Adewumi: The Arabian Slavery Called Work

“When agents pitch to you about working in Saudi Arabia, they will tell you great things about the place; they’d tell you that you can work as a nurse or paint some decent jobs to you. They would also tell you about the huge amount of money that you would be paid. When you earn N10,000 per month in Nigeria and someone says you can earn N150,000 per month, the idea of traveling begins to look enticing.
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My brother, it is mostly lies.
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These agents know the truth but they would never tell people because they know people are desperate to get out of Nigeria and so they make the destination seem as glamourous as possible. My away from home story is an account of the truth of my life in Saudi Arabia.
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My first job when I got to Saudi Arabia was to be a care-giver, to take care of an aged woman in diapers. The aged woman I was to take care of was the mother of my boss. Upon my arrival, I was told that I couldn’t own a phone and so my boss seized my phone. I protested that I’d need to speak with my people back at home and so I was allowed to use the phone once a week and that was on Fridays.
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The crazy thing about it all was that I could only call one person every Friday. I wasn’t cool with the arrangement and so we dragged the matter back and forth. In the end, I was allowed to buy my own sim and keep a phone that wouldn’t run WhatsApp. With that phone, I could only check Facebook.
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Not only that, in Saudi Arabia, you’re not allowed to go out at all. On no account should you ever go out. If I needed anything, I’d write a list and my boss would get the items for me. I stepped into my boss’ compound on my first day of work and that compound became my world. I had been trapped.
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So even though when I was taking the job, the job description was to be a caregiver, I had been deceived. In reality, I was the maid that took care of everything in my boss’ house. I’d do the dishes, cook, vacuum the floor, do the laundry, and scrub the walls sparkling clean till it was spotless. Not only did I work in the apartment but it became my responsibility to keep the compound clean as well. I was also the one saddled with the task of washing the cars.
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My boss had nine children and she has about twenty-five grand children in all. The first frustrating part of the job was that one grand child could say he wants a particular food and another grand child would say he wants a different food and the way they will order you around, it was so disgusting.
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In my boss’ compound, there are three buildings. The first building is occupied by one of my boss’ sons – he is married with two kids. His younger brother also had an apartment in that first building. This younger brother was married too. They had a son already and at the time I was in the house she was pregnant.
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Whenever I was done, I’d then go to the sons’ apartments and do the same work in each apartment. Whenever I was done and I returned to my boss’ building to rest, I may get there to discover that the kids in the house have turned the whole house upside down while I was away working in the other building; that means that I’d have to start the chores all over again.
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Let me put it in perspective for you: it could take up to 4-5hours to wash the dishes, pots and to tidy up the kitchen. I would have completed the whole thing and while I am away at the other buildings working my sock off, the children in the first building where I had worked for hours would have scattered the kitchen, used plates to do all sorts and now, as I return exhausted from the other building, I have to resume back at the kitchen I had already cleaned and I’d begin to wash all over again. Sometimes I would see the mess they have made and I’d just burst into tears.
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Cleaning the sitting room was always a serious deal. I would single-handedly remove all the furniture out of the sitting room and then I’d get the hose, connect it to the water source to channel water into the sitting room. I’d get scrubbing brush and soap and begin to scrub the floor and all walls of the apartment. By the time I am done doing all these chores, I’d be so worn out. By, say 2am, when I am going to sleep, my boss may then call me to help massage her body and yet I had to be up early.
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If I am still giving massages by 2am, please how many hours do I have left to sleep?”

The worst period of work was during Ramadan. If you work within a house, just take it that you will not sleep for the whole period of the Ramadan. The thing about the Arabs is that they love to see all sorts of meals on their table even if no one would eat it – so we’d set a grand table that has all sorts of meals. On the day the fast starts, I’d begin to prepare sahur from around 11pm the previous day and I will cook all through the midnight till about 3am.

Now when sahur is over, I’d begin to wash all the plates, bowls, cutlery and pots used to serve and eat. All of that washing and cleaning up will start from when sahur is over till about 9am. Then I’d resume cleaning the compound, washing cars etc., that could last for another 2-3hours. All the sleep I get is the nap I can steal before the cleaning for sahur begins.

