When in December 2014, she left the comfort of her home in Atebubu, in the Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana, 18-year-old Latifa Adams believed she was on her way to El Dorado.
Her agents had told her that the Gulf State of Kuwait where she was heading was a country which streets are lined with gold. A paradise carved out of heaven, where everything is perfect, the pasture forever green.
Naturally, and as it’s customary with people of her age, she went crazy with joy. She was ecstatic. She walked on air. But unknown to her, she was embarking on an odyssey to modern slavery, life of torment.
The moment she touched down on Kuwaiti soil, she knew she had made the wrong move. First, her ambition to become a nurse, as she had purposed when leaving Ghana, came crashing like humpty-dumpty off a high wall, breaking into irredeemable pieces. She ended up a maidservant.
Frustrated, she quickly wanted to retrace her steps, but it was too late. What followed was a daily dose of gross maltreatment, living and working under subhuman conditions, and sundry human rights abuses that could cause the heart to melt, all meted to her by her employers. Barely two months in her sojourn, all her dreams of a better life had gone up in flames. Today, she’s back to square one.
She returned to Ghana, not as a sultry, healthy young girl that she was, but as a burn victim that has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Even if your heart was made of steel, her story would melt it.
When the paper sat with Latifa Adams, early in the week, she fought back tears several times as she recounted her chilling experience. Even the most hard-hearted man would quake with rage, listening to the harrowing tale told by the recuperating burn victim, who is still slated for a series of surgeries.
Journey to Kuwaiti hell
The question: Latifa, how did you end up in Kuwait? was the first salvo that we fired to kick off the interview. The still traumatized victim instantly opened a floodgate of recollection, recalling from the beginning how she was deceived and sold into servitude in the oil-rich country.
“I went to Kuwait through my mother’s friend Nsu George,” Latifa begins. “He is popularly known as Alaman in Atebubu, but known famously as Kofi in Kuwait. George told my mum that he had a sibling in Kuwait who brings people from Ghana to come and work over there.
He claimed to have taken some of his own relatives to Kuwait to earn a living. Because I was home and not working, my mother thought it wise to ask my brothers to help me go over there. I was skeptical about it, so, I asked her if she knew anyone living in Kuwait who I was going to be living with.
She told me I shouldn’t worry since George had already taken some of his relatives there, she was certain I was going to be fine. Because of the hardship that my mother and siblings were going through, I obliged to go to Kuwait, hoping to make good money to send home so they could live comfortably. So, they processed the passport and visa, and I went to Kuwait City.”
Against this background, she describes the journey.
“I travelled to Kuwait with a couple of other girls,” she recalls. “We were told we were going to work as nurses, clerks and cleaners; that we were going to be working in groups and after each day’s work, a company bus would pick us and drop us at an apartment where we would be staying.”
The reverse was the case when they arrived in the gulf country.
“First, we were nine Ghanaians girls thrown into a small room. Nobody told us anything. Nobody spoke a word to us. Every other hour, two men would walk in and drag one of us out. When it got to my turn, I asked the guys where they were taking me. told me I had been sold to a Kuwaiti family to work as a servant. I was furious. George came to where we were housed, and I went to him to demand an explanation.
He told me pointedly that we were informed in Ghana that we were coming here to work as maids, and that I shouldn’t make any fuss about this.
I insisted I was not going to be anybody’s maid. But at that point, I had no choice because the papers had been filed already – that I came into the country as a domestic worker. What was worse was that I didn’t know anybody I could go to in Kuwait.”
Living in hell
After that shocking hors d’oeuvre, the nightmare proper began at the home of her employer, whom she refers to as “Sheik.”
“The experience was horrific,” Latifa Adams continues. “They beat me. They slapped me. They starved me. I was always locked in the house. Even when they went to the bathroom, they took the key with them. The four walls of the house were like a prison.”
According to her, she worked from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., washing, cooking, scrubbing and minding her employers’ kids. This was her daily routine, seven days a week.
“Slowly, they reduced the quantity of food they were giving me. They threw food away while I was hungry,” she says in a broken voice, fighting back tears. “Taps were also locked. So, most days I couldn’t take my bath. On days when we had water, they would fill a small basin and then turn off the water and ask me to bath and wash my clothes with that small amount of water.”
Her employer and his wife, with passage of time, became meaner. “The man’s wife would inspect the house, and if she was not happy, she would beat me,” Latifa recounts. Hit with various objects, including a mop and a hanger, she once lost consciousness during one of such beatings.
“I was treated like an animal and I was made to serve them like I was a slave.”
The gas explosion that twisted her life
The badly burnt skin of the young girl is no sight for sore eyes. She obliges Weekend Sun a blow-by-blow account of the tragedy that capped her Kuwaiti calamity.
“My injuries happened after I had cooked for the whole family,” she says, her temple furrowed in deep sorrow. “Usually, after the main meals, the kids liked to cook noodles. One of them tampered with the gas cylinder when I went out of the kitchen to serve their father’s driver.
I returned to the kitchen to wash the dishes. Just as I moved closer to the sink, I heard a loud explosion. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground covered with blood. My body was badly burnt. I couldn’t breathe properly. I managed to crawl into the bathroom and opened the tap so the water could splash on me.
“I was screaming the whole time but nobody paid attention to me. With wounds all over my body, I crawled upstairs to call the man to take me to the hospital. I banged at his door several times but he wouldn’t open.
I left to bang on the door of his kids. They, too, wouldn’t open the door. So, I used the last energy left in me to break the door. I pleaded with them to ask their dad to take me to the hospital.”
