human rights for Stanford's 2003 Africa Week. She also took part in a "Careers in Journalism" workshop for the university's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, for which her work was described as involving "reporting on women and children in war."

A willing hostess, Njuguna-Githinji occasionally invited guests -- African students of the university or other Knight Fellows -- to her apartment for dinner. During these parties, Alice cooked; she says she was instructed not to speak to the visitors and to remain in the kitchen until they had left. If Njuguna-Githinji expected friends to visit her during the day, she instructed Alice to take her son to a nearby park and to stay there until after the visitors were supposed to leave.

Alice's attorneys, Kathleen Kim (left) and 
Nancy Harris, are "confident" a California 
jury will agree that Alice was mistreated.
Paolo Vescia
Alice's attorneys, Kathleen Kim (left) and Nancy Harris, are "confident" a California jury will agree that Alice was mistreated.
Alice B. felt chained to her job as a 
domestic worker.
Paolo Vescia
Alice B. felt chained to her job as a domestic worker.

Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys, however, say Alice was not isolated from the community and that the domestic worker was free to come and go. "Alice was never restricted in her travel," Abrams says. "She has never been restricted in her activities. She worked for other people and did baby-sitting for them. She attended social activities with Wanja. People met her." (Alice's attorneys say that Alice did frequently attend social events with Njuguna-Githinji, though she was always working as a baby-sitter to Njuguna-Githinji's son and other Knight Fellows' children. They also say that on some occasions, Knight Fellows asked Njuguna-Githinji if Alice could baby-sit their children in their homes, and Njuguna-Githinji agreed.)

A number of journalists who know Njuguna-Githinji through the 2002 Knight Fellowship say that they never saw evidence that Alice was mistreated, and that they are shocked that Alice would try to sue Njuguna-Githinji, whom they describe as ambitious, courageous, and caring.

"The way [Njuguna-Githinji is] characterized in the lawsuit is totally out of character," says Andy Maykuth, an African correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The allegations about things like long hours ... sure, [Alice] did work long hours, because Wanja was working long hours. She was attending classes, doing a lot of speeches on campus, attending a lot of Knight Fellowship functions, so Alice was taking care of [Njuguna-Githinji's son] for a lot of that time.

"I'm not privy to their private lives, but we need to understand more about how a housekeeper in Africa would work ... what is considered normal there is different than what it would be here. It's a different world [in Kenya], and whatever arrangement they had over there may have been a normal relationship in Africa, but it may not have translated very well into America."

Knight Fellows also say that when they saw Alice, she tended to be quiet, pleasant, and smiling. "There was no indication or hint [of anything amiss]," says Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowship. "I look back -- was there some sign that I could have missed? -- and I find nothing."

"She did have some freedom," adds Maykuth. "She was able to establish some sort of life [outside of work]."

By the fall, Alice found herself in a financial quandary. She claims that though she had come to the United States to make money to send home to her family, her employer had prevented her from doing so for months by telling Alice that she could not transfer the money by herself, but then refusing to help Alice do it. Without her remittances, Alice knew her family would starve. When Alice repeatedly asked to send money home, Njuguna-Githinji allegedly told her that she should not do so until after she had paid back the money for the plane ticket from Kenya. (Njuguna-Githinji's attorneys say their client has documents showing that she wired money to Alice's family on her employee's behalf.)

Alice finally summoned the courage to ask for a pay increase. Because she was afraid of Njuguna-Githinji, Alice left a note for her employer on her desk. When Njuguna-Githinji discovered it later that day, Alice claims, she flew into a rage. "She was so mad with me, so angry," she alleged in a recent interview. "She pushed me, and she started calling me bad names. She called me 'asshole' and 'the most stupid woman who left her own child to come and do baby-sitting.' She said, 'You don't even deserve to be in this country. I only did you a favor [by bringing you here],' and I don't appreciate it. She told me, 'You come from poor blood, from poverty, and you are all arrogant.'"

Njuguna-Githinji screamed insults and threatened Alice with violence until 1 a.m., court documents say. Another time, she allegedly told Alice that her husband would beat Alice's uncle in Kenya if her uncle ever went to the journalist's home in Nairobi again. (Alice says there was confusion about a sum of money that Njuguna-Githinji had promised her family.) She told Alice that she could return to Kenya if she wished -- as long as she paid for her own ticket.

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