Enslaved in Palo Alto

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

Alice called Nalini Shekar, the director of the domestic violence shelter whose name Rinaldi had given her. After a few conversations with Shekar, Alice was ready to leave.

On Jan. 8, 2003, she got out. She waited until Njuguna-Githinji had left for the university, and took the child to school. Returning quickly to the house, she put some clothes in a plastic trash bag and nervously called Shekar, who picked up Alice and took the young woman to a Bay Area domestic violence shelter. Alice rotated through a number of shelters for a year before recently moving to temporary housing.

At Alice's new dormitory-style apartment, she shares a kitchen with everyone on her floor. To buy groceries, she uses gift cards for local supermarkets that she has received from charities. Her clothes are donated. Whenever Alice receives a cash donation, she sends about half of it home to her mother, who still believes Alice is working under Njuguna-Githinji, because Alice hasn't had the heart to tell her mother about her troubles in the United States. She can't work legally in this country, and she hasn't seen her daughter, now 5, since she left Kenya in August 2002.

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.

Shekar helped Alice sign up for computer classes at community centers. "She is nonstop," the director says. "She will come in and eat and go back to class. She is really determined."

When she's not in a classroom, Alice visits the local library or the flea market -- and sometimes she just sits. Her civil lawsuit against Njuguna-Githinji is pending; in court documents, her former boss has denied all of the allegations. Njuguna-Githinji has also filed a countersuit against Alice alleging that Alice stole $950 before she left Njuguna-Githinji's apartment. (Alice denies taking any money from Njuguna-Githinji.)

Those who met Alice before she fled Njuguna-Githinji's house are surprised that a woman who was once fearful and shaking has become emboldened enough to file a civil suit in a public court.

"It took enormous courage for Alice to come forward and assert her rights against a powerful and influential woman," says Nancy Harris, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who is handling Alice's case pro bono, along with Kathleen Kim of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. "We're confident that ... a jury will agree with us that Alice was terribly mistreated in violation of California and federal law."

Alice, who still speaks in a near-whisper when addressing strangers, admits it is not in her nature to openly tell others about her problems.

"I used to be shy, and [when] life was really hard, I used to be patient most of the time," she says. "If there is a hard thing, like going without food, living without my mother ..."

She lowers her head and begins to cry so silently that it is not clear, at first, that she is upset.

"It's difficult," she continues, after pausing for a few minutes. "It's frustrating, too. It's really hard. Sometimes I feel a stress, but I always think it is better if it doesn't happen to other people. The only reason I'm doing it is because the person that I came with is a person who ... was doing the same thing that she is fighting against."

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