I was 23 when I moved into a house with five other people. It was 2005 and I was new to the UK, studying at an international college in Manchester, where I met a fellow Malawian woman. She offered to let me live with her and four male Malawian friends – a major adjustment for me, but everything seemed fine. I was enjoying studying, made new friends, opened a bank account and took on a part-time job to pay the rent. Life was good.
I started to cut my school friends’ hair at home and my housemates saw an opportunity to make some extra money. They started booking people to come and have their hair cut but warned me not to make friends with any of the “customers” as they were “bad people”. Whenever I said I didn't feel like cutting hair or questioned where all the money was going, my housemates told me how much they had done for me – giving me a cheap place to stay and making sure I had everything I needed. So I stopped asking and just carried on quietly cutting hair, careful not to make conversation with any of the customers.
The Malawians didn’t like me meeting new people or having friends other than them, so I lost touch with all my school friends and family – making me feel isolated and alone. I later found out that all of my wages had been diverted to fake accounts, opened with fake IDs.
I didn’t see any of the money I made but felt like I owed them for charging me so little for rent, so didn’t address it. When I told them all the hairdressing was affecting my studies and my other part-time job, they responded with aggression. They reminded me of all they had done to protect me and house me, which I couldn’t deny – I felt like I owed them. When I needed to get my feet on the ground in a foreign country, they were there for me and I wanted to pay them back.
A few months later, the Malawians insisted I give them my passport and visa, so they could renew my visa for me. I handed them over, but never got my visa back again. Without it, I lost my part-time job and my place in school. I was now at their disposal, needing them more than ever, because I no longer had proof I was allowed to reside in the UK.
After that, they made me move to Leicester. Without proof of identification, I couldn't argue. And that’s when everything got much worse. The people who I had once lived, cooked and eaten with started beating me and feeding me the leftovers. I felt isolated and scared. No one, not even my family, knew where I was or who I was. They even called me by a different name, completely erasing my individuality and freedom. It was as if I were invisible.
They moved me into a house with another girl but wouldn’t let us talk or get to know one another. One day, completely out of the blue, a man came with the Malawians and I was told to “make him happy”. He just started touching me. I didn’t know what to do, freaked out and bit him out of self-protection, then blacked out with fear. When I woke up, I wasn’t dressed and had marks all over my body from where I had been beaten.
It became my new normal – this “making men happy” that was forced upon me. I just wanted to survive – I didn’t want to be beaten – so I did what they said. Every time the Malawians told me to take a shower, I knew they were freshening me up for what was coming.
It occurred to me that my period was late and a test confirmed it – I was pregnant. The Malawians found out and forced me to swallow a drink that would get rid of the “problem”. It worked.
They found me another job in town and made sure to walk me to work. They also waited to pick me up after my shift. I didn’t receive any of the money from that job either, but I did get to eat when I had a shift, which I was grateful for because there was never food in the house.
A rash started to spread over large parts of my body. When the Malawians noticed it, they made me scrub myself with disinfectant. The harsh chemicals only made the rash worse and they took me to the GP, who prescribed me antibiotics, which I never received. But the rash did eventually begin to fade enough so I could continue working.
The Malawians told me I needed to go to the bank with them to open another account. When we tried, the staff brought us into a meeting room and accused us of using fake IDs. I felt so much relief when I heard the police were coming. I could taste freedom. But when they arrived and I told them everything about what had happened to me, they just accused me of being an accomplice and making the story up to avoid arrest.
The police had a chance to intervene but, instead, they let me go – back to my prison of slave labour and abuse.
I was taken to yet another town by the Malawians – Kettering in Northamptonshire – where they continued to beat me and make me work for them. It got so bad I thought it would be better just to die, so I tried to take my life – but didn’t succeed. My rash came back and this time they took me to hospital, afraid they may catch whatever it was I had.
I found myself in a long corridor in the hospital and, when I looked behind me, I expected them to be watching me to make sure I didn’t get away. But they weren’t. It was my chance to escape. I ran. And I ran and I ran. Finally, I arrived at the train station, where I just kept taking trains until I arrived in the only city I remembered. For four days, I slept inside the train station, hungry, cold and tired. A Nigerian man asked if I was okay. And in that moment, I broke. I couldn’t control my tears. He offered me a place to stay with him and his two daughters. I knew it could be unsafe, but I didn’t have any other options, so I went with him.
For weeks, I expected abuse but received none. They treated me like family and I stayed with them for many years. After meeting a good man online and dating him, we decided to get married. But when we applied for a licence, I was arrested.
Apparently, I was supposed to have answered bail for trying to open that bank account all those years earlier. I was sent to prison for six months, where I suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.
After I told my solicitor everything that had happened to me, she got in touch with the Home Office, who later identified me as a victim of slavery and referred me to City Hearts, a charity that houses and support victims. They helped to get me into education, and I completed English, maths, physics, and chemistry access courses. Now, at 39, I’m hoping to go to university and study to become a social worker in the future. At last, life is looking better.
As told to Lauren Crosby Medlicott