I made a friend on my flight today.
She had just left her life.
I made a friend on my flight to Addis Ababa today. She was a Kenyan on her way to Saudi Arabia to work as a housekeeper for two years, while I was off to London for a graduation ceremony.
She had a child-like immaturity; playful, a little naive and easily distracted. She immediately started to talk to me when I sat down. Her English wasn’t great, a Kikuyu riddled accent, all tongue and wandering l’s and r’s. When she first told me where she was going I could hardly understand her ‘Sawrdi’, and I politely assumed she was off to a rural area in Ethiopia that I’d never heard of. As our conversation progressed, I worked out that she meant Saudi Arabia. Two years, on 20,000 shillings a month to clean kitchens in a country she’s never seen before for an employer she’s never met.
The flight didn’t make her nervous — she kept telling me how comfortable the plane was, that she could fall asleep without even knowing she was in the plane. As we started our ascent she asked if we could pray. Normally I resist such things, but it seemed the wrong thing to do. She asked for journey mercies, and we said “amen” in harmony. Then we slowly started to read her contract. She hadn’t read the conditions, but laughingly told me that by getting on the plane she’d already agreed to the terms. We read the first page. Half way through, she became distracted by my travel plans — “you’re going to London for a week, without any work?”. Back to reading her contract, and the harshness of what she’d signed up for started to dawn on her: if she’s to fail the probationary period she’ll be sent home, and expected to pay the round fare. If she’s sacked, then she has to pay the fare home. If she asks for a holiday, she can be sent home, which she’ll have to pay for. There weren’t to be any vacations till the contract was over, which was around August 2016.
We talked about her family. She’d left her two-year-old daughter with a woman that she’s paying 7000 shillings a month to raise her daughter. I couldn’t understand the logic— that’s almost half a month’s salary. She clearly adored her daughter, telling me about her ‘fat fat’ arms and assuring me that having a child made you feel like you’d really done something. Her husband was a doctor, but they’d only lived together for five months. He was shocked when she told him of her plans to spend two years cleaning kitchens in the Middle East, but he let her go. I asked her if he might come over during the next two years, or whether there was any chance she might make it back to Kenya. “No”, she said.
As the flight went on we read more of the contract. She told me how often she’d Skype her little girl, that when she got home she’d be a big girl. She was excited by her daughter’s growth and it didn’t seem to matter that she’d be missing out. When she came back to Kenya, she assured me, she’d have enough money to look after her daughter properly.
Clause 19 of the contract asked the new employer to allow their new employee to call home once they had arrived. It then asked that they be allowed to call home once a month. The request finished with the only Arabic word in the document — “inshallah”. It seemed that even the person who drafted the contract knew that granting this single call might be a big ask. My friend almost yelled. “They’re mean, these people”. She already understood that this wasn’t a fair contract, that it was a rich person taking advantage of her desperation and the lack of labour protections. This wasn’t about helping her — it wasn’t far off from slavery.
We swapped What’s App numbers, and she told me that she’d be chatting to me all the time. I didn’t see how this was possible with her one call a month. We were offloaded from the plane into the brisk Ethiopian air, she was ushered to the right, while I was sent towards a waiting bus. ‘God bless you’, I said, not because it means anything to me but because I was scared for her. She needed all the blessings she can muster, and this was the one that mattered to her.
The plane was full of Kenyan women in similar positions, leaving their husbands, children, villages and lives. The three women behind us looked so sad, with none of my friend’s happy-go-lucky noise. They’re walking into a world where they have no rights and where they can be sent home at crippling cost. May God protect them. Inshallah.