Human Trafficking: Over 100 Ugandan girls rescued in Eastleigh

NAIROBI, Kenya Jun 14 – “From the moment my mum told me that I have to leave education for lack of school fees I cried. I cried because I have tried my level best to go all the way to form two and I wanted to study and become a nurse. Even when you look at my report forms, you can see I was good in school,” she said, lowering her head to hide the tears welling up in her eyes.

“I even wanted to kill myself, but I just agreed to come here because there was nothing left. I realized even if I cry, nothing will change,” 17-year-old Dembe* (not her real name) recounted to Capital FM News.

Dembe is among some 120 Ugandan women and girls rescued from an open field in Nairobi’s Eastleigh, having fallen out with their employers.

When COVID-19 struck last year, reports of mass layoffs, pay cuts and increasing poverty levels were reported around the globe. It was particularly worse in Africa, which was already suffering from a sluggish economy even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Families were under pressure to find means to survive. Not even children were spared from the struggle of making ends meet.

And this is how hundreds of girls such as Dembe traveled from Uganda to Kenya, with high hopes of landing in greener pastures to support their families back home.

These girls trafficked from Uganda are holed up Nairobi's Majengo slum, at a shelter provided by Counter Human Trafficking Trust – East Africa (CHTEA), a civil society organization working in Kenya.

After schools were closed in Uganda last year under pandemic restrictions, Dembe’s sister, who was working as a domestic worker, asked her to travel to Nairobi to look for employment. Against her own wishes, Dembe traveled to Kenya last August, for the sake of helping her family. She worked as a house-girl for a family in Eastleigh, and in the meantime, her sister returned to Uganda because she fell pregnant.

“I worked for the first five months and the sixth one I was chased away from my job. I moved around and when I came to this side (somewhere in an open field), I found my fellow tribes-mates sleeping under trees. I asked them what they would do from there. They told me they don’t have jobs and this is where we stay. So, I begged them to allow me to join their clique and they accepted,” she recalled.

Dembe was lucky enough to secure a second job for two months. Sadly, not a single penny was paid for her labour. “My boss kept on telling me to come back next month, ‘I will give you your money’. The next time I went there, I found that she had relocated to Somalia. So, I had to go back to the streets again,” Dembe said. She decided not to look for work again, after her experiences of being overworked, mistreated, insulted and even denied food. Life on the streets of Nairobi was harsh. To have a meal depended on the generosity of passersby.

“I fell sick. I had no money even for treatment, but ‘Good Samaritans’ helped me with food and drugs. After finishing the treatment, one day we were sleeping – we used to sleep on the verandah. The chief had come with a large group of men, we explained everything but they couldn’t understand. They collected everything we had – the clothes we used to carry around and burnt it all. They had the nyaunyo (Police whip). We were beaten mercilessly and told to go away,” she recalled, her tears now flowing uncontrollably.

“So, we told them even us we wanted to go back home, we were tired of this life in Nairobi, (where) we struggle to get food, we even sleep on the ground. It is even worse when we are on our periods.”

“So, I decided I tell my mum if (it) is fine she sends me money, I travel back home because I even have a health problem. She told me now we have a lot of problems back home, even your dad has left us. We don’t have work to do, so just stay in Nairobi and make money.”

No pads

Dembe counts herself lucky that she is not pregnant like 28 of the women in the group who, in addition to worrying about their return to Uganda, must contemplate motherhood at their tender age. Most of the 28 mothers-to-be are less than 18 years old.

Sadly, most of them have no clue who fathered the babies they are carrying. Rape and defilement had become part of their struggle.

Counter Human Trafficking Trust – East Africa (CHTEA), a civil society organization working in Kenya, has given the girls a place they call a safe haven. It is a safe haven because it has a roof, walls and a door – that can shield them from the cold nights and sex predators.

With no bedding other than a thin woven mat, the girls lie side-by-side in groups of eights or tens, close to each other for warmth and also to fit into the tiny rooms. There are about 20 of these rooms situated in different areas in Majengo Slums.

Namono (not her real name) is 15 years old. She is seven months pregnant. She came to Kenya in January this year also hoping to get employment in Nairobi. She worked only for the first three months and was never paid.

“They (the employers) mistreated me, they overworked me and the man of the house did very bad things to me that I can’t mention to you. But he was very bad. And he always used force and he told me he can kill me if I say. That is why I decided to run away,” Namono explained.