By 12 mid-day, I’d have to start cooking whatever meals we’d be serving for the breaking of the fast at sundown. As I am making real foods, I am also making snacks and preparing all sorts of delicacies. I’d be in the kitchen working till about 7pm when I’d serve the food. When they are done eating, I’ll commence washing all over again for hours; this could last till 10pm.

All the time I have to sleep is about 30mins-1hour because I have to resume cooking for sahur by 11am! So what time do I have to sleep?! And remember, I still had to be checking on the aged woman, changing her diapers and cleaning her up.

Remember that I told you that one of my boss’ son had a daughter-in-law that was pregnant at the time I was working there. When she delivered her baby, that was another hellish period for me. We kept receiving visitors daily for 40 whole days!

Considering how the Arabs entertain visitors, as a batch of visitors was leaving, another batch would be coming in. So if a batch of visitors came and we have laid out food for them; when a new batch of visitors came around I’d have to start cooking all over again. Visitors would start coming from morning and we may not stop receiving visitors until 2am, and as every visitor came, I’d be cooking for them.

When visitors arrive, we’d first of all serve them water. Then about 15mins after, we’d serve them coffee along with dates. After a couple of minutes, I’d serve them chocolates all round. After like 15mins, I’d prepare Lipton tea and serve them that. As I am serving the tea, I’d be packing the coffee I’d brought in earlier. A few minutes will pass and then I’d serve them pizza – mind you, we don’t order pizza, I’d have to make the pizza myself.

While I am serving all these, the main food is on the fire – I am serving, clearing and cooking all at the same time. When the main food is ready, we will scoop the food into a very large tray; the guests will gather round the that huge bowl and everyone will deep their hands and eat from the bowl.

Bear in mind that this is Saudi Arabia, men and women don’t mingle or do things together; so male guests will stay together while female guests will stay together. That means that just as I have dished all sorts of foods for the male guest, I have to rush over to the room where the female guests are and do the same.

I’d be running flights of stairs from one room to the other trying to be at hand for both the men and the women. As I am serving the men in one room, I am rushing over to serve the women in another room; as I am packing the dishes and cleaning up the room holding the men, I have to rush to do the same for the women.

In that house, they don’t allow that food cooked for a batch of visitors be served to another batch. Even if the guests did not touch the food I had dished out, the new batch of guests must not be served the same food – I have to go on and cook a new batch of foods for them. Whatever foods was untouched would be packed and put in public refrigerators for anyone interested to eat.

Every street has fridges located on the corner and so everyone puts cooked food and drinks inside the fridges so that anyone passing by who is hungry or who might want to taste the food would just open and take as much as they want to take. Even the rich stop by the fridges so it is not unusual to see a man driving an expensive car park by the street fridges and pick whatever is available in it. This eliminates the concept of beggars littering the streets.

So whenever we cook and we don’t eat it, I will go put the food in the fridge on our street. If you feel like eating a meal and you don’t have it at home, you can go to the fridge on your street and see if it is stored in it.”

