In 1999, Roseline Odine reached the turning-point where she could be a slave no longer: “That’s it. That’s it,” she said. Roseline’s narrative features a long escape sequence as she moved through the turning-point from slavery to freedom.
Roseline spent two and a half years as a domestic slave in Washington DC. Promised an American education and a babysitting jobs, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the ages of 14. Upon arrival in the US she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and was beaten and verbally abused. Roseline was also sexually harassed. She recounts a process of indoctrination and mind-control that eventually meant she “didn’t want to talk to the cop because of what she [her enslaver] had told me in the house—that America’s no good.”After escaping, Roseline met Louis Etongwe, a cousin of the man who drove her to safety. She told him that there were two more Cameroonian slaves in the area. Louis helped them to escape, then took tapes of all three girls to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Roseline’s captors, Louisa and Kevin, were eventually convicted, sentenced to nine years in prison, and told to pay her $100,000 in restitution. Kevin was also convicted of attempted sexual assault.
I grew up in Cameroon. I always wanted to be a designer. I was in school back then and I always liked to make a little skirt, a little blouse and do knitting. Just trying to create something. I was 14 years old when I came to this country. I wanted to help my family. I was so close with my family, especially my sisters. We did so many fun things together. When we get off school we did each others’ homework. When I came here my sisters didn’t want me to go. But I had to do it because I was told that I was coming here to go to school. It was hard leaving them. If I could wish for anything, I would wish to be with my sisters. I’ve talked to them once in a while but since I came here I’ve never seen them.
Unfortunately when I get here it didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. Things changed a little bit…well a lot. I never went to school when I was living with them and I wasn’t getting paid. She told me that she would send money back home to my parents but I’ve never talked to my parents so I don’t know if they sent any money. If you don’t know somebody, don’t send your kids out to them. Don’t just hear that your kid is going to go to school, because they will make that promise but it will never fulfilled. They won’t do it.
I would get up in the morning around 5am or 5.30am and at 6am make breakfast and get the kids up and have them ready for school. And once they went to school I would stay home and clean and cook and do their laundry. When she wasn’t home I tried to finish my work so I could relax a little bit. But when she was there I had to make sure that I’m doing something so I wouldn’t get yelled at or hit. Even if I had to sweep the floor three times, I just had to do something. It was actually pretty hard, cause I had nobody to talk to. I used to take care of two kids and sometimes the sister’s kids as well. That’s all I used to do.
I had been in the States for a week when I started getting abused—hitting, yelling, cursing. One day I got up around 8am and she hit me and yelled at me that I can’t get up that late; I was supposed to be up before the kids get up and they were already up at 6am. I lived with them for two and a half years and the abuse continued until the day I decided to run away. I couldn’t go for a whole week without getting hit. I really didn’t know what to do. I was just hoping that one day it would stop. I did everything that she wanted me to do. I tried to make sure that everything was right so I wouldn’t get yelled at or beaten up but everything I was doing wasn’t right so I still got beaten by her or her sister. She would use her hand or anything that she had. One day I was cleaning using Windex and she got upset with somebody outside and started yelling at me. She pulled the Windex away from me and sprayed it on my face. I had real long hair and she said she would cut it off. Her and her sister held me and tied me down and put scissors on my hair. One time her and her sister were beating me up at the same time and I tried to open the door so that I could run out. She dragged me back and started hitting me.
When I came my bed was in the kitchen. It was actually a couch. And when I was in the kitchen sleeping, the husband, who always liked to go to bed really late at night, 2am or 3am sometimes, started approaching me, trying to sleep with me. I was fighting, and he would say: “I’m just trying to make you feel like a woman. I’m not going to get you pregnant.” It didn’t just stop there, he continuously did that until it got to the point where I started going to bed in double clothing. Whether it was hot or cold I had to put on jeans and sweatshirts and pants in case I fell asleep and he came without me hearing. It was a couple of months before I was sent to the kids’ room to sleep. They had a bunk bed so I slept on one of those together with the kids.
