Christina Elangwe spent five years as a domestic slave in Washington DC, held by Cameroonians. Promised an American education and a babysitting job, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the age of 17. Upon arrival in the US, she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and were beaten and verbally abused.
A man called Louis Etongwe helped Christina and two other women to escape, then took tapes of all three to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Christina’s captors received five years probation and were ordered to pay her $180,000 in back wages. So far she has received about $2000.
My name is Christina Elangwe. I was born in a village in Cameroon, south west province. I have four older sisters and three brothers. I grew up, I went to elementary school, I finished elementary school. My dream was to go to high school and my parents didn’t have enough money to send me to high school right away. I didn’t want to wait for the whole semester and an opportunity came. An old lady from another city came to the village looking for somebody to come live with her. She was going to put me in school, so I accepted and went to a city to live with her. But I didn’t go to school right away, though I was there for maybe a year. Then the old lady told me that they would like me to go the United States to take care of kids. I said okay, and they sent me back to the village to inform my parents. At first my Dad refused—he said it was too far away. But we convinced him. I said, this is my dream—America.
I always dreamed of this, and watched movies back home. America was like heaven. Sometimes I would sit and talk to myself about how I would like to go to America, because back home it was like America was like gold and silver. I wanted to go there to further my education, so when the opportunity came I thought, okay this it.
The agreement was that as soon as I came here I would start school. I came in the month of February, and they told me that the semester would soon be over and that next semester I was going to start school. The agreement was that I’m going to baby-sit and while I’m baby-sitting continue my education and go to school. That whole year passed and they didn’t send me to school. They only sent me for two days a week to the GED class, and it was free too. The following year came and I asked them. They said they were still thinking about it and they’re going to send me. I should wait.
Days go by, years go by, you start figuring that these people are not going to do anything. Maybe their kids will grow up and go to college before they even start thinking about it. Or maybe they will never think of doing anything. When I asked her one time, the lady told me that just bringing me into America is more than good enough—they don’t have to do anything with me. Just to come here I should feel lucky—there are other people dying to come here and they can’t. I should be happy that I’m here.
It was seven days a week. I did everything from five in the morning until maybe midnight or 1am. I had to get up, get the kids ready, give them showers, make their breakfast, keep on doing household jobs like cleaning, cooking, everybody’s laundry, ironing, and when the kids came back from school I gave them lunch. Sometimes when there was an occasion coming up I would stay up until 4am or 5am to braid their kids’ hair. Sometimes I felt sorry for myself—sad. Just hoping one day everything is going to be okay, or one day it’s going to be over.
Nobody was allowed to call me and I wasn’t allowed to call anybody. The five years I was with them I never talked to my parents. They would tell me that they’re trying to get hold of my parents but they were lying. They always talked to their own parents but when it was time for me to talk with my parents, the line didn’t go through. I never received any letters. I wrote letters and I don’t know whether my parents received them or not. I never wrote letters when they’re around, but when the kids were in school and I was home cleaning, things were going through my mind.
They never paid me anything while I was there. When I asked them, they said they didn’t have to. I asked them for something after I was there for about three or four years, and they told me they were not paying me but they were paying my parents. I knew they were lying to me, but I never talked to my parents while I was there. I think they were just telling me that so that I would feel better. I was thinking about getting out but there was no way. I didn’t know anybody, but I was just praying for one day to come when I could be free. I never knew when the day would be. I was just hoping and praying and I was mad. I should have just stayed back home. I should have listened to my Dad. I should have continued my education back home.
I talked to Roseline on the phone and cried, and tried to figure out what to do. But there was no means. If we leave, where are we going to go? We didn’t know anybody, so just had to stay there. Until one day she couldn’t take it in there anymore, she had to run away. When she ran she opened the door for all of us. She took a big step.
After she ran away, she and Mr. Louis Etongwe contacted me. Roseline told me that I have to get out of there, and that there was somebody who is going to help us to be free. At first I didn’t know. It took me a while to trust Mr. Louis Etongwe. I talked to him and I thought, I have to do it, I have to do something for myself and my family. It took me a month or two for me to make the decision to leave though.
I’m sure around that time, when Roseline went, they knew that I knew something about it, because they were asking me where she was, and whether she would contact me or not. I said, no, I won’t hear from her. Their eyes went wide open; they were thinking maybe I’ll be the next person. So they had tape recorders around the house, just in case anybody called me. They told me, even if I wanted to run away I shouldn’t do it the way Roseline did.
I finally realized that there was no hope if I continued living with this family. So I’d better do something. It was about time. I’d already given them five years of my life, now it was my turn. I had to do something for myself. So I told Mr. Louis that I was ready. When the employer dropped me off where I used to take the GED classes, I asked a few people for change to catch the bus and they gave it to me. I asked how to get to Silver Springs Metro Station. They told me, and I took the bus and went there. Mr. Louis Etongwe came and picked me up.
He’s a very nice man. He’s the one who helped us get out of this situation. He really helped us after we left. I wouldn’t have left otherwise, and I actually lived in his house until I was able to take care of myself. I’m very grateful for that too. When I didn’t trust him it was because I didn’t know him. The only people I knew were my employers and their sisters and friends. And they were treating me like ruined stock, saying America is a bad place, you can go out there and get killed, you can’t make it in America.
Afterwards I used to think a lot about the kids, especially the youngest one. I was really really close with her. But then I thought, they have their parents and I’m here by myself. I’d helped them enough already and I had to think about myself now. My parents heard about it because Mr. Louis Etongwe took a tape back home and put it on for them to watch. They were really really sad and said, “they should send my child back home.”
I consider myself a slave because I worked for so many hours without getting paid, and without going to school. And I couldn’t leave. I feel like they stole my life from me. We didn’t know anything like this happened. It’s like we were brainwashed so we didn’t know the laws, we didn’t know the rules. All we knew was what they were telling us. And we believed all that they were saying. We were blind then. Anybody in my situation shouldn’t take that long to get help. There’s help out there. They shouldn’t believe it when their employers are telling them it’s scary out there. There are good people out there. They should reach for help immediately if they’re not getting what they were promised. And no matter what, you shouldn’t send your child away, especially with strangers.
The people were found guilty. They pleaded guilty and they did some community service. They were asked to pay me some money for the years that I worked for them. They are paying bit by bit, but not that much. Right now I’m just trying to keep away from them. I just want to live my life. I don’t want to even see them. But if it happens, I would say, look at me now—here, look at me now.
I work as an agent’s assistant. I’m proud of myself now because now I have a job, I have a roof over my head, I have a car, I can do whatever I want. I’m building a house for my parents and I paid my siblings’ school tuition. My mom is always sick so I pay her medical fees—send her to a bigger hospital so she can get more tests. What I dream now is to be a registered nurse. I love helping people. With the help of God I’m going to do it and I’ll be a registered nurse. Everything is possible. I’m trying to work hard, save some money, go to school. I’m going to do it. I have to do it.
Narrative as told to Peggy Callahan for Free the Slaves, February 24, 2005, in Washington DC, USA.