“Sometimes we’d go to the desert and spend some two, three days and the cold in the desert is indescribable. Whenever we are going to the desert, we will pack so many bags you’d think we were leaving for the moon. Sometimes we wouldn’t even spend more than a few hours in the desert yet they would pack everything they can pack. A whole car is loaded with boxes and everything they believe they’d need to replicate their home in the desert.
It didn’t matter if we’d only be spending a few hours in the desert – they didn’t care! They still expected you to cook several dishes as though we were back at home. While you’re moving up and down through the sand in the scathing evening cold, these guys just sit down, cross their legs doing whatever they do while barking orders at you. Truth is whether it is in the desert or even in the city, these guys don’t do anything.
The aged woman I was originally designated to take care of used to use adult diapers. I was supposed to check her diapers and change them when soiled. This woman always never wanted to change her diapers. Every time, I’d struggle to remove the diaper she had on, before I could put on a new one for her, she’d have messed up her bed and everywhere.
I’d carry her, clean her up and I’d try to tie her new diaper and she’d refuse. This struggle with changing diapers and cleaning her mess broke my will to stay any further in that house. It was then I began to think of a way out.
I sent a message to a friend – whom we were together in the middle East – and I gave a long rant about my experiences. She told me that there’s a WhatsApp group for Nigerians living in Saudi Arabia. On that group, Nigerians connect and share whatever problems that we might be facing wherever we are. My friend sent me the number of a Nigerian there in Saudi too. She explained that the man was the Nigerian representative who fought for the interests of Nigerians who may be stuck in one situation or the other.
I called the number and explained everything to the man. He asked for what part of Saudi I was, I told him. He asked for the street name and I told him. He asked for my boss’ name and I provided that too. He asked me how long I had spent on the job and I told him – three months. He promised to investigate based on my complaint.
Truly, the man appeared on our doorstep one day. He informed them that he was my guardian and that I had told him I was no longer interested in working for the family. The family refused and said that there was no way they would let me go since the work contract I had signed with them was for a period of two years.
The Nigerian man asked me which recruitment agency got the job for me and when I showed him the agent’s card, he said he knew the agent then he proposed to the family that we all go to the agent. At the recruitment agency, they dragged the matter for a while. The agent then asked me what I really wanted; that was when I told them I didn’t want to work for the family anymore.
In order to meet the existing contract between the agency and the family, my agent decided that another person who had come into Saudi and hoping for a job would replace me in that house and run out the remaining term of the contract. By implication, I was owing the agency a work-debt to the agency too and I had to fulfill that too.
The swapping was done, I packed my things and was moved back to the hostel. The hostel is where the agency that arranges your traveling houses you till eventually you get a job. I was in the hostel for a while and then a new family was found for me to work at. I was in the hostel for a while and then a new family was found for me to work at.
At this my second boss’ house, I was free to use a phone and I could by airtime to call my family in Nigeria at any time, however international calls are expensive! If I called Nigeria with a card worth the equivalent of N2000, that call wouldn’t last more than a minute! On days when I really longed to speak with my mother, I’d buy a card of 100 Riyal, which was about N10,000 at the time.
I was not allowed to go out by yourself and so if I needed to get airtime, I’d wait for when my boss’ son, who was a teenager, was going out and begged him to buy airtime for me. The teenage boy saw how much I spent on airtime and so he suggested that I defied his father and get a smartphone. I saved up some money and the boy helped me to get a phone.
The night I got the phone, my boss found out I had got a smartphone. He didn’t like it at all but he let me use the phone nonetheless.”

 

 

 

 

“In this new family, my boss also had lots of children and I worked for all of them, including his married daughters. Once I was done working at the home, his daughters would send a car to pick me. I’d be taken from one daughter’s house to the next, working. It could be around 3am that the car will finally bring me back to my boss’ house. By that time, the amount of work stacked up waiting to be done would be staggering.

 

Arabs are so lazy and dirty. A couple will have sex, scatter the whole place and leave everything just like that for you the maid to clean up. You will find the wife’s underwear in one corner, the husband’s semen-stained boxers in another corner of the room. If the man uses condom, he tosses it on the floor, it is the business of the maid to dispose of the condom. Even when they shit in the toilet and all they have to do is press a button to flush, they’d leave the toilet bowl used.

 

What irks me all the time is that while these people use you almost to the point of death, they don’t lift a finger to do anything and yet they expect you to deliver right on time for every chore. My boss’ sons also lived in the same compound with us – their wives do not do anything; I am the one who would move from one apartment to the other doing their chores.

 

I could be doing laundry in the apartments of my boss’ sons simultaneously, all I have to do is load their washing machines and I’d be shuttling from apartment to apartment to turn off and unload the machines. I may load up the washing machine in Apartment A and then I move to Apartment B to tidy up the house; if the washing machine goes off, the occupants of Apartment A will not even move near the machine. They’d just carry on with their lives and wait till whenever I come back from Apartment B to unload the clothes.

 

When you’re done washing the clothes, the next cross you bear is ironing, I could iron their clothes for almost four days! I could spend about five hours standing while ironing every day for those four days. When I say 5-hours, I mean non-stop. Not only am I ironing the clothes of my boss, I am also ironing those of his sons and their family who live in the same compound.

