Alex Nderitu

                                CREDITS: GINA KIEL

                            ALMOST A VIRGIN

Jumping over brown puddles and side-stepping garbage piles, Wakio and her best friend, Wangui, threaded their way through the streets of Nairobi’s Pipeline Estate. Twenty-two-year-old Wakio was wearing tight blue jeans and a white t-shirt. Her curly soft hair was clipped into a ponytail at the back. Twenty-four-year old Wangui, who had a fuller figure and darker skin, was in a navy-blue sundress despite the chilly weather. It had rained the previous night and the streets were filthier than usual. Pipeline Estate was the archetypal ‘concrete jungle’. Unattractive, multi-storied buildings loomed above the pedestrians, hawkers, food vendors, boda boda riders, and frolicking children down below. Laundry hanging on every roof and balcony lent colour to the unfortunate portrait of poor planning and urban poverty. A popular joke in the shanty town was that, owing to the congestion, neighbours could hear each other’s thoughts!

Presently, the girls arrived at their destination: a one-room office simply marked ‘MADAME Z – EMPLOYMENT BUREAU’. They went in.
‘Ah, you’ve returned,’ the proprietor, Madame Z, said in Kiswahili, looking up.
‘Yes,’ Wakio said, reaching into her purse. ‘We finally got the money.’
Madame Z aka ‘Zeddy’ was a ‘fixer’ for people seeking employment opportunities in the Middle East. Now leaning on fifty years of age, she had worked as a house maid in the Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria for over twenty-five years and claimed to have a lot of ‘connections’ there. The girls handed over Kshs 1,500 each; to be connected with a Gulf-based ‘recruitment agency’ that guaranteed them jobs in Saudi Arabia. According to Zeddy, they would earn a monthly salary of between 1,000 and 1,300 Riyals. In the local currency, that was between 30,000 and 40,000 shillings – more money than they could ever earn doing domestic work in Nairobi. 
‘Passports?’ Zeddy commanded.
The girls handed over freshly minted documents. Zeddy looked at Wakio, the prettier of the two. 
‘Your hair is so soft and curly,’ she said. ‘Do you have Somali blood?’ 
‘No, I’m a Taita. Originally from the Coast.’
‘Are either of you married or with children?’
They shook their heads. 
‘Good,’ Zeddy said. ‘But when you get to the Gulf, claim that you have children back home so that they that they will be more sympathetic towards you.’
‘I’ve heard that some African girls are mistreated in Saudi,’ Wangui mentioned.
Zeddy didn’t but an eyelid. 
‘It’s just like here,’ she said, brushing the accusation aside as if she were chasing a fly away from her food. ‘There are good bosses and there are bad bosses. Just pray you get a good one. And talking of prayers, pretend to be a Muslim, even if you’re not one. From now on, you’re “Khadija” Wakio and  “Amina” Wangui. One more thing. You’re going there to work, not on holiday. So focus on your work and don’t upset your bosses or supervisors. I don’t want to receive complaints. Do whatever is necessary to get cash. OK?’
The girls nodded timidly. In the grey skies high above the tenements, thunder groaned ominously. 
Wakio and Wangui left the bureau with mixed feelings. 
‘I hope they send us to homes that are close together,’ Wakio said.
It started to drizzle. They hugged and separated. When Wakio arrived at her 3rd floor two-bedroom flat in yet another faceless, ugly highrise building, her mother was lying on the sofa groaning in pain. 
‘You really need to go to the hospital, Mama,’ Wakio said. 
Pesa zitoke wapi, mwanangu?’ (‘Where will the money come from, my child?’), she replied.
Wakio’s mum had been battling rheumatoid arthritis for years but the illness was now winning. She had stopped working as a laundry woman and had to regularly take expensive medications. Wakio’s married older sister had been paying for the treatment but it was straining her as well. The main reason Wakio was eager to get a job – wherever she could – was to help her mother.
Wakio made tea and they drunk it ‘a cappella’ – without accompaniment. 

