What you need to know:
- In 2016, Anita Mary Mayanja, 21, was trafficked to Jordan as a domestic worker.
- On arrival, she was subjected to hard labour and denied her right to healthcare plus wages for six months before being deported.
- Two years later, she was trafficked again to Abu Dhabi where her story changed. She spoke to Gabriel Buule about her ordeal.
“Much as I had the urge to go and work in the Middle East, I always wanted to go through proper channels and my desired destination was Dubai since at that time there were few worrying stories from Dubai-based migrant workers.
After sitting my Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) exams, my mother had plans for me to enrol for vocational studies instead of joining A-Level.
As she was putting together resources for me to start school, I suddenly became a mother. I now had to wait for her next decision.
Meanwhile, my personal demands had increased. Though my dad often supported me, as an adult, I had the desire to be financially independent and fend for my mother, siblings and son.
I then started looking for jobs and with no available options, I got an idea to travel to the Middle East because I had seen several girls my age following the same trend. Besides, many companies were advertising on television. With my mother’s help, I collected Shs150,000 which I used to secure a passport early in 2016.
However, I could not raise the money demanded by a labour exporting company whose services I sought. I also got frustrated by the bureaucracy imposed by the company.
Trafficked to Jordan
A friend connected me to a man in Kampala who suggested that he had a ready job in Jordan and I did not have to spend on things like medical, training and registration, among others.
The preparations were relatively swift but things unravelled when the agent asked me to pay Shs1m to someone at the airport’s immigration desk.
He told me that I might be stopped but there would be a person whom we had to pay before departure. I remember he told me to see a woman dressed in red who would walk me through clearance.
It was not easy to find the money but I finally found it because I had hoped that I would recover it in a few months after securing the job.
My first flight experience was defined by hunger since no meal was served from Kampala to Dubai and I did not have any pocket money at all. Other passengers were busy eating but my arrangement was different. It was not until we switched to Emirates in Dubai that I got an opportunity to eat. I was so hungry to the point that I ate whatever was served though I had never tasted such foods before.
In Jordan, I was received by my employers who drove me to the office of the receiving labour agency in Amman, which was in direct contact with the Ugandan agent who had worked on my arrangement.
I was promised a lot but everything was different on arrival. My phone was confiscated and I was only allowed to use a phone once a week.
Working for a family of eight where I had to do work manually, I would spend the day juggling cleaning, cooking and washing clothes by hand.
A month later, my palms started heating up and itching, especially at night. The condition became severe. On several occasions, I demanded that I be taken to hospital after enduring a lot of pain but my employers refused.
My employer’s stay-at-home husband started asking me for sex whenever his wife went to work but I rejected his advances.
Later, the family took me to the clinic. I was told that I was suffering from nerve contraction, which was suspected to have been caused by detergents that I used for washing clothes.
The head of the family then intensified his sexual advances, which I rejected. This created a much more toxic environment for me.
I was sleeping in a room meant to be a store for the family and I was not allowed to close it during the day even when I was resting. On several occasions, the husband attempted to rape me. Whenever I told him that I would report to his wife, he would retreat.
After five months of doing my chores while on painkillers, the family decided that they would foot half of my medical bill and I would compensate for the other half with a few months of work. I accepted. They never took me to hospital.
Luckily, my employer’s home was near the offices of the receiving agency, I later noted. I asked them to take me back to the agency, but they refused.
I stood my ground and after concluding my sixth month of work. I walked to the office of the receiving agency and asked them to either take me to hospital or back to Uganda.
Night in a toilet
At the agency, I was accused of not wanting to work and I was locked in a toilet for a night without food or water but only a rag to sleep on.
However, on my way to the agency, I noticed a police patrol car and copied the telephone contacts written on it.
In my phone I had an Orange Telecom sim card from Uganda and since there was Orange network in Jordan, I tried the police number, to see if it would go through.
Luckily, the call went through and the person who received it spoke English. After sharing my concerns with him, he asked me to check my contract and share the numerals that I could see, which I did.
Minutes later, I was picked up by the owner of the receiving agency who drove me to his home, asked me to freshen up, dress nicely and he gave me a lot of food.
Later, my employer arrived and told me that she was ready to get me medical treatment. She also asked me to tell the police that I had no problem working for her.
At that point I was distressed and all I wanted was to return home. The police in Jordan gave me two options; they said they would abide by whichever choice I made.