One time, one of her friends had a little boy who I babysat, and she gave money to Louisa to give to me but I never got it. At Christmas her friend bought me a Christmas present and a birthday present, because I have my birthday on Christmas day. It was a make-up up set and I kept it in the closet and used it just once. I don’t know what I did to her one day, but she just got really upset and sent her kids to the closet to pull out those things her friend bought. She messed them up in front of my face, and made her kids step on them. When they finished I just picked it all up and put it together. Then I called her friend and let her know what had just happened. She said that it was okay and that she couldn’t do much about it because she didn’t want to get involved.
I never went to the doctor when I was with them. One time I was really really sick. I had a terrible back pain and couldn’t even walk. I couldn’t breathe properly. I was sweeping the living room and I just fell down and started crying. I couldn’t stand up any more. I said: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” and they had to rush me to the Holy Cross Emergency Room. They did an x-ray. I never knew what actually happened to me, they didn’t give me the results. I was just taking pills. The same illness came back again while I was at her sister’s place where Christina used to live. We were all together with the kids because sometimes they went there for weekends. I was crying, rolling on the ground, and she said I was a “witch,” and she was going to send me back to my parents so I wouldn’t die in her house. Christina had a cloth and I put it in hot water and put pressure on. So that day they didn’t take me to the hospital.
I didn’t have phone contact with my parents but I wrote letters to them. There was a point when she was hitting me and said my Dad had written to her to let her know that any time I did something wrong, she could hit me. She said he gave her the right to hit me any time. I wrote a letter about this to my parents, asking if is was true, and they replied that it was a lie. When I was still living with her my Mom had a stroke. She said she was going to buy a wheelchair and send it to my Mom, but she was lying. She never did. I know.
I think I was a slave. Because if I sit back sometimes and think about it and have a flashback, it was terrible. There were several nights and days and nights that I would sit all by myself and think about things I could do with my sisters. How we used to play together. I would cry cause I missed them, hoping that one day I would get to see them again. Everything, my dreams, just crushed down and I wasn’t going to get it. I wasn’t going to reach it.
I never thought of running away until when we moved down to Post Gate Terrace. That’s when running away started coming into my head. But I never knew how to do it because I knew nobody. I didn’t know where to go. She told me that America is not a place to walk around on your own. Whatever opportunity we had, Christina and I got together and talked about running. But we didn’t know where to go and how to do it.
One day I had taken their daughter to school earlier in the morning, and the little boy had to go in the middle of the day, around 11.45am. When I went to drop him off at the bus stop I met a friend who used to live in the next building and we talked. Then I went back to the house and changed clothes. I knew I was going to be doing house chores so I put on a short skirt and a little t-shirt. I went inside and grabbed the trash and I was heading to the trash can, and I met the guy I was talking to at the bus stop. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was cleaning his car.
While I was talking to him, she was driving right behind me. When she saw me she started shaking her head. She parked and started cursing at me. She called me a prostitute, a whore, said all I wanted to do was to have sex, that I’m planning to have sex with that guy, that before I become pregnant she was going to pack my things and send me back to my parents. She called me all the nasty names you can think of. I just walked inside the apartment and she fell on me, still calling me names and cursing me. I kept on doing what I was doing, and she kept on yelling.
For some reason I wasn’t thinking anymore—it was like my blood pressure was rising, my head was pumping inside. I had no shoes on, no jacket. I didn’t think of anything, I just opened the door and ran out. I had a blackout and fell down and hit my head on somebody else’s door. I can remember somebody asking me if I was okay. I told them I was fine, and he asked: “Do you need help? Do you want me to help you?” I said I was fine, that I didn’t need help, and he went back inside and locked his door. I laid there for a couple of minutes and I didn’t know where I was going. I ran upstairs to the building’s hallway and sat in the window, looking down and thinking about what to do next. I kept telling myself: “That’s it. That’s it. I’m not going back in there. I’m not going back. That’s it. I have nowhere to go but one thing’s for sure, I’m not going back.”