Less than a month later, ‘Khadija’ Wakio was on a passenger plane for the first time, headed for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wangui was on a different plane. For Wakio, arriving in Riyadh was like entering a furnace. The temperature was 45 degrees Celcius! 
Fourty-one-year-old Assad picked her up at the airport in an air-conditioned Toyota Hilux. He was Pakistani and spoke very little English but exuded the confidence of a Fortune 500 company CEO. He drove her to a non-descript building in AlDar Abaida, southern Riyadh. He ushered her into a massive house with five bedrooms, five washrooms, two kitchens, and two vast sitting rooms. It was clearly not a family residence, though. Various men were casually walking in and out of rooms, talking and laughing. The air was thick with hookah smoke.   Assad took Wakio’s passport and told her that that would be her ‘home’ for one year, after which she was free to change jobs. He led her into one of the sitting rooms where a motley crew of about fifteen young girls were sitting or lying on tastefully embroidered rags on the floor. Overhead, two giant fans rotated slowly, like synchronized ballet dancers.  The windows were all curtained – for coolness and secrecy.
‘I think there’s a mistake,’ Wakio said, spinning round to face Assad. ‘I applied for a house maid position. I am not a sharmurta.’
Assad laughed.
‘You came to make money, no?’ he said. ‘You do what I say and I pay you. Good money.’
‘No! Ask Zeddy. I am house girl, not sharmurta!’
Without warning, he hit her with the back of his hand so hard that she landed on the floor, more surprised than hurt. 
‘I pay big money for you to come to Saudi and then you no work?’ Assad said with a smirk.
And with that, he spun around and walked away.

One of the girls, a plump Ghanaian with very short hair, came over and asked Wakio if she was alright. Wakio had started crying. She was too emotional to speak. As dusk was falling, more men came into the house. Some were clearly regulars and would call the girls by name. Others walked in, surveyed the foreign beauties, and summoned their pick with a forefinger. Together, they would disappear into one of the many bedrooms. A slim Ethiopian with waist-long hair and ivory skin tone was the most popular.  The other girls were from Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.  The Ghanaian told Wakio that she would become used to the job after some time, and it was unwise to argue with the boss. 
‘One Nigerian girl escaped without her passport,’ the Ghanaian said. ‘When she went to the police, she was arrested for being an undocumented worker.  Two male cops sexually assaulted her in the cell. She was later deported back to Nigeria.’

At around 11.00 AM the next day, Wakio got her first client. A large bearded man with shiny jet-black hair. He summoned her with his finger after appraising the room. Wakio walked towards him like a death row prisoner going to the electric chair. The customer placed his hand at the back of her neck and steered her towards a vacant upstairs bedroom. Without preamble, he shoved her onto the bed, undressed, and threw this massive body on top of her. 
It was the worst experience of Wakio’s life. She couldn’t endure it long for him to finish. She tried fighting him off but it was like a child wrestling with an adult. He smiled and snorted throughout her resistance. When he finally took his mass off her slender frame, he noticed some blood on the white sheets.
‘Were you a virgin?’ he inquired, dressing up.
‘No,’ Wakio whimpered. ‘I’ve been with a man once before.’
‘Huh, I see. Almost virgin. 
He finished dressing up and left the room. Wakio lay on the bed in the fetal position, sobbing, and wishing death would claim her. Assad came in and noticed the blood and the crying mass that was Wakio. He went away and promptly returned with Panadol pills and some water. He placed 100 Riyal next to her and left without a word.

