Nairobi. Someone approaches you with an overseas job proposal with a pay package you can’t refuse.
You fall for it, finally seeing a way out of the poverty that has been plaguing your family for years.
Then you process your passport, board a plane, but rather than travel to prosperity the journey to ruin begins.
This happened to Faith Omollo and at least 40 other Kenyans. Faith’s trip to Lagos then Malaysia to work in a textile shop promised handsome returns.
What more could a struggling mother of four ask for? She got “the job” the job through a Facebook chat with a woman now identified as one of the most notorious recruiters of drug mules in Kenya.
She stayed in Lagos for some days, and as she was leaving for Malaysia, her host gave her some bags to hand to someone in the country.
She had no clue that cocaine was hidden in the bags until she was flagged at an airport in Malaysia.
Panicking, she reached out to the recruiter only to learn that she had closed Facebook and other accounts. “I have been accused for what I have never done. I don’t know those drugs. I have never seen them in my life,” she wrote.
Faith is being tried in Malaysia for drug trafficking and if she is convicted she faces the death penalty.
“Please use my story worldwide to help (save) people’s lives,” says part of her letter.
The Saturday Nation has seen at least three similar letters, most of them incarcerated in Hong Kong prisons.
One of the letters is from a woman who requested that her identity be hidden. She will know her fate on February 3 when a Hong Kong court rules on whether her defence of being forced to carry drugs was enough to set her free.
She was a single mother struggling to make ends meet when “a lady friend asked me if I can work in another country where the pay would change my life,” she says in her letter.
She did not hesitate because by then she had been forced to do “all kinds of jobs to put food on the table and to give my children basic education”.
Her final destination was Macau, a city on China’s southern coast. But she had to pass through Addis Ababa. In Addis she was to meet a person she didn’t know.
It turned out to be a Nigerian. He took her to his home, raped her, forced her to swallow capsules and when she couldn’t ingest all of them, forced the rest into her private parts.
He later put her aboard a bus to Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, she claims. “He instructed me not to say a word to anyone or else my family would die,” she writes.
She was arrested at a Hong Kong airport. “I am suffering in this prison, having left my children alone at home,” writes the mother of two.
We had access to the letters thanks to Fr John Wotherspoon, an Australian Catholic priest who has lived in Hong Kong for 35 years and a prison chaplain for the past two decades.
Fr Wotherspoon has been campaigning against the coercion of Africans into becoming drug mules for six years now.
This is his fourth trip to Africa, during which he has spent a few days in Kenya regarding the same.
He was in the company of Sean Christie, a South African journalist who works for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
On Friday, the two held a press briefing in Nairobi aimed at warning vulnerable Kenyans against falling victim to wily traffickers, most of who have Nigerian connections.
The priest said that Hong Kong was a prime destination for drug traffickers because of the high price they fetch.
However, the stringent checks at the city’s airport, coupled with intelligence-gathering, have seen a number of traffickers nabbed.
“There are about 40 Kenyans in Hong Kong prisons, according to the Kenyan consulate,” he said.
“Since 2017, at least 19 drug mules have been arrested at Hong Kong airport with drugs from Addis Ababa. Seven were Kenyan, four of them females.”
The latest Kenyan to be arrested was a man, on January 1. “All his wife knows is that he travelled to Hong Kong on business,” said a translator based there.
“All we know is that if it was at least 600 grams of the pure drug, he is unlikely to return to his family for the next 10 or so years,” he said.
Trafficking 800 grams of cocaine or heroin leads to a sentence of 14 years if one pleads guilty before trial; 21 years if one does not plead guilty, the case goes to trial and the accused is found guilty.
Prison life in Hong Kong is a heaven for Africans, Fr Wotherspoon said. A prisoner gets to choose the diet to take, is guaranteed free medicine and paid for work done.
“I know Tanzanian prisoners who make more money in prison than they would do back home,” he said.
Regardless, Fr Wotherspoon wants Africans to stop falling prey to trafficking rings.
The cocaine that ends up in Hong Kong, Fr Wotherspoon said, originates from South America.
Because of the strict checks for South Americans going to other countries, drug lords choose African airports because of the ease to compromise officials and lack of screening equipment.
The Addis airport, for example, does not have a sniffer dog. “A dog is being trained in Germany (for Ethiopia). And there is no scanning equipment. They’ve got almost nothing,” said the priest