I sat up there from noon to 3pm. When the kids got back from school, she realized that they had walked home by themselves. That’s when she came out looking for me. I remembered one of her friends, and I ran up the hill to her house. Her back door was open so I went right through. I was crying and I told her: “I don’t want to go back there. Please don’t take me back to her. I don’t want to go back to her place.” She said it was okay, and that I should stop crying. She asked me what happened. I didn’t tell her. I just cried.
Louisa came and told me to go back home. I ran out of the front door and she followed me. So I went upstairs in her friend’s building and hid on the fourth floor. I locked the door and prayed that she wouldn’t come in there. I don’t know what I would have done if she had. She came upstairs. I could hear her climbing the stairs, looking for me. She didn’t find me, and went back down. I left and when she saw me run out, she started chasing me. We were running around the building and the neighborhood until I lost her somewhere round the front.
I told myself: “I guess this is it. I guess I have to go.” But I didn’t know where I was going. Her friend saw me and she called to me: “We should go inside and talk about this. We shouldn’t get the cops involved.” So I went into her place. She sent me to get her a pen and then she picked up the phone, called Louisa, and told her that I was there. When I heard that I dropped the pen and went straight out the front door.
I went up to the town houses where we used to live before we moved, and I was just crying and walking around. I saw this lady and I stopped her to beg for shoes, cause I had I didn’t have any on and it was really cold. She asked what size shoes I wore, and I said seven and a half. She wore size nine, but I said: “It doesn’t really matter. Whatever you have I will take.” She said: “Stay right here, I’m going to get you some shoes.” But I followed her and she went home and down to her basement. I sat down on the stairs waiting for her and she got a pair of flip flops and gave them to me. I thanked her and ran out.
I saw a cop coming and I acted like everything was okay, like I’m a totally normal person, because I was afraid. I didn’t want him to take me back to where I just left. Of course I knew that she had called the cops and they were looking for me. I also didn’t want to talk to the cop because of what she had told me in the house—that America’s no good. She told me that the cops are not friendly. When he had driven by I ran down to the big K-Mart, and walked around there doing nothing.
Around 5pm I saw a cop in front of K-Mart asking questions and I ran to the ladies’ room and sat there waiting for him to leave. I remembered that her husband’s friend had given me his number a long time ago. He said if I had any problems I could always call him and he’d be willing to help me. I had his number in my head but I didn’t have any change to call, so I begged 35 cents. I made a phone call to his work, and they told me that he had gone out of town but would back that same day. I called again around 8.30pm and they passed me to him. I was really afraid, and was crying and begging him: “Please come and get me, I’ve run away from home.” He laughed, thinking that I was joking, but I was crying, and he said: “Oh my God, are you serious?” He said he couldn’t leave work right now, but that if I could wait for him he would pick me up at 11.30pm.
K-Mart closed and everybody had to leave. I had no jacket, just flip flops and a little short skirt. This was in November. I stood outside and I told myself: “I really give up. I don’t care what happens with my life. I’ve tried my best, running away, and now I won’t do it again.” I sat down somewhere dark and put my hands inside the t-shirt because I was really cold.
A man came and told me: “You can’t sit there. You could get raped. Go and stand in front of the light where somebody can see you.” I said: “I’m really sorry, I’m fine right here. I don’t really care right now.” He left. At that point I wasn’t thinking about being alive at all. I didn’t care what happened to me. I had fought enough and I had given up. All I was thinking was that I was really sorry for my parents to lose a daughter.
