Lured by Yuan: Shattered dreams in China
Restless with the routine drudgery of her job and looking for something more challenging and rewarding, Fatuma Njeri (who asks that her identity be concealed because she would not be too sure of her security), was excited late last year when she came across adverts for a programme called ‘Teach and Study in China’.
She met all the requirements and thought the chance to earn a living abroad while also pursuing further education was her dream come true.
She called at a recruitment agency on Mama Ngina Street, opposite Hilton Hotel in Nairobi, and a man she met there quickly took her through the application process. She submitted her academic certificates and started applying for a visa after paying a deposit of Sh40,000.
After some time, however, she realised that things were moving rather slowly, and went back to the agent to find out what the problem was. He told her he was just a middleman and referred her to the main agent in China, his cousin whom he gave glowing testimonials about.
He said his cousin was a lecturer at a Chinese university, a professor and a respected leader of the Kenyan community in Guangzhou who had been in leadership since his days as a student in the country. He was also supposed to enjoy good connections at the Kenya Embassy in Beijing, and also with Chinese government officials.
Fatuma then started dealing directly with the agent in Guangzhou — a man named Robert Ndegwa whom she later learnt ran a restaurant called Sky Coffee in the city — to find out if her papers had arrived, and he instructed her to send the documents directly to him.
Ndegwa also asked for an agency fee of Sh80,000 for job placement, so she asked the Nairobi agent to refund her money, looked for more to make up the difference, and wired the funds to China.
Within a short time, she received papers showing that she’d secured a teaching job in China, complete with the impressive salary of 17,500 yuan (about Sh280,000) a month. She got her visa without any problem and bought an air ticket.
Unlike many of the other Kenyans caught up in the teaching jobs scam, she was slightly fortunate in that the fee was quite modest. Also, she paid her air ticket and handled her visa application directly, giving her the security of a confirmed air ticket and sparing her the misfortune of having to pay inflated fees to a recruitment agent.
She recalls how her parents and friends were a bit sceptical, but she assured them that all was well. What further proof could be more powerful that job appointment letter? she posed.
On landing in China in June this year, she found that it was not quite the promised land. Her first shocker on contacting the agent was learning that she could not start work immediately as schools had just closed for summer. Nobody had bothered to give her that small bit of information before she bought her ticket and caught her flight. She also realised that the appointment letter was rather vague on the actual starting date.
So instead of embarking on her exciting new job, she had to cool her heels in China until schools reopened. She had a return air ticket, but could not afford to use it yet because there was no money for another ticket a few months down the line.
Broke, with no place to stay and no friends in the area, the agent offered a solution: He would house her, and also put her to work in the kitchen of a restaurant he ran that was patronised by Kenyans.
With little option, she agreed, but soon found it was a nightmare. She was not being paid a salary because the job was in exchange for room and board.
It was the most frustrating period she has ever faced. Lonely, scared and consumed with self-doubt, she had no one to turn to, not least her parents in Nairobi whom she could not face with the embarrassment and shame of having ignored their cautions.
The young single mother had also left a young child in the care of a relative at home, and she was supposed to send upkeep money that she’d not yet started earning.
EXPIRED JOB OFFER
However, there can also be salvation when things look at their bleakest. She was sharing her tribulations with new friends she was making amongst the Kenyan community in Guangzhou.
All she wanted was a job, any job that would at least allow her to afford her own roof over her head as she waited for schools to open and she started on her real employment.
Then she learnt that her Class ‘M’ visa did not allow her to get a job, and in any case would expire after just month of her arrival, before schools reopened.
She was at her lowest when a Kenyan friend introduced her to a Chinese associate who had lived in Kenya. He worked with a countryman who had opened an electronics factory in Shenzhen, and was looking for an English-speaking assistant to help in liaison with international clients.
She rushed to Shenzhen, was interviewed and was immediately employed in the marketing department. She said goodbye to Guangzhou and moved on.
As she settled into her new job, she did an Internet search of the school that had sent her the employment offer, and to her shock discovered that the opening expired in 2013! Somebody had simply copy-pasted details from the letterhead, the job requirements, changed the date and used it to compose an offer letter.
Armed with that information, she confronted Ndegwa and demanded her money back, citing the false promises that lured her to China.
The reply was an e-mail which amounted to an invoice for staying in his house, food, visa invitation letter, market visits and guiding her around, and professional fees. She was now the one who owed him!
During that bleak period, Fatuma came across many Kenyans facing a similar predicament. She made the exit trip to Hong Kong for visa renewal, and came across many stranded. Some of them were green villagers from deep inside central Kenya who had been recruited to teach English, but could hardly express themselves in the language.
Her outrage is that, since they come straight from the village to be abandoned and bewildered in a strange foreign city, most girls become easy prey for pimps and drug peddlers.
Now, with help from her employer, she is working towards securing a Class ‘Z’ working visa. She is marketing the company products in Kenya and other English-speaking countries in the region, and is happy that things eventually worked out.
But for every Fatuma Njeri or Richard Gathigi whose luck eventually turns after the shock of being abandoned in China by human traffickers, there are hundreds of others who neither have the luck nor the drive.
Those are the faceless, nameless, Kenyans who melt into the vast Chinese underground, forever at risk of arrest from the police, or something worse from criminal cartels.
During her trying moments, Fatuma did not even bother to contact the Kenyan Embassy in Beijing because she did not think it could offer a helping hand.
She asks for a change of attitude, especially in helping Kenyans who are in trouble, and also in negotiating favourable visa and working conditions for Kenyans in China.
POSTSCRIPT: Robert Ndegwa initially denied accusations that he had made Kenyans travel to China for what turned out to be non-existent jobs.
He insisted that the only Kenyan job seekers he had been involved with were those he tried to help when they landed in trouble on reaching China through means he was not involved in.
When the specific accusations from Fatuma were put to him by the ‘Nation’, he dismissed them as an understanding involving a girl he had tried to help when she found herself in trouble, and promised to give his side of the story. Meanwhile, he reached out Fatuma and promised to make things right.
On Monday last week, both Ndegwa and Fatuma confirmed that they had reached a settlement. Fatuma had travelled from Shenzhen to Guangzhou where she met Ndegwa at a session mediated by Charles Mutonga, who heads a nascent Kenyan community welfare group.
Ndegwa agreed to refund the money that Fatuma says she paid him in pursuit of a job in China, while she agreed not to make any further claims against him.