She had just turned seventeen when she found a job as a housemaid. Safia was a lovely young girl, very short and slight with a kind, intelligent face very much like her mother’s. Safia’s parents were thrilled she’d found a job. The family was barely getting by, despite her mother’s job at the recycled paper project. Safia would be working at the home of a well-off Burkinabé family and receive two meals a day, as well as a small salary. What a great piece of luck.
Only it wasn’t. Two months later, Safia was dead.
Her mother came to work that day in July and told me that Safia was dead.
“I’m so sorry. I can’t believe it. Was it an accident?” That was my first thought. If she had been ill, her mother would have mentioned it.
“No, she was sick, but we didn’t know. She was at work and she had to sleep at the house of her employer most nights.”
We talked a little more. I was very sorry that I was leaving and could not go to the funeral.
When I came back to Burkina , I went over to the project and asked after Alizeta. She wasn’t at work because the baby was sick. Her brother and sister in law had died of HIV last year and she has been taking care of their baby daughter ever since.
When I asked about Alizeta yesterday morning, Eugenie (the president of the paper project) told me that Alizeta was at the Social Services office trying to see a lawyer.
“She’s suing that woman” Eugenie announced. To say I was astounded is putting it mildly. The Burkinabé legal system is not big on suing (like the French) and the whole thing is heavily weighted against the poor.
But Eugenie explained that there had been an even more horrible end to Safia’s story than I had known. When Alizeta and her husband got Safia’s body for the burial, they also got the death certificate and they knew something was very wrong. The death certificate read “meningitis”, but Safia had obviously been badly beaten around the head.
Safia had mentioned that her employer hit her. Sadly, this is not uncommon when young girls go to work for Burkinabé families. She didn’t like it, but accepted it as the price of having a job in this land of high unemployment.
It looks like the woman she worked for beat her so badly that she died of a head injury and then paid a doctor to write a false cause of death on the certificate.
For many people here, slavery is not a relic of the past.
No wonder the most prized jobs here are the ones in the homes of foreigners. At least you won’t be beaten and possibly killed for improperly ironing a shirt.
I am so disgusted.