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Corpse cleaning, sexual assault and sorcery: A house-help’s struggle for justice

By Jael Mboga | October 29th 2018

Whenever discussions about house-helps come up, many employers will have few positive things to say. Most complain about girls or women who have problems taking instructions or getting ‘big-headed’.

Little is ever said about the house-helps who are submissive, helpful and in most cases, desperate enough to do what is required of them.

Penina Awuor is one of them. Growing up in Nyahera, Kisumu County, she did not know she would become a house-help.

Ordinarily, a house-help’s job description involves cooking, cleaning and washing. Rarely does it involve washing a corpse.

For Awuor, there was only one thing she was required to do every day at 10am – wash a corpse that lay still under a bed, in a room tightly locked.

House-helps in rural areas dream of working in an urban centre, especially the city of Nairobi.

When Awuor landed a job in Pangani, a middle-class estate in the capital, she believed her life would improve. Armed with only a primary school certificate under her arm, she was grateful for the Sh6,500 salary promised by her employer Mohammed Noor.

A tough childhood characterized by parents’ death, poverty and battling asthma, left her with few options. Awuor has four brothers, no sisters, born of a mother who was the second wife out of three.

She had been a house-help for a year before she landed the Pangani job, but it only took a week at Noor’s house before she was expected to wash the male corpse.

Washing the corpse and sometimes being asked to sleep with it were not the only hardships Awuor had to face. She is accusing her employer of refusing to pay her salary accumulated to Sh13,000, hitting her, as well as sexual assault. Awuor has gone to court. Noor has been charged with sexual and physical assault, refusal to remit salary and hindering the burial of a body.

In an interview with the Standard, she narrated how she was required to wash the corpse.

“Dip a bathing towel in warm soapy water and clean the body like you would a window,” she was ordered, quickly adding that her employer issued the orders without touching the body.

The corpse, Awuor says, is wrapped in a mat and pushed to the wall under the bed. Few people know about it, not even the two children who live in the house with the couple.

When she was first introduced to the corpse-cleaning job, she says Noor stood at the bedroom door, gun in hand.

“Usistuke (don’t be scared),” said the gun-wielding Noor, obviously noticing the shaken Awuor.

Her only refuge during the ordeal was prayer, but she says even this had to be done in secret.

She was forbidden from saying ‘Jesus’ in the house.

“If he heard you say Jesus he would get upset. You were only required to say Wallahi.”

She worked for Noor for 47 days. She washed the corpse 40 times.

What further struck Awuor was the money the corpse seemed to ‘produce’.

Every time she pulled out the body to clean it, there would be Sh1,000 and Sh500 new notes stuck on the sides of the corpse. Noor would then collect them in a basin used to wash hands.

Awuor says Noor’s wife once told her, “If you take that money without me knowing, don’t blame me.”

She took this as a threat to what might happen.

“I didn’t want to take the money lest I find myself battling a curse or madness I know nothing about.”

Awuor was not the only one who cared for the corpse.

Every Tuesday and Friday, a doctor would come to ensure the body does not smell. Awuor does not know much about what the doctor’s visit entailed, but says he injected every part of the body with a “long syringe”.

After the doctor was done, Noor would go in with a white kanzu, pair of socks and hat, saying only a Muslim can dress the corpse. Both Awuor and the doctor were Christians.

She seemed to have made peace with her new life until one night when Noor assaulted her.

It was late at night, around 11pm.

The whole family was in bed, except Noor and Awuor.

Noor approached her with a kanzu, asking her to iron it, saying he had to be at the mosque early the following morning. Awuor ironed it.

After she was done, he asked her to iron a bed cover.

She questioned why a bed cover had to be ironed, to which Noor insisted.

While on her knees ironing, Noor touched Awuor inappropriately, to which she started screaming.

Noor’s wife came to the living room where she was ironing, reprimanding her for making noise while they were trying to sleep.

She tried explaining but nobody was listening to her.

As kicks and blows started raining on her, she asked to be given her money and be allowed to leave.

Awuor says the fight went on until around 2am. Her bags were thrown to the ground floor as Noor chased her out, this time hitting her with a belt.

She sat with the security guard, out in the cold, until morning, when she reported the matter to the Pangani police station, but that was just the beginning of her nightmare.

Before she knew it, she was the one sitting barefoot in the police cells.

Noor was later arrested when Awuor involved officers from Parklands police station.

During her ordeal, Awuor slept outside with the help of security guards from Pangani Girls Secondary School.

Her fighting spirit led her to Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (FIDA) and the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA).

In future, Awuor will not want to work as a house-help again. She prefers to sell second-hand clothes in her village or work in her farm.










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