Then a woman came and talked to me. I said: “I can’t leave this place. I really want to be here.” She said: “Okay if you’re not leaving this place, I’m going to sit with you. Why don’t you come with me and get in my car, and get in my car and stay warm? We’re going to wait for whoever you’re waiting for.” She asked who it was, and I lied to her and said I was waiting for my Daddy. I said I couldn’t sit in her car cause I didn’t know her. I didn’t trust nobody at that point. She said: “Okay, I’m going to get in my car and you’re going to sit here, and I’m going to wait until your Dad comes. And when your Dad comes then I’m going to leave.” So she sat and waited until 11.30pm. The guy came and picked me up and I thanked her. She drove away and the guy took me to his place. He turned on the heat to keep me warm. They started making some phone calls to see who could help me out, because he couldn’t keep me.
I was living with Louis’s cousin then. I didn’t want anybody to know where I was. I didn’t want to get involved with anybody. I just wanted to stay somewhere with nobody disturbing me. When it was Thanksgiving time and they were taking pictures, all I was doing was hiding, trying to stay away from the cameras and the videos, in case somebody looked at those pictures and said: “Oh, I know that that girl, she used to live here.” I was trying to hide away and I was dragging Louis’s attention. That’s how he started asking questions about me.
I really appreciate what Louis did for us. It took a lot of guts and a lot of courage for somebody like him to do what he did. People are afraid to do such a thing because that’s how we Africans are—trying so much to not have our names out there. He really took a risk. Hopefully somebody out there will do the same thing that he did for somebody else.
Louisa and Kevin had a trial and they pleaded guilty and got nine years in jail. Whatever punishment they gave them actually won’t do me any good. It’s not taking away what they did to me. What they did to me, that’s part of me. It’s going to stay in me so why don’t they stay in jail for 30 years? It really doesn’t take away my pain. I don’t look at it like, “Oh my God, they’re in jail, I’m okay now.” No, I’m still not okay. The clock can’t turn back, it can’t change, it can’t rewind. Whatever damage it did to me is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Even if I say something to them it won’t change what they did to me. Even if they have to say sorry, it still won’t heal the pain that they did to me. I will take it to my grave with me. I can’t forget even if I get married tomorrow and have my own kids. I can never forget, cause that’s actually the whole part of me, that’s my whole life. I didn’t get to spend my teenage life like other teenage kids did so mine was a total waste.
I can’t sleep, it’s really scary. I couldn’t sleep even when I ran away. I had a room on my own yet it was very difficult. I couldn’t trust nobody. I could go to bed but I won’t be comfortable, even though they tell me a hundred times, “you’re safe here, nobody will touch you here, nobody will do anything to you here.” It’s going to take a very long time for me to trust anybody. To be comfortable on my own, it took me a long time.
I haven’t seen my Mom and Dad ever since I came to the States, and both of them passed away in 2002. My Dad passed away on February 9 and my Mom on Thanksgiving day. They didn’t really know the things that happened to me, because I never got that chance to tell them. I’m scared because back home we don’t have lawyers like they have here. You can take somebody’s life away and get away with it. Over here you can get away with it for a couple of months, but not forever. They will get you regardless. I’m actually really afraid for my sisters. I don’t want anything to happen to them while I’m here and they’re over there, because I’m going to be alone without seeing them again. I don’t think I would want to live a life like that with no family.
I want to get my education finished and hopefully one day with God’s help I will get to see my sisters again. I hope to get married and have my own kids. I want to be a registered nurse and right now I’m working as a geriatric nursing assistant. I think it’s good after all that everything happened. It actually made me strong so I can face anything that comes to me—anything. No matter how big or how small it is, I think I can handle it. I don’t think anything can make me fear anymore.If there’s anybody in a similar or the same situation as I was, get out. If you know of any opportunity, use it. Don’t think and don’t wait because that is the mistake I made. I waited too long. If you know you can do it, just get out. There are so many things you can do with your life than sitting in one spot and being abused all day. Find help—people will help you out there.
Narrative as told to Peggy Callahan for Free the Slaves, February 24, 2005, in Washington DC, USA.