The next day, Wakio locked herself in a washroom and refused to come out. 
‘Open this door or I kill you!’ Assad’s voice boomed from the other side. He banged and kicked the door so hard that Wakio could tell it was just a matter of minutes if not seconds before it caved in.
 Wakio took out her phone and hurriedly dialed Zeddy back in East Africa. She felt a surge of relief when Zeddy picked up immediately. 
‘Zeddy!’ Wakio said, clinging on to her cell phone with both hands as if she feared it might leap away. ‘You’ve got to get me out of here! Assad took me to a brothel and he has my passport!’ 
Zeddy didn’t sound surprised or offended. ‘My dear, kazi ni kazi,’ she said sagely. ‘Ata hio ni kazi, si bora pesa? You’re a bootiful gal, use all your resources to make money. Ama namna gani, my dear?’
Wakio couldn’t believe her ears. Zeddy had calmy told her that prostitution work was just like any other work and the key thing was to make money. Wakio cut the call short. She wasn’t afraid of hard work or low-level jobs. She had just never envisioned herself as  sex slave. And in a forein nation to boot! 
The door had started to splinter. ‘You better come out right now!’ Assad warned.
Wario knew only three other cellphone numbers off-head: her mother’s, her older sister’s and  Wangui’s. Calling her sick mother was out of the question. The stress alone would have put her in hospital. Wambui was probably in the same predicament somewhere else in the desert kingdom.  Wario frantically called her married sister in Nairobi and quickly explaining the situation. Before she could finish, Assad burst in with the door. He grabbed her phone, smashed it on the floor and proceeded to deliver kicks and blows to Wakio. She crawled into a corner and rolled herself into a ball, her hands covering her beautiful face.

Saudi police raided brothel just two days later and arrested Assad and all the girls. While Assad was the main target, the ‘foreign prostitutes’ were kept in custody as the police conducted further investigations. On the third day, Wakio was released. A serious-looking twenty-seven-year-old Kenyan man named Kazungu arrived at the police station with documents to prove that Wakio was tricked into the prostitution ring and held against her will. The contract she had signed at the recruitment bureau spoke only of ‘domestic work’ and was deceptively worded to trick unsuspecting job-seekers. 
‘We managed to recover your passport from Assad,’ Kazungu said, as Wakio walked out the police station. ‘You’re going home. Assad has agreed to pay for the ticket.’
Wakio was so elated, she threw her hands around Kazungu’s neck and cried tears of joy.
‘When you called your sister,’ Kazungu continued, ‘She called the Kenyan Foreign Ministry and they called the Kenyan Embassy here. I was put on the case. Luckily, your sister knew it was Zeddy who connected you so it was easy to trace you via Assad.’
‘Do you work for the embassy?’ she asked.
‘Not exactly. I work for the gov’t. I’m an intelligence officer. We’ve been gathering information of the locations and work conditions of Kenyans in the Gulf States. They’ve been too many complaints. People have disappeared without trace. Some have died. Others have gone home traumatized and broken. My department’s job is to advice the relevant arms of gov’t. We are recommending the immediate revocation of the licenses of nearly 1,000 exploitative recruitment agencies. The nations that send workers to Saudi Arabia should lobby the kingdom to ease some restrictions on the kafala system. It gives employers too much power over the ten million migrant workers here.’
‘I have a friend,’ Wakio said. ‘Wangui Kimani. Kenyan. We’re both from Pipeline Estate. I don’t know where Assad sent her.’
Kazungu promised to look into it. Wakio gave him her phone number and her home address.  They parted ways. The next day, Wakio was on a flight back to equatorial Africa. 

Three weeks after Wakio’s return, Wakio and her mum were sitting in their living room, shelling peas and watching TV, when they heard an authoritative knock on the front door. Wakio opened the metallic door and immediately recognized Kazungu. She threw her arms around him as if he were a soldier returning from war and she was his wife. Wakio’s mum raised an eyebrow. 
‘Mum, this is the man who saved my life!’ she gushed, turning her head. ‘He’s also from the Coast, by the way. Mombasa.’
She ushered him in and offered him tea. Kazungu said he had still not uncovered the whereabouts of Wangui.  His news was  that there was a position in a local NGO that he felt would be ideal for Wakio.
‘It’s one of the organizations I work closely with,’ he said. ‘It’s called Second Wind. It’s a non-profit that traces and rescues Kenyan workers in the Middle East. They have started a division that offers counseling and advice to returnees who have been traumatized. Its part-support group and part-economic empowerment initiative. They have a vacancy and I think you’d be a good fit for it. I recommended you highly.’
Wakio took up the job immediately. What’s more, Kazungu often passed by and their friendship blossomed like desert flowers after a rainstorm. 