Rather than treat her case with the urgency it deserved, her employer insisted she demonstrated to him first how the incident happened. “All this time, I was losing blood. Blood was dripping from the open sores all over my body,” Latifa says.
Suddenly, tears began to well in her eyes. Within a split second, tears began to cascade down her cheeks. But she managed to continue her recollection:
“After showing him how the incident happened, he went to his room to brush his teeth. Downstairs, he asked me to sit down so he could clean the interior of his car before we could go to the hospital.
At the hospital, instead of getting me on a stretcher, he parked the car in the sun at the extreme end of the hospital whilst making calls. After 20 minutes, he sent me in but the hospital said the injuries were beyond what they could handle. They put me in an ambulance and sent me to a different hospital.”
She subsequently spent 33 days in the hospital.
“Every day,” says the distraught lady, “nurses will come to my bed and literally peel layers of my skin off.”
Again, tears come in torrents. She breaks down, for the umpteenth time, crying uncontrollably. After exhausting her tears, she demands for a glass of water.
Then, she continues her recount of the nightmare:
“During the 33 days I spent at the hospital, I couldn’t sleep. Not even once did I blink. The pain was too much; too difficult to bear.
I had hard time breathing. At the time, I was menstruating, and the nurses had to carry me and put a diaper under me since I didn’t bring panties or menstrual pads along.”
That she had neither friends nor relatives in Kuwait to turn to for help worsened her situation. “At a point when the pain was unbearable, I felt like taking my life,” she confesses. “Yes, I wanted to commit suicide.”
Latifa Adams was one of 5,000 maids from Ghana who work in Kuwait. Thousands of women from Ghana and other poor countries who travel to Kuwait every year were given the illusion that they will earn at least $100 more than they could earn in their home countries.
While a few are as lucky as to be employed by people who treated them humanely, a significant number face extreme, if not bizarre, maltreatment. Locked in apartments, their passports retrieved by their employers, banned from phones, and salaries withheld.
When you factor in their inability to speak the local language, then, you have a perfect picture of hell gone full circle.
According to the agency’s rule, foreign maids are required to live with their employers till after their visas expire. If a maid seeks a new employer and decides to keep mum about the domestic assaults, agency rules say she would have to return everything she has earned with her old employers.
To flee home means to be mired in the debt incurred in the process of raising visa fee. If, however, she decides to go to the police and pursue a case – a daunting prospect given her limited familiarity with the local language and with the city – she would not be able to work until the case is resolved, a Kuwaiti policy designed to discourage false complaints.
Latifa Adams’ testimony gives further insight:
“There was a time the man slapped me and kicked me in the head. I reported the incident to the agency and they told me to be patient. When I couldn’t withstand the maltreatment, I ran from the house one day and took a taxi to the agency’s office.When I got there, the woman at the office said she was not going to take me back, saying that I was wrong for running away.
She told me to go back, insisting that she didn’t have anywhere to take me. After staying in the office for two days, they insisted that I return to where I was working, since the man had seized my passport and two months’ salary. On the third day, the man showed up at the agency.
Right in front of them, he descended on me. Nobody restrained him. Eventually, I had to go back to his house to work for him again until the gas explosion happened.”
Saved by Good Samaritan
But for the timely appearance of a Good Samaritan, Latifa Adams would have ended up dead in a Kuwaiti hospital. Fate brought her in contact with Hajia Adiza, head of the Ghanaian Community in Kuwait, and Alhaji Said Sinare, Ghana’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The two personalities played crucial roles in getting her back to Ghana where she is now receiving treatment.
Aside from footing the bills for her hospital treatment in Kuwait, Ghana’s envoy to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Said Sinare, paid for her flight back home, and he currently harbours her at his residence in Labone, Accra, even as he continues to shoulder responsibility for her medical bills at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra.
“I came in contact with Latifa when I was about to pay a courtesy call on the Ghanaian Community in Kuwait,” recalls Alhaji Sinare. “I heard about her plights from Hajia Adiza, who is the leader of the Ghanaian Community in Kuwait. So, I went to the hospital with my deputy, Mr. Nsiah, together with my wife, Hajia Adiza and her husband.”
He explains why he had to fly her back home for treatment. His words: “The treatment she was getting over there was not the best. It will surprise you to know that with all these burns, not a single antibiotic was given to her. So, I had her brought to Ghana so doctors could look after her properly. Now, she is going to have surgery done from her neck area to her thighs.”
Currently, she goes to dress her wounds twice a week. The medical expenses, along with her feeding and transportation, are borne by the diplomat.
Every few months, a few hundred African and Asian maids are repatriated on flights organized by international groups and paid for by the Kuwaiti Government. According to the Ghana ambassador, every day, three or four more Ghanaian maids arrive with tales of withheld salaries, 20- hour workdays, beatings and rape, thereby turning Hajia Adiza’s abode to a sanctuary for refugees.
Alhaji Sinare, who asserts that “the ordeals that some maids go through are appalling,” further explains that “there exists a significant and pervasive pattern of rape, physical assault and mistreatment of Ghanaian maids that takes place largely with impunity.”
Calling for measures to halt these incidents from happening to innocent migrants, he opines that “what is needed is proper legal instrument to protect against maltreatment.”
He says: “I have made some recommendations to the ministry to look at the issue of the “Visa 20” – visas that are issued to housemates who want to work in Kuwait. I have urged them to cancel it. Even though it might affect certain parties, the overall assessment of it suggests we are better off without it.
Latifa’s issue isn’t the only one horrifying case. There are so many girls out there in Kuwait who are having a hard time. The maltreatment over there is so bad. It is pure slavery and it is evil. I just don’t know how to describe this,” the diplomat laments.