“Auntie, all I want now is to be taken back to Uganda. Do you know when they (CHTEA) are taking us home? We are suffering. At home it was not this bad, when I go home I will be safe and even with the poverty there, it is fine for me, even if my mother will not be happy to see me back, I just want to go back,” Namono pleaded. When I asked the girls how they were doing and what they wanted, their sentiments were similar to Namono’s and Dembe’s. They want to go back home.

None of them has money to pay for transport. Their hopes are on CHTEA and International Organization for Migration (IOM), Kenya which are making plans to repatriate them to Uganda.

I left Majengo Slum broken in my thoughts and in my heart. During the visit, I witnessed three girls fight over a panty because they were all on their menses. All three claimed the panty belonged to them.

CHTEA’s field officer, best known as ‘Uncle’, told me that the fight I witnessed was nothing compared to other conflicts: “There are nights that neighbors call me to come and separate wars that escalate to the entire plot, to the extent of girls kicking each other out of the rooms in the middle of the night.”

As I bid ‘Uncle’ goodbye, I could not stop thinking how it would be possible for the girls to get at least some basics such as sanitary pads, clothes, shoes and bedding as they wait to be taken back to their home country.

Whereas this is a short-term measure, the governments of Kenya and Uganda have the power and responsibility to break the human trafficking cycle that continues to expose countless underage girls to labour and sex exploitation.

These girls trafficked from Uganda are holed up Nairobi’s Majengo slum, at a shelter provided by Counter Human Trafficking Trust – East Africa (CHTEA), a civil society organization working in Kenya.

Judy Kaberia (facing the camera) is seen here with one of th girls trafficked from Uganda who are holed up in Nairobi’s Majengo slum, at a shelter provided by Counter Human Trafficking Trust – East Africa (CHTEA), a civil society organization working in Kenya.


Trafficked for work??

On 26th October 2019, the daily nation newspaper in Kenya published the following (verbatim) article:

It came disguised as a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity: a teaching job at a prestigious international school in Hargeisa, Somaliland, with a salary of Sh50,000 a month, free air ticket, work visa, meals and accommodation, and paid tuition outside of lessons.

“That meant I would be saving nearly 100 per cent of my salary,” Paul*, a teacher who returned home recently from Hargeisa, says. It sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime – but when Paul got there, he quickly realised all was not what he had looked forward to. “It’s like a concentration camp,” he says. “You don’t feel like a human being.”

Paul is one of many Kenyan teachers who have been trafficked into Somaliland through unscrupulous recruiters for Elm Schools, also known as Young Muslim Academy. The recruiters work in cahoots with corrupt immigration officials in Somaliland to smuggle in Kenya teachers for cheap labour. Paul says he was introduced to the recruiters by a friend. He met an agent of the school in a shabby office on Tom Mboya Street, Nairobi, in October 2018, where all travel arrangements were made at no cost to him. Interviews with 17 teachers, some of whom returned to Kenya recently and who asked that we protect their identities for fear of reprisals, reveal multiple allegations of false promises during recruitment, gross underpayment, instant deportations, abuse of labour practices, sexual harassment, inadequate food, substandard accomm0dation and lack of freedom of movement and association.

“Life is very hard here,” says Arnold*, who is in his second year working at the school. “Too many lies when they are bringing you here. Salaries are deducted unjustifiably and when you ask about it, the HR threatens to terminate your contract.” Arnold says when he first arrived in Hargeisa he was shocked at the condition of his

hall of residence, nicknamed Guantanamo. “The space is crowded and there is no privacy. It feels like a prison sleeping in it.”

Elm Schools Human Resources Director Benson Samia refutes the allegations. “We respect our teachers and their happiness, and comfort is our number one priority.” Regarding claims of abusing labour practices and deporting teachers without notice, he says the school runs like any private business and expects high performance from its staff. “We are in the business of moulding young minds and don’t condone incompetence or under-performance.” He adds that he has never received any complaints about sexual harassment. “All the teachers here are adults and I believe anything that happens is consensual,” he says. Elm opened in 2007 and is popular with Somaliland’s elite and Somali refugee returnees from the United States and Europe. Its promotional videos on social media boast that it is a “centre of excellence, a safe and secure environment that encourages students to realise their full potential”.