 

You can imagine how huge the stack of clothes I’d have to iron is. My boss would demand that you iron every piece of clothing he had, including his boxers. Sometimes sef, my boss would instruct me that he didn’t want me to use the washing machine to do the laundry, he’d insist that I wash with my bare hands.

 

Now, I could wash, iron and arrange these clothes in the respective wardrobes and by the time I return to the room, the kids in the house would have scattered the whole thing. These kids do the same thing and scatter the sitting room while I am working on other parts of the house. As I am re-arranging the sitting room, they run off to the kitchen and by the time I return to the kitchen the whole place will be upside down and I’d just burst into tears.

 

When these kids say they are going to school, they are not going to learn anything, they’re just going to play and have fun. Whenever they’re going to school, we’d put a bath tube in the car and then when they get to school, they’d set the bath tube up and their teachers will fill it with water and the kids will be playing in the water. So school is 6:30am – 11:30am and when school closes a car will go pick them up.

 

From inside the estate, long before they get to the house, they would wind down and be flinging their things from out of the car. They would get home and you’d see that one leg of someone’s shoes is missing or that a bag is missing. It is I that would begin to go round the whole estate looking for wherever they might have flung these items. Na me go dey reason what route the car must have passed, go down the road and I’d be picking up the things they flung out all around.

 

As you can guess, by the time I return from picking up their things, they’d have turned upside down the house I had taken hours to arrange. In those moments I used to think to myself that someday I’d just drop dead from exhaustion.

 

I was never giving a proper bedroom to sleep in, my bedroom was the store of the house so I was sharing room with old items in the storage. If your boss was a really nice person, he could give you a mattress to put on the floor and sleep on. If you don’t have a compassionate boss you will end up spreading a blanket on the floor whenever you want to sleep. For me, I always spread blanket on the floor and sleep.”

“Arabs don’t have their baths. If my boss should have his bath once in a month, I’d rejoice. In Saudi Arabia, the working day of the week begins on Sunday (unlike Nigeria where it is Monday) and so because they don’t usually have their baths, what I do for the kids is that on Saturday night, I’d wash their hair with warm water and shampoo; then I’d run the shower over them. Once they wake up Sunday morning, they dress up for school without a bath. Even when they pee on themselves overnight, they’d refuse to bathe.
Whenever I cook, I cook for everyone, include my boss’ daughters who are married o. Every daughter who is married has their own pot that I will pour their own portions of food into and will be carried off to their husbands’ houses; and I do it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There’s a crazy cooking chore that my boss always asked me to do whenever he saw that I was relaxing after completing my work in the house. My boss will tell me to scoop like two congos of rice from the storage and wash the rice. Like that, uncooked, I’d add salt, curry and other seasonings.
They have a peculiar kind of leaf about the size of ugwu leaves but this leaf has flaps with which you can wrap things in it – a leaf the size of ugwu cannot hold substantial content. I will then grab a teaspoon, sit with two congos of rice and begin to scoop the tiny portions into the leaves. Do you know how torturous that thing is?!
At some point when it was too much for be to bear, I became a terror especially to the kids. I’d spank them and there was nothing they could do about it to the point that anytime they heard my footsteps, the kids will rush and re-arrange anywhere they had scattered.
It was then I realized that these people will push all sort of nonsense to you and if you accept it, that will become the norm but if you can put your feet down, you might be able to live a better life. I became bold to a point that I’d face my boss and tell him I’m done working for the day because I am exhausted!
My time in that house was filled with a lot of protests and back and forths. While I was thinking I had a year and nine months to spend at my new house, I had no idea that my agent struck a different deal with my new boss. Instead of carrying over my service from my first employment; my agent struck a fresh 2-year deal with my new boss – that meant that the three months I spent in the first place I worked didn’t count.
A year and ten months in my second place of work and I really protested that I was doing anymore. I had an option of running away from my boss but running away is a crazy risk. If you run away, that means you’d be leaving your international passport behind. Without your passport, you can’t travel back home. There’s something called “Iqaamah” – national identity – and it is only citizens have Iqaamah. When you’re employed, you are covered by your boss’ Iqaamah. If you’re not be covered by Iqaamah then you’re a fugitive and that also means trouble.
It is those who run away that then fall into worse conditions because, by default, they are vulnerable. They don’t have their passports so they can’t get out, they’d need money desperately so they’d take worse jobs than the kind I was doing. They are vulnerable because the law is against them and they are the ones who become victims of prostitution, sexual predation, organ harvesting etc. I chose to stay and just fight for my freedom instead.
But at this point, things were bad for me, the money I had come to make, I had nothing. How much money does a maid earn? From the small salary I was being paid I’d buy my toiletries, airtime to keep in touch with home, whenever I couldn’t eat their foods I’d have to order food, people would call from home requesting money. In the end, all the money would be gone. To worsen things, I was being owed salaries.
After serious protesting, my agent and my boss agreed that I could leave on the condition that he’d use the money he was owing me to buy a ticket for me back home. Obviously, the money he owed me was more than the cost of a ticket. I had an older friend I had made from the WhatsApp group and she had become like an older sister to me. She is based in Dubai. I told her all that I had gone through and she advised me to let go of the money owed me and accept the deal. She told me to call her once I had my passport back.
My boss bought me the ticket and dumped me at the airport hours before my flight.