One day, eight months after Wakio landed the NGO job, she was sitting at her work station, typing on a keyboard, when Kazungu turned up announced. Wangui was behind him! The two old friends ran towards each other like kids, hugged, laughed and then started crying. Wangui had aged, Wakio noticed, and lost a lot of weight.
‘I found myself in Muscat,’ Wangui narrated. ‘I was a housemaid for a rich family. The couple I was working for took my passport and my phone the moment I arrived. They gave me clothes that looked like maternity dresses. They had four girls and one boy. The boy was the youngest and the most spoilt. Always calling me, “Shagala, do this! Shagala, I’m hungry!” Everyone had their own bedroom and I had to clean the entire house and cook the meals every day. Sometimes, I would work for 18 hours straight. They didn’t have specific meal times. I was always cooking or washing dishes or doing something else.
The lady of the house behaved like she was some type of royal. She loved fine clothes and jewellery. She was educated in the United States and was the only one who spoke English. She asked me to teach her son English. When I asked to be paid extra for the tuition, she accepted but it was never implemented. Her husband was a rich pervert with a moustache. Whenever we were alone in the house, he would come to me and start touching my body. When I resisted, he threatened to accuse me of zina. He said that I would be arrested and possibly killed. He was always threatening me. Always shouting. Even the kids felt entitled to shout at me. It was something I’d never witnessed before because, here, we’re taught to respect our elders. It reached a point where I used to cry every night. 
Mind you, they were not paying me regularly. First, they said that they had spent money to acquire me so I should prove my worth. After the third month, I pleaded with them to pay me so that I could send money back home to my family. It took more than four months for them to start paying me my salary and it was only because my health was obviously deteriorating. I had lost weight and was having dizzy spells. 
Eventually, I decided that enough was enough! When the family was visiting some realtives who lived nearby, I dragged a chair to a stone fence at the back of the house. I managed to climb over. I landed on sand. I got up and started running towards the port like a mad woman. I was hoping to find a sympathetic cop or a Good Samaritan. I was wearing a burqa and it was as hot as hell outside. I nearly fainted. When I stopped to catch my breath in town, I saw a woman respectfully greet a young imam in a white kanzu. Something in the imam’s demeanor told me he was good man. I ran to him an explained my situation. He could see I was telling the truth. He took me to his house. His young wife served us mint tea. I was very thirsty.  I must have drunk a gallon of tea. The imam promised to help me but we would have to report the matter to the police. 
The next day, he walked me to a nearby cop station. I told them my story. They called my boss. He and his bourgeois wife arrived almost immediately, in one of their many shiny cars. The man began shouting at me immediately, in front of the cops and the imam. I’m glad he did because I noticed his wife’s eyes switching between the two of us. She asked to speak to him privately. They locked themselves in the car and it was obvious that they were having a serious argument. She clearly knew her husband had a wandering eye. When they returned, the deflated husband had agreed to give me back my passport and my phone and pay my salary arrears. It was getting late and the imam invited me to spend one more night with his family. His wife had recently had their first child and the image of the two parents dotting over the infant was heart-warming. Before I left the next morning, determined to never return to the Gulf, the imam said to me: “You have been through much suffering but don’t let it destroy you. You’re a young girl. Your life is ahead of you. Be like incense: the more it’s burnt, the more it continues to release sweet flavours.” I’ll never forget those words.’
Wakio was wiping away tears. 
‘Wait till you hear what happened to me,’ she said. ‘But I can’t tell you today. I’m so happy to see you!’ 
Kazungu appeared beside Wakio, handed her a handkerchief to wipe her face, and began to gently massage her shoulder.  
‘And you’re just in time because now I have a Best Maid for my wedding!’
‘What!?’ Wangui exclaimed. ‘You and…?’
Kazungu and Wakio stared lovingly into each other’s eyes. It was the same look that she had seen on the young imam and his wife back in Saudi Arabia. 

Alex Nderitu is a Kenyan writer, poet, playwright and critic. In 2017, Business Daily named him one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’. 


  1. A brutal reality for so many in this country/continent, often without the happy-ish ending. We can hope though, we can be like incense...

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