The school is owned by a Kenyan, and is the biggest employer of Kenyan teachers in Somaliland, Mr Samia says, with 70 teachers from Kenya and about 40 from Somaliland in its kindergarten, lower and upper primary, and secondary sections. The school’s day-today activities are directed by Jibril Ahmed. But life is very different for the Kenyan men and women who teach the children.

Many teachers who spoke to the Saturday Nation say school officials usually keep the teachers’ passports, effectively limiting their movement in a foreign land. “When you land in Hargeisa, that is the last time you see your passport,” Paul says.

Another teacher, Simon*, confirms, “They take your passport immediately you arrive in the country and say they are going to apply for employment authorisation, but the work permit never comes.”

Mr Samia denies that the school confiscates passports and that some teachers work illegally. “This is a foreign country. They must have work visas. We give the teachers a one-month entry visa. After it expires, the passport is collected from the teacher and taken to the immigration offices, and sometimes it takes two to three months before the work visa is processed. However, the Saturday Nation has seen a copy of a one-month visitor’s visa issued to a teacher, which barred the holder from working in the country. Despite that, the teacher worked for an entire academic year. Working ‘under cover’ and living in cramped accommodations is not all the teachers endure. They also complain about heavy workloads, inadequate food and mysterious salary deductions.

According to a contract seen by the Saturday Nation, the teachers work six days a week. The week begins on Saturday and ends on Thursday. In Somaliland, weekends are Thursday and Friday. But for these teachers, off days were just on paper. When the Saturday Nation contacted Nelson*, a teacher at the school, on a day he was supposed to be off, he informed us that he was in an impromptu day-long meeting.

“The officials regularly call for random meetings so that teachers are not free at any given time,” Nelson told us. “On an off-day we would be asked to paint chairs or arrange books in the library,” Simon says.

Another former teacher, Jane*, details the surprise salary deductions they are subjected to. “They claimed food and accommodation is free, but deducted Sh10,000 every month from my salary for the same,” she says. “The food is always inadequate and during the weekends we don’t get any at all,” she adds. “We are forced to buy out of our pocket.” Jane also complains that she was promised a tax-free salary but when she was signing her contract in Hargeisa she discovered six per cent of her gross salary would be deducted from her monthly salary as tax.

The Somaliland representative to Kenya and head of Somaliland’s liaison office, Ambassador Bashe Awil Omar, says his office is not aware of the allegations.

“Somaliland government strictly adheres to the international human rights standards of respect for human rights and their  fundamental freedom,” he said. He added that his “government has rules and regulations that will prosecute persons or organisations found to be engaged in such criminal acts.” Ambassador Bashe says his government has opened investigations into the claims. Somaliland broke away from Somalia and

declared independence in 1991 following a civil war that led to the collapse of Siad Barre’s government. It enjoys relative peace and stability and has its own functioning polity, judiciary, police force and army. But it is not recognised by Mogadishu or any foreign government.

Many Kenyans travel to Somaliland for work in various sectors every year, but there is no specific data on how many are working in Somaliland. Early this year, a Kenyan teacher at Elm School was arrested and locked up for six days before he was deported to Kenya. Frustrated with the working conditions, the teacher said he decided to risk it all and return home through Ethiopia.

“He lied to us that he needed his passport to process some payments, then abandoned duty without notice,” Mr Samia says. The teacher was arrested at Wajale, a border crossing point between Somaliland and Ethiopia, by Somali immigration officers. He was detained because he did not have a valid visa. Without enough money to bribe the immigration officials as they were demanding, he informed officials at Elm School, who organised for his transfer to a cell in Hargeisa before they facilitated his deportation to Kenya. Responding to allegations that Elm officials had denied the teachers freedom of association and movement, Mr Samia said the school has imposed a curfew for security reasons. “When there is a security alert from the government we ask the teachers to be home by 7 or 7.30pm. But normally, they are allowed to stay out until 8pm,” Mr Samia said.

Despite these conditions, men and women keep going to Elm School to teach. Arnold says he is hanging onto this job because “it’s hard getting a job back home”. Would Arnold encourage a Kenyan teacher to go work with him at Elm School? “No way on earth. It is hell up here,” he says.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the teachers.

2021 Developments

The illegal recruiters have since continued to prowl on the desperate Kenyans who are seeking for employment and others escaping the pangs of poverty at their backyards.

