Jane Kambalame
Malawian housemaid wins U.S. human trafficking case after three

I am in a way grateful that the story that I imprisoned Ms. Lipenga for 3 years came out in the media because I would not have known that the default judgement had been passed. I learnt about the verdict

through the Reuters article just like the rest of the world. In fact, I was shocked that the judgement was made on 9th November! I have dealt with this case for 8 years and Ms. Lipenga has employed a number of lawyers who have communicated and served summons through both my work and personal e-mail addresses, including Facebook. In some cases, I would learn about developments through google search.

The critical issue that needs to be emphasized is that Ms. Lipenga was not under any duress to travel with me to the U.S. Secondly, I employed her in 2002 to take care of my daughter who was 6 years old then.

For the two years that I stayed with her in Malawi, she developed a strong and enviable relationship with my daughter.

 

They were both bubbly and had the same energy levels that sometimes watching them together would just exhaust me. When we arrived in the US in 2004, Ms. Lipenga’s responsibilities included getting my daughter ready for school, escorting her to the school bus stop and pick her up at her school.

The two would normally go to the playground together. Sometimes they would take the bus to the Mall for window shopping. Ms. Lipenga had a set of her own keys just like I did. We certainly never had a coded lock.

One of the reasons I found Ms. Lipenga invaluable was that she would help my daughter with homework after school because she [the maid] went as far as Form 3 if not 4 in Malawi. She also took excellent care of  my daughter and my house. I would have to be a witch from the pit of hell to torment or berate such a person or imprison her. In any case, before I employed her, she had worked for several months for my cousin who left Malawi before I did and wisely decided that she would not take a maid along. Ms. Lipenga was, therefore, not a stranger to me and my daughter. If I am the evil person she purports me to be, then she should have refused to travel to the U.S.

What sort of demon would have suddenly possessed me in Washington D.C that I would turn into a monster? What would be gained from imprisoning her? What would motivate me to behave in such a deranged manner? I actually considered myself lucky to have found a maid who got along so well with my daughter- a thing most mothers wish for!

Another issue worth noting is that since my daughter was at school most of the day, I allowed Ms. Lipenga to babysit other kids and even to clean other people’s homes in the neighborhood to supplement her salary (evidence is there). She opened a Bank account immediately we arrived in the U.S and a few months later, she enrolled for a GED (High School Diploma).

Ms. Lipenga changed her attitude towards me and towards her work during the end of the second year.

She had learnt from her friends that there was an organization which assists domestic workers if only they proved that they had been trafficked and were being abused. Ms. Lipenga went into overdrive trying to do everything wrong. She was undoubtedly aware that as a diplomat, my stay in the US was limited to a [maximum] of 3 years. I would be recalled to home service anytime. A green card was a better option.

Surprisingly, before her “escape,” she informed me that she wanted to quit and I told her to give me a few weeks to arrange for a new maid since my daughter was still young. One Sunday morning, I woke up and found her gone. At first, it was not strange because she was off work on Sundays anyway and would be out until evening. At around 9pm, concerned that she had not returned, I went into her room and found all her belongings gone.

She took everything, except all items that I bought for her as well as her school books. I was so naïve thinking she must have had a lot of stuff to carry that she decided to leave what I bought and the books which were obviously heavy. With hindsight, I know it would have been difficult for her to make all the claims about abuse with a bag full of gifts from the “abuser.” I later heard from the grapevine that she had moved to Baltimore and was working for an American family.

I am exempted to bring a new maid but the U.S Embassy in Lilongwe would not give a visa to any prospective maid I presented obviously because Ms. Lipenga was still in the U.S. working under the A3 Visa.

 

One Friday evening in 2008, a very close friend of Ms. Lipenga called to inform me that her colleague had been admitted into a hospital in Maryland. I did not hesitate to go and see her. In fact, I visited her a few times together with my daughter and spoke to her on the phone almost on a daily basis. I never brought up the issue of her escape. In fact, listening to us, one would not have known that she had pulled that move on me.

Her Doctor refused to disclose her illness, citing privacy issues, which I totally understood. One day, I called the hospital to speak to her but I found that she had been discharged.

Ms. Lipenga called me a few weeks later to inform me that she was still in hospital but in Baltimore. We spoke for a while and she was mainly curious to know how my daughter was doing because as I have mentioned, they had developed quite a strong bond. Later in the same month, her social worker called to inform me that Ms. Lipenga had been discharged and I needed to pick her so that she recuperates at my house. I told her I had no problem but the only challenge was that I would go to work every day and my daughter, who was 10 then, could not take care of Ms. Lipenga in my absence. I also told her that ever since Ms. Lipenga had been hospitalized, no one had told me what she was suffering from. Whilst staying with me, she was diagnosed with Lupus. Period.

I am in the process of filing an appeal and so I have avoided giving a lot of information. Suffice to say that this case has highlighted a lot of issues, including the fact that indeed the world has become small, thanks to social media. The story has made and is still making its rounds. I am thankful to God for the overwhelming support, prayers and words of encouragement from my family and friends and even strangers. Of course, there are those who believe that I am a human trafficker and I don’t blame them. It is Ms. Lipenga’s word against mine but at the end of the day, God is the ultimate judge. I am certain that one day, the truth will be known.

Another important issue underscored through this case is the predicament that we, as women in international relations, particularly here in Africa face when we go for diplomatic assignments outside the continent. We must balance between work and taking care of our families and learn to live without the extend family that we often rely upon. We must be aware of the labour laws in the country we are serving and most importantly, we should always be conscious of the culture. Imagine my disbelief when one of Ms. Lipenga’s lawyers accused me of letting “the poor lady wash plates with hands.” “As opposed to?” I asked in shock through my lawyer. “A dishwasher!!” He said.

I doubt he believed my explanation that we had one in the house which never worked any my Landlord never bothered to fix.

You will be amazed at the number of people that have reached out to me and narrated practically horror stories about how they were taken to court by domestic workers they trusted. Most people have had to pay a lot of money to defend themselves. Even in cases where the workers were paid the required minimum wage, some diplomats have had to contend against claims of abuse. It is particularly difficult to present oneself as a victim in such cases when the power asymmetry is clear- diplomat/boss and domestic worker.

In fact, one is almost envious of the support the domestic workers get, including pro bono lawyers. The language is crafted in such a way that you almost start believing they are talking about someone else and not you. This is not to say human trafficking does not exist nor am I saying there are no cases of abused domestic workers. Having worked in the international relations field for almost 19 years now, I have witnessed several chilling cases. However, it should also be emphasized that some people have taken advantage of the systems in western countries, making unsubstantiated claims about abuse and trafficking so that they obtain permanent residence. In the end, a lot of people, especially women from developing countries are left fighting to restore their reputation and almost bankrupt. The implications are far reaching and may obviously affect one’s career.

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