I had spent two years in Saudi Arabia and I had nothing to show for it. I came to the country to work and earn some money but there I was in the airport with nothing. I called the big sister. She told me to use my remaining money to buy a train ticket from Saudi Arabia to Dubai.

 

The big sister met me at the train station and welcomed me. She was the one who connected me with a family in Dubai where I worked for a year. The purpose was so as to, at least, earn some money that I could come back home with. In this family, the work was still much but there was ease too – I had a measure of freedom, I could use my phone with no hassles and I was paid my salaries.

 

The sister however warned me that when I was ready to leave I should not make it look like I am leaving finally, I should give my boss in Dubai the impression that I’d be away for a short visit home and that I’d be back.

 

I was in Dubai when a friend reached out to inform me that she wanted to travel to the Arab countries for work. I felt her condition back at home was better than mine – I was earning less than N10,000 before I traveled. She worked as an agent for a Betting company with a better pay than mine and a promise that the salary would be increased. She told me someone told her she could get a better life in Libya and that she wouldn’t need a passport, that she’d get a passport when she got to Libya.

 

I warned her to not get involved because it was not possible to travel without a passport and if they were claiming that she wouldn’t need a passport then they’d be traveling through the desert. I sent her a video I had on my phone of people traveling through the desert and how many had died on that route.

 

She dropped the idea of Libya and then began to talk about Dubai or Saudi. She said she had been promised that she’d earn N150,000 per month and work for only 12hours with breaks in between. When I saw that she was still hellbent on traveling, I knew that whatever I had to say wouldn’t matter.

 

You know, in matters like this, there’s only so much you can say. If I spoke too fiercely against them, people would interpret it like I was enjoying something and I didn’t want her to come over and enjoy too. So, I kept quiet. When she asked me to link her with my agent, I declined because I wouldn’t be a party to her coming over and experiencing the hell I had gone through. We never spoke again for a while.

 

One day I received a call from my friend’s mom; she was crying that she hadn’t been able to reach my friend for a while – that where she was working, they didn’t allow her to use a phone and that she hadn’t called home in a while like she used to. She told me that ever since her daughter got to Dubai, her boss would beat her, rough her up and, sometimes, even chain her. The mother began to cry unconsolably and she begged me to help her. I told her that – to start with – I didn’t know my friend eventually traveled because I had advised her not to. I calmed her down and told her I’d see what I could do.

 

I asked the woman how she got my number and then she explained that her daughter’s boss always allowed her to call only one number a week. The last time she called, she told her mom to call a mutual friend of ours – it was that mutual friend that then gave the woman my Dubai number. I asked the woman to give me the number she always called with from Dubai but the mother said the number was not a foreign number – it was a Glo number.

 

I then told my friend’s mother that the next time she called, she should tell her to call me directly when next she had her phone privilege. If I could help, I’d need to speak with her to get vital details.