With a concerted effort between CHTEA and a Hargeisa based group of Kenyan journalists, a list of names for the suspected recruiters have since been forwarded to the appropriate security agencies for further investigation and subsequent action. It is indeed reported that the recruiters are currently holed up in Nairobi hotels carrying out recruitment of teachers for Somaliland. 

So close, just being a hair’s breath from being trafficked.

It was so close and every day since they escaped the ‘capture’ to Saudi, these two young girls rejoice.  Recently, one of them said to me “Oh, sister I wake up each day and ‘Thank God’ by now I would have been in slavery.

‘Whitney’ and ‘Loice’ never met before but found themselves on the 5th floor of a new ‘gorofa’ (storey house) the large building on the end of this page.  Both of them had finished F/4 but their results could not take them to college.  They were unemployed and lacked any skills.  Whitney always wanted to study Beauty care as her mother (a widow) is a hair stylist and she felt that if she got a training to combine both, then she could take good care of herself in the future and help her family too.

She saw an advertisement for good, clean jobs in Saudi Arabia – fares paid, passport with visa, a generous salary and good off duty – it all sounded ideal.  Loice also saw the same advertisement as it was posted in many venues of their local town.  On the 5th floor there were ten girls, aged 17 to 20 years old – only two of them were adult age.  On this floor they were to live ten days to two weeks while awaiting their visas.  They were to cater for themselves and money for food was supplied.  They were also given some ‘lessons’ how to bath a baby, how to care for an elderly person, use of an electric kettle, dusting, mopping, clean a bathroom and wash an SUV, etc. etc.

Shaken to the core

One day both of them went into a local kiosk to buy some green vegetables and cook them for supper.  The owner ‘Schola’ is one our most experienced Trainer of Trainers (ToT) on Human Trafficking (HT).  She had heard some ‘gossip’ stories about who owned the large multi-storied building?  Her kiosk is very close to it.  So she got into some lively conversation with the girls.  What she told them about HT shocked them to the core – what of the enthusiastic recruiter and the new job prospects in Saudi was definitely a ‘downer’ on their day.  They decided there and then not to say much to the other girls that night but they offered to do the food shopping next day and returned to Schola.  This time she had some of our training books and posters ready.  They were totally aghast and discussed between themselves what they could possibly do to avoid falling into such a life-changing trap.  They also agreed that it was best to share this big secret with the remaining girls so, after supper that night they briefed the others about their changed plans.  Most of the other girls were very dismissive of what they had been told.  Early next morning they sneaked out early and took the bold step of returning home.  They knew the big risks they were taking, but how would they tell their families?  Whitney said she could not face her mother alone.  Schola offered to accompany her home and since Loice lived in the same direction, they called to her family first.  Her mother could not believe it, what would she do with her daughter now?  Loice is the eldest of seven children, her father had fallen from the top floor of a large building site and the insurance had already taken 3 years to debate the case for compensation.  So far, there was no mention of it despite numerous trips to the lawyer for the company.  Loice knew that if she could attend sewing classes it would help her to be a seamstress in her village.

A new turn of events

Schola knew that if any help were forthcoming for them she ought to approach the CHTEA office.  Hearing the story we knew from long experience that it was better to help them now to attain some skills careers rather than go through a ‘living hell’ for an indefinite period of time and maybe lost to her families forever.  Every day we hear a litany of bitter experiences including injury and death of young people by their Middle East employers.  They are now both attending Thika Industrial Business School (TIBS) not far from their homes.  We know the future is bright for them, but it comes at a cost and that is where you can also ‘chip in’ to assist them and many others we meet who badly need a ‘leg-up’ on the ladder rather than as I recall very vividly from another lady who was also was trafficked to Saudi “Better be a beggar in Kenya than a Slave of the Arabs”


Mary O’ Malley

Above: A building where “Whitney and Loice” were housed awaiting departure

Another Darkness In Our World

Is it the dark side of the moon or what darkness am I reflecting on now?  We met a priest last week from DR Congo (DRC), he is a missionary in Bukavu, that side of DRC where the terrible volcanos are erupting right now, particularly in the area of Goma.  He came to visit us to learn more on how we started doing Counter Human Trafficking (CHT) work.  He even hinted that we might come and do the initial training. Fr Bernard is working with a group of local Sisters helping him to run a center for young girls, 250 of them who are very severely wounded in mind, body and spirit.  They are in a high state of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Not only is that country ruled by hundreds of militia groups but women and children are suffering the worst weapon of war which is sexual violence.  In fact he told us that it is hard to meet a young woman or girl child who has not met rape and defilement.  I came away feeling very sad at one of the examples he shared with us, of a 5 year old girl “who is so damaged both internally and externally that she will never give birth” these were his words.  In the African context this is a curse the innocent little girl must live with, the hospital where she was taken did their best and she did survive but the real cost will fall on the most vulnerable in our society and the world at large. This is the kind of darkness I am sharing with you now.

