Life began on a roller coaster for Jumoke Abey (not real names). Since she enrolled as a trainee hairdresser till her marriage, it has been from one challenge to the other.
As far back as 1988, she had opened a hair dressing saloon. She got married thereafter but her husband was nowhere in the family equation. He abandoned his home.
But then she has had four children for him as at that time. So the burden of taking care of the children fell on her. To feed them was hell. In the midst of this crippling challenge, a friend who had been to Oman suggested to her to travel to the country.
Oman is located on the south-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It is the oldest independent state in the Arab world.
The friend assured her that she could as well practice her hairdressing trade in that country and make some good money. The idea sounded so nice. She told a couple of friends who tried to discourage her from embarking on the trip.
Advising her against travelling to Oman was quite odd. It seemed they didn’t want her to “make it”. All entreaties to make her reconsider her decision to travel fell on deaf ears. She borrowed money and squeezed herself to raise about N200,000 which she paid to an agent to process her trip to Oman so she could begin the job she considered life-saving; but which later turned out to be life-sapping.
She told Church Times that the agent who processed her passport lived somewhere in Amikanle area of Lagos. She had sensed trouble when she was processing her trip, but her desire to travel out of Nigeria did not let her see all foreboding signs.
That is however not the story. For Abey, the one year, one week she spent in Oman turned out to be one long nightmare she would not wish her enemy.
Oman: Here I come
She recounts, “Under two weeks my passport and visa had been processed and I was on my way to Oman. I travelled in the company of several other Nigerians who thought they were escaping the hardship in Nigeria.
“We left from Lagos Airport and landed in that country through a connecting flight. Oman is just about 15 minutes drive to Dubai. We were welcomed by the syndicate agent who took us to where we would stay pending when those who needed us would come for us to start the job.”
The first baptism of fire was that her luggage got missing at the airport in Oman. So, she had nothing apart from the clothes she wore and her handbag. Being new to air travel, she didn’t know who to complain to. Her consolation was that she would replace the items when she starts getting her salary which was just about N70,000 when converted to Nigeria money. She had also hoped she would augment her income from attending to people’s hair.
But that was never to happen. She discovered that their kind of hair was not the type she had been trained to handle. “Many of them have very long hair; sometimes almost reaching their buttock from behind. I could not fit into working on such hair. The opportunity was not even there. They would not even need my kind of expertise. It dawned on me that I won’t be able to use my trade to make money in that country” She said.
The hot weather
The weather of Oman was another shock. She travelled during summer. It was scorching. It was so bad that if plastic is put outside for a few hours, it would melt. She felt like returning to Nigeria as soon as she landed in the country.
“That was the first thing that put me off. I was bothered that I could not lay hands on my luggage. And then the harsh weather. The sun was piercing my skin. I told our handlers that I was no longer interested in the promised job. I wanted to come back to Nigeria.”
But then it was too late. The agents in Oman had seized her passport and her destiny seemed tied to them. They welcomed her and began the process of linking her with her place of assignment. All pleas that she was no longer interested in the job made no meaning. The agents insisted she had to pay N5 million to defray the cost of her journey to Oman if she wanted to return to Nigeria.
The first place of work
She had agreed to work for two years. The agents are to make some money off her as she works. She had figured out that working as a home help would not be taxing. But by the time she resumed with the first Oman family where she stayed for two weeks, it dawned on her that she had been brought to a slave camp.
“I stayed with a family in the first two weeks. I was told I had to understudy their cook who incidentally is also a Nigerian. They were looking for a replacement for her because she had developed some ailment and would not be able to continue the job. When she saw me, she had so much pity on me, wondering who advised me to come to Oman. She said she was fat when she came to the country but that she had become lean because of the stress in her work.”
The issue then for Abey was however not about how tedious the job was but that she could not cook. “I told them straight away that I could not cook their kind of food. Cooking for the average Omar family is like cooking for a party. Their families are usually large.
The average family is about 20. The 20 usually is nuclear and some extended family members. Their cousins and nephews often come to spend days with them. So, at some point, they could have up to 20 people living in a house. Their houses are usually large. They have in some cases about eight rooms and two large sitting rooms. So, you may end up cooking for between 20 and 30 people three times a day. But preparing their food is like doing a carpenter’s job.
“You get exhausted in no time. There is a particular machine they use in the kitchen to mix some grains. That machine can throw you off balance if you are not careful. It is a grinding machine but you’re to use your hand to operate it while it is connected to electricity. God forbid that you lose concentration, your hands would be chopped off.” she said.
After weighing the risk, she told the agents that she won’t be able to cope with the first family because she could not cook their kind of food. Though the family took interest in her, they saw that she could not cope. The hairdressing job she was prospecting was nowhere in sight.
The agent eventually agreed to look for another place for her.
Back to the clearing house
She returned to the clearing house where prospective domestic workers stay before they are assigned to their places of work. She said most of the home help jobs were handled by Nigerians in that country while the job of drivers was given to Indians. The clearing house was a waiting house for those who needed domestic workers.
The work they are exposed to is as horrible as the humiliation they suffer in the hands of the Omanis.
“They treat us like shit. They don’t encourage any form of closeness apart from instances where they molest blacks sexually. And they make you work till your bones are broken if care is not taken. That was the experience I had in the period I stayed with them,” said Abey who eventually got a place to work.
Tales of horror in another house
She recounted the horror she went through in the new house noting that she only stepped out of the house about three times throughout her stay there. She once travelled with the family to another village in the country. Another time was when she was sick and had to visit the hospital and then when she had to get clothes for herself. Even at that, she had to be taken in a designated car for that purpose.