 

I kept waiting to get a call from both my friend or her mother but nothing came through. I got really weary and so I decided to call one of my siblings on WhatsApp and that she should take the phone to my friend’s mother. The mother broke into tears again and said she hadn’t heard from the girl since the last time we last spoke too. For anyone to be able to help the mother, at that point, we needed to know the girl’s location first and then every other detail but at that point we knew nothing. So went had to just wait.

 

One day, after I was done working and I got reunited with my phone, I saw that I had received a ton of calls from a particular number. I called the number back and it was an Arab man who picked.

The man mentioned a Muslim name as the person who had used the phone to call and that he wasn’t at home but that when he got back home he’d let the caller call back. I didn’t know anyone in Dubai with that name. It was when the man allowed her to call me back that I found out that it was my friend!

 

What I didn’t know was that she had told her boss that she had an elder sister in Dubai. My friend is Christian but in the Arab world, it is not advisable that you provide a name that is not Islamic and so she had adopted the Muslim name which the man had mentioned over the phone.

 

We began to talk but she couldn’t talk freely, her boss was right next to her – anything she said that sounded suspicious could get her into more trouble. Luckily the man walked away and we could talk freely.

 

I asked her for the address of the house, she said she didn’t know the address. I asked for the name of her boss for whom she worked, she said she didn’t know because everyone called him Baaba. Baaba is like a title – father; that wasn’t a traceable name. She burst into tears and began to recount how I had warned her from coming.

 

She however mentioned that her boss’ children had smartphones and so I told her that once she was alone with the children, she should use style to collect the phone and turn on Google Location. She did that and sent the address to me, it turned out that where she was 20mins away from where I was.

 

I raised an SOS through the same WhatsApp channel and a Nigerian representative in Dubai reached out. Action was taking very swiftly and they went to the house where she worked. They found her there but her boss’ wife refused to allow her leave. She lied against her that the girl stole her jewelry and then handed her over to the police – there was no proof to show that she took a thing. Through it all, the Nigerian representative stayed and intervened.

 

It was obvious the boss’ wife just wanted her to stay in the house because that was all she kept hammering on. My friend put her feet down that she was tired and was not staying anymore. A solution was worked out, she’d be freed but she wouldn’t be paid for all the months that she had worked with them. My friend was lucky; some get framed like that and they end up spending years in jail.

 

Just like me, she had signed a two-year contract and so she had to complete the years. My friend was taken away from the home and placed in the hostel, till she got a new boss. The beautiful ending to her story is that the family she ended up working for was a lovely family – they let her use her smartphone, they gave her a measure of freedom and at one point when she needed help, she was paid her salary in advance. This kind of boss is hard to come by in the Arab world.

 

Not only Africans are being treated this way – they do it to Philipinos, Syrians etc. So long you’re not one of their own, they treat you like you’re a lesser human being. They know when people like us come into their country, we have come to work and so when they employ you, they use you and suck you dry – to them you’re just a slave, you have come to slave for money.

 

One last thing I’d say, if you work in the Arab world and you’re set to leave, don’t tell your boss you’re not coming back – even when you have completed your two-year stay. Once they bring you in, they’d want to own you forever so they hate to hear that you’re not coming back. The dastardly ones may set you up and rope you into a crime that you didn’t commit and that could be the start of your undoing.

 

I had to tell my last boss, when my contract expired, that I wanted to take a little holiday to see my ailing father considering that I had been away for two years. I assured him I’d return. That was how I left Dubai and came back home.

 

Back in Nigeria, I look back on the two years I stayed there and I can say that it wasn’t worth it. If things in our country were okay why would anyone want to go through this kind of hell? I was working on a job that paid less than ten thousand naira per month and I had a child to take care of. How can I take care of myself and a child with less than N10,000?

 

I was under so much pressure with so much happening around me so that when someone informed me of the opportunity of going there, I considered it and got on board. Like I said earlier, agents will tell you about how glamourous things are there and how you’d earn fat salaries. You don’t get to know the reality until you land in there.

 

I am grateful that I left Nigeria and returned in one piece. Some have traveled and are stuck there now – they are fugitives and are on the run, some have been killed, some have committed suicide and their families probably have no clue; they are still hoping that they’d come back home.

 

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