They told me that if I wanted to return to Uganda, they would facilitate my travel and if I was willing to stay, they would compel my employer to fund my treatment and pay for my work.
The moment I asked to return to Uganda, my employer asked the police to recover from me the money they paid the agent in Uganda and for my travel.
I told the police that the employer should consider my unpaid wages of six months as compensation and also cater for my return ticket.
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Police took me to the deportation centre and they assured me that I would be taken care of as they processed my papers to return to Uganda.
The deportation centre felt like home to me unlike the many people I found there who awaited help from their home countries.
I returned to Uganda sick, with nothing except my luggage.
Returning to school
In that moment of distress, as I fought depression and untreated health complications, my mother catered for my treatment and I was told that I had to undergo a surgery which I could not afford, though I had got some relief.
The father of my son offered to cater for my tuition and I joined Buganda Royal Institute where I did a course in secretarial studies in 2017.
While studying, I got a job opportunity to work in a law firm where I was earning a monthly salary of Shs150000. Sometimes this money would come after several months.
My employers told me that they were offering pro bono services and their income depended on donors who usually delayed releasing funding.
By the end of 2018, I was owed three months of unpaid salary amidst demanding personal bills. Sometimes, I had to walk from Nansana to Kampala for work.
My friend shared an opportunity that her mother wanted a person to work in Dubai. When I approached her, I was clear that I was only interested in work if it was not hard labour. I was still grappling with nerve contraction.
She told me that a family in Abu Dhabi wanted a person to work as a home teacher. I was not sure about the job and I had no history of being a teacher but I desperately accepted.
She told me that she would process all the paperwork. We travelled early in 2019.
Suddenly a teacher
I had never been a teacher before and I had never dreamt of being one but my friend’s mother asked me to pretend to be one. She perfectly backed up my lie.
Handling three toddlers, my job was to help them with their homework, especially English and Mathematics.
I would check the children’s work and teach them at home. I often escorted them to school alongside their mother. In addition to that, I had to monitor them at home and when they went to public play areas.
The task was not as easy as expected, but I became used to it and I made use of the internet to answer difficult questions.
It was difficult to police children without raising one’s voice at them or seeming to threaten them in any way. It was always a case of cajoling and pleading with them.
Sometimes they would make fun of me and indulge me in unhealthy games; say a child would suddenly urinate on you while eating and run away as the parents looked on.
Unlike in Jordan where I was not allowed to use a phone, my employer in Abu Dhabi encouraged use of phones to the extent that when my phone got a mechanical problem a few months after my arrival, she replaced it with an improved version.
It is only later that she told me that housemaids are safer with phones because the moment they feel lonely, they fail to deliver.
My employer treated all maids at home well. She allowed us to share the same dining space and meals. She often gave us her own clothes whenever she wished to do so.
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However, some families in the community would still subject me to racism. Sometimes when I would go to some neighbourhoods to pick the children, I would be mocked and stopped at the gate.
At one point I asked the older child and she told me that neighbours hated me because I am black.
When I told my employer about this, she reacted by stopping the children from playing at family homes where they hated black maids.
I recall one day we attended a wedding and she allowed us to sit at a guest table that was designated for her family and another. The other family deserted the table and she confronted them.
She argued that it did not make sense to hate and isolate people they entrust with their children’s lives.
In December 2021, I chose to return to Uganda and spend life with my child and family much as my employer still needed me to stay.
In any case, my employer’s children had been promoted to much more advanced grades and I could not effectively handle their work. I had no way of explaining to my employer that I could not handle it anymore.
Unlike in Jordan, I was paid and treated well in Dubai. I was able to fend for my family, save and acquire a few properties.”
Brush with Covid
“During the global pandemic, all maids at home were subjected to Covid-19 testing and luckily we were all alright. Later, my employer contracted the virus and she recovered at home.
A month later, I started getting symptoms and upon testing I had Covid. I was hospitalised for nearly a month. Unlike in Jordan where my health was taken for granted, in Abu Dhabi I was frightened in hospital but never lonely.
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The family would call me every morning and evening and they encouraged me to stay strong. At one point I had to call my sister. I told her that I was going to die because of the pain I was going through, but I confirmed to her that as much as I was sick I felt loved and they were taking care of me.
On return from hospital, I thought my salary would be deducted, but it was never the case and the family’s grandmother congratulated me for surviving the ordeal with cash of Shs1m.”