She was holed up in the large house which had about six rooms, two large sitting rooms, and an incredibly large kitchen. She said many of the Omani families live large and enjoy comfort at the expense of cheap slave labour. She worked to the point that when it was becoming unbearable, she had to begin a series of praying and fasting asking God to deliver her from the slave camp.
Tears and lamentation
She showed this reporter the video where she was sobbing and praying. The air-conditioner was on but she was sweating profusely while mopping the walls and floors of the house. She would wake up as early as 5 am and never stopped working until 11 pm when she would have to go and sleep. She only stops in between to have her meal which was largely rice and bread.
As a rule, you dare not touch the walls. They must not see any dot of dust on the walls; which were decorated with marble tiles. The walls had to be polished on a daily basis while the floors are mopped daily too.
Life is beautiful for Omanis
Life is beautiful for the Omanis. The average citizen gets basic comfort. The head of the family where she worked was a teacher but was well paid.
They spend most of their time shopping according to Abey.
“They usually go shopping in the night and could be out there till 12 midnight or sometimes 2 am. They come home with large groceries which they soon exhaust.”
The average family has a chauffeur. You hardly see their citizens walk on the streets. There is always a car to drive people around. They love life and they enjoy it to the full. It’s a Muslim country. Citizens don’t joke with their faith as they observe all the hours of prayers. Their women usually pray at home. But the men go to the mosque.
Their women are always covered. They remove the veil at home but whenever strangers are coming, they quickly put it on. They have the best of care you can think of for their people. Virtually all the dirty work are done by foreigners from poor and impoverished countries.
Working as their domestic staff was so bad that if anybody in the house had to pick anything around; no matter how close the thing is to the person; it is the home help that would be called to pick it.
Apart from cleaning the house, she also served as the gate keeper. She had to open the gate whenever somebody is going out or coming in. She practically had no time for herself. The only spare time she had was when they are not at home.
The boy with down syndrome
But the pressure got to its zenith when her job schedule was redesigned. This time she had to take care of one of the children in the house who was an invalid. The young man according to Abey was about 15 years old but had this down syndrome challenge. He was always chained to the ground because of his occasional violent tendency.
“The boy would defecate on his body and sometimes would throw things at me when working. I was expected to always clean his bumbum and I dare not beat him. Taking care of the boy was the peak of my endurance. It was harrowing.
“I discover that each time I attended to him, I would be breathing in such an unstable way because of his weight. It was really bad. “But then, I had to endure because there was nowhere to go. There were times the boy would pounce on me unexpectedly and twist my hands. He was very unstable. That is why he had to be chained especially when I am working.
“There were times the madam of the house would threaten to sack me whenever I tried to complain about the way they treated me, but then where would I go? My passport had been seized. I had been told if I could stay for a year, I would be allowed to go, but then I had to look for money to get my travel ticket.
The initial agreement was two years. I had tried to negotiate with some people back in Nigeria to help with the ticket money. I would send videos of the way I was working to them and lament profusely. Efforts to get help from Nigeria did not work. So, I had to just endure the hard labour and pray to God for deliverance from the slave camp.”
Freedom at last
Abey was in that condition until a particular day when she was ironing some clothes and was at the same time asked to come and attend to the boy with down syndrome.
“You wash their clothes, iron, and keep in the wardrobe. But whenever they want to go out, you have to iron the cloth again. It does not matter how smooth it looks. That was the kind of ironing I was doing.” She recalled.
So, this particular day, when the madam of the house asked her to come and attend to the boy while she was ironing, she fired back at her and told her to tell her daughter to do that. She complained bitterly that the job schedule was becoming unbearable. The madam was infuriated. Rather than reason with her, threw an object at her and asked her to leave the house.
“I was angry too and was prepared for the worse. The moment she asked me to go, a voice within me said, this is the time to go. As soon as I heard that inner voice, I summed courage and moved inside the room to pack my things. They had bought a few clothes for me since I had no cloth when I came to the house. I took my things and said I was ready to leave that they should take me to the agent that brought me. They did not argue. As God would have it, I was taken to the office and that was how I escaped from the house.”
But then, she had to face another hurdle of getting her ticket to come back to Nigeria. “As at the time I got to the office I was told I had not spent two years and so I would have to pay them N5million. I said to them I don’t have money but that I had to return to Nigeria.
They began pleading with me that they would look for another place for me to work. I said I was not interested in any work again because of the horrible experiences I heard many were facing in their various locations. But as God would have it, one of the top officials in the office agreed to add money to the 14-day pay of the new month that I had worked to buy my ticket so I could return to Nigeria.”
Home at last
That was how Abey escaped from the hell called Oman. She said many Nigerians were subjected to horror in that tiny country. She narrated how many were exploited. Some according to her, are being sexually molested, while some died in the process of work and sex trade.
At the end of her stay in Oman, she said she came back to Nigeria with just about N3000. The monthly salary she was paid was always sent back home to take care of her children. She had travelled primarily because she desired a better life for her children. But it was a horrible adventure.
“By the time I was about coming, I met so many Nigerians at the airport coming back too. They had horrible experiences. There were so many cases of sexual exploitation.” She said.
Abey came back to Nigeria and settled back to her hairdressing business. She has since picked her life back. “I can’t tell you so many other things for personal reasons. But my advice is that Nigerians should stay back home and let us build this country together. Things are bad in Nigeria. But my experience in Oman made me start falling in love with Nigeria. I didn’t know when I began composing some positive lyrics about Nigeria after going through the hell called Oman.”
Story Written By Gbenga Osinaike