Woes of a domestic worker in Oman

Promised a fortune in UAE, 10 months later, Joanitah Joshirah Ndagire gave up on the goal because of mistreatment. Photo by Gabriel Buule

I come from a very humble family. My mother’s retail shop was nearly collapsing. My hope was that with the monthly pay of Shs1,478,000, I would boost my mother’s business, build our family home and make life better for my parents,” Joanitah Joshirah Ndagire narrates.

Just like many parents struggle to raise school fees for their children across the country, she was frustrated that after her parents had paid a lot of money to see her through school, she could not help them financially. This is why she thought of chasing quick money in the Arab world to support her family.

After graduating with a Diploma in Law at Law Development Centre, the 28-year-old Ndagire, who was then working with a non-governmental organisation, earned only Shs200,000, which hardly met her monthly bills.

Promised to earn Shs 1.47m
Ndagire says that when she was asked to pay Shs250,000 to a one Hajj Musa Mayimbwa, through his agent known as Isa, she was convinced that she was going to earn Shs 1,478,000, monthly. However, she says, she started getting worried when the travel agents took her through Busia border to Nairobi, where they later took a flight to Oman.

“I did not tell my parents when I was leaving because they were against the idea of working in the Middle East. They had heard horrible stories about girls, who had suffered at the hands of the masters in Arab countries. So, this was between me and the people I was dealing with,” Ndagire recounts.

She says she was lured by the convincing trafficker to delay payment until the visa application was approved. It is at this point that she started to mobilise money from her siblings and relatives, who she promised to pay back after she started working.

“Musa Muyimbwa and Isa told me that the money raised was to cater for visa and ticket costs and medical bills. The letter from Interpol and yellow card costs would be footed by the receiving agent. I went for the medical examination and it was successful. As I eagerly waited for the day, that evening, I received a call that we would be setting off in two days’ time,” Ndagire recalls.

The journey to Oman
“We boarded a bus to Kenya where we were told we would take the flight. We were a team of three girls and we also met two others in Nairobi. Hajj had given me a passport and other travel documents to deliver to one of the girls, we found in a hostel in Nairobi, where we spent one night.
Ndagire narrates how they were later driven to the airport by a woman, who introduced herself as Hajj’s wife.

At the airport
At Jommo Kenyatta airport, Ndagire says her and the other girls were arrested and detained at the airport, only to be released on the instructions of a mysterious man, who later guided them to an aircraft without undergoing necessary checks.

“This was the first blow. I felt like going back home. I called my brother who never picked any calls. I later tried calling my auntie’s phone but it was not available. I had a feeling I was destined for doom but it was too late,” Ndagire recounts the ugly scenes.
She says the girls endured a six-hour journey without food after the air hostess disclosed to them that their tickets did not cater for meals or drinks. Even at the hostel in Nairobi where the girls spent a night, they were never given anything to eat or drink.

“During the flight, we kept comforting ourselves. We got to know each other. But we kept wondering whether we would survive or become the next victims that Ugandans would read about in the dailies,” Ndagire recollects.

Meals at last
“Since we had no pocket money, we kept begging for eats. When we arrived at Sharjah Airport in United Arab Emirates, a man heard us speaking Luganda and he came to inquire if we were Ugandans. He initiated a conversation and told us that he had been in Uganda before. When we told him we were hungry, he bought us food.”
At the airport in Oman, the girls were received by an elderly taxi driver, who gave them food and drinks. He also asked them to wait patiently to be taken to their next destination.

Auctioned in Muscat
In Oman, Ndagire together with the other girls were taken to an office of the receiving agent. Here, she narrates how they were locked up in a room with wide windows. It is at this place that people would look through the buglar proofing of the window, select a girl of their choice and take her to work.

Six days later, Ndagire was taken by three people, leaving behind the others. She was been taken to work for a family of five people. “Many people came to see a new member of the family, whispering the word (shagara others khadama) which means househelp. I was like a tourist attraction,” she remembers.

Getting to work
Though she spent her first night sleeping, the following day was different. From cleaning a huge compound, mopping the house and working longer hours, she began to feel the heat of the job.
“The family wanted their compound clean all the time. I swept and mopped twice a day. I washed clothes everyday. I cleaned kraals of camels and donkeys. I worked like a donkey. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning and slept in the middle of the night daily,” she narrates.

One month later, Hajj, who had instructed Ndagire to surrender her first three monthly payments, started calling her to send the money, threatening to sue her and her parents. She ignored the order because what had been indicated as her payment was never met by her employer.
Ndagire and the girls formed a WhatsApp group, where they shared their worries and checked on one another, from time to time. ”

Narrow escape
Ndagire who says she used to sleep with a knife under her pillow, adds that, she narrowly survived being raped by several family members where she worked.
“Some of the girls I had gone with had been raped. I kept thinking this would happen to me. That’s why I slept with a knife. One time, I fought with a family member in the middle of the night who wanted to rape me. I managed to escape from him,” she narrates.
“After months of emotional trauma disorientation and depression, in November 2016, we mobilised funds amongst ourselves, miraculously escaped and returned to Uganda. After working for 10 months in Oman, all I could show for my sweat, were scars all over my body. The first thing I did when I arrived in Uganda was to seek medical treatment,” she says.

Anti-trafficking activist
When she fully recovered, Ndagire teamed up with End Child Trafficking founder and the proprietor of Art for Change Centre to campaig against human trafficking in Uganda. As a way of recovering from what she went through in Oman, Ndagire has written several stories and plays on human trafficking. She also goes to schools and communities telling her story and encourages young girls not to fall prey to unscrupulous brokers who promise them heaven.

Debate reignited
Mukono Municipality MP, Betty Nambooze has reignited the debate and wants the exportation of girls to the Middle East to be suspended until processes are streamlined and their safety is guaranteed. According to Nambooze, so far 53 girls are stranded in the Middle East. She says many girls are taken to other countries by agencies that are not licenced. This follows a story of Gandhi Doreen Magezi who was allegedly exported to Middle East by Marphie International Recruitment Agency.

Government’s position
In his ruling, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah ordered the Minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development to submit a comprehensive report on the plight of girls who are suffering at the hands of their masters in the Middle East.
Government in May 2019 suspended licensing and registration of new external labour recruitment companies to allow investigations into allegations of abuse of procedures and torture.

What people say
William Mpaata Rogers Otako, the executive director of End Child Trafficking Uganda, claims human trafficking is threatening the survival of Uganda’s youth more than drugs and other crimes combined. Otako claims that the traffickers are highly placed people, which makes it harder for the vice to be fought.
Mariam Mwiiza, the proprietor of Overseas Workers Uganda, says there are many cases of human trafficking and deaths that are swept under the carpet. She says the status quo calls for mass sensitisation and political will.

State of domestic workers in the country
Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) says Uganda has more than 140,000 migrant workers in the Middle East and many continue to travel every day.

According to a Platform for Labour Action (PLA) baseline survey conducted in 2017 profiling domestic work, it highlights that domestic workers are mainly women, 93 per cent in Uganda and 83 per cent globally. PLA is a national civil society organisation focused on promoting, protecting the rights of vulnerable and marginalised workers through the empowerment of communities, individuals in Uganda.

The majority of these workers are aged between 15 to 30 years. 45 per cent of them had not attained education beyond primary level while 43 percent had reached secondary, but, mostly dropped out at lower secondary. Eighty two per cent of domestic work are not aware of their rights .