Recently, I met an orphaned girl ‘Cindy’ who had just come back from the burial of her grandmother, she was an elderly lady almost 90 years old.  The story which emerged was as horrific as the act itself.  The pain, grief and loss coupled with the background of Cindy herself made this whole scenario even more intensely painful.  Cindy was orphaned of the only parent she can vaguely recall, then stayed with her grandmother till she was 12 years old.  Then she was sent to reside with an uncle and his wife in one of Nairobi’s largest slums.  The idea of the people in the far rural community was that she would get better educational opportunities in Nairobi.  His wife went to work early and this beastly relative choose to defile the unsuspecting, innocent 12 year old girl.  Minutes later ‘to add insult to injury’ he walked outside laughing to himself while Cindy picked herself up from the floor.  It was a major trauma to this child and a very dark shadow in her life.

Despite intensive counseling Cindy carries this dark scenario in her head – and it will never go away.  After that horrific assault Cindy gathered together her school books and uniform and left the one roomed shack which had been her home for the past month.  Where to go now?  she had no clue but definitely she was in no mood to face her school-going peers on that awful day.  So, she hired herself out as a domestic help to get odd jobs in whatever was available but it meant an end to formal class work.  Luckily, she met a community health volunteer of Medical Missionaries of Mary where MMM Sisters run a health center, one of them called Rose assured Cindy that she was always welcome to stay at her place and from time to time she took shelter there.

During the school holidays Cindy went to her grandmother, after all she was the only parent figure in her life.  When she returned from the burial of “my Granny” last week I could see that she was totally shattered, the big tears dropped like the onset of heavy rains here in Kenya.  Despite the great age of this elderly grandmother, she sold a cow that morning for KShs 14.000/- (125/- to one Euro), to send an orphaned granddaughter to F/1 (start of secondary school year).  She bought some shopping items for the girl and stuffed the balance inside her belt.  On the way home walking, she diverted into the forest to pick some small sticks for firewood.  That simple diversion resulted in her death – ‘Anna’ was robbed, raped and strangulated.  Next morning some children also on a short diversion to collect firewood, found her body. To those left behind especially Cindy, these are horrific details of the end of life of the woman she had known and loved so dearly.  It underlines again her own personal defilement at 12 years old, and knowing that this uncle still walks free.  Whoever is the man who snuffed out the life of an elderly grandmother may never be named.  Sadly, we live in a country where corruption is the order of the day.  There is nobody to follow-up or name and charge the man who murdered this brave woman in such a ruthless fashion.  We salute this extraordinary woman of courage, despite her advanced years, she valued the benefits of education for a child.  She had nurtured Cindy well, she also gave thanks to God each day that a Good Samaritan had come to her aid and taken her through secondary education.   Cindy was just one point short of university entrance but the same Good Samaritan also sent her on a fifteen month beauty course.  She has excelled in her theory and practical exams and values the highly marketable skills she now holds.  Now at 20 years old she is set to launch herself on a very worthwhile career.


Now with three stories rolled into one, we have seen very painful personal tragedies in the lives of the feminine gender.  Three females who have paid a very high price – and in extremes of age – between the 5 year old and the 90 year old.  Does our world have to be such a dark place?  What has gone so horribly wrong?  Have we spoken so much of the girl child to the detriment of the boy child that this insane and horrific violence is being played out so randomly and for no apparent provocation?  Has pornography almost completely overtaken our sexuality?  Just as sure that we have a Coronavirus pandemic there is a parallel pandemic in our midst – every bit as prevalent and transmissible as Covid-19.  Let’s arm ourselves to fight for our youth and all people who are easily lured and sucked into a vortex of ‘hell’ which can only further work to wreck more havoc in the lives of countless millions in every continent and small village.


Mary O’ Malley, MMM

 31st May, 2021