The Big Secret: Domestic Violence amongst expats

Kenyans, do you recall in 2015 when a Papua New Guinean man who works with the United Nations in Kenya hit the headlines for beating up Ruth Gakii,  his Kenyan ex-lover?

The man identified as Alphonse Kambu, 47, was a computer programmer in the legal office of the UN Environment Programme in Kenya. The two had lived together and had a son but separated two years ago.  Kambu attacked  Gakii seriously injuring her as their three-year-old son looked on. She was hospitalized at Nairobi Women’s Hospital.


It’s well known that the abuser will begin to erode their victim’s chain of support from day one.  They will criticise their victim’s friends and family for example, highlighting any character or behavioral traits they disapprove of and encouraging their victim to break contact.  They will slowly but surely ensure their victim becomes cut off from their family, alienated from their friends and isolated from the rest of the world – first emotionally and then later financially.

Parties outside an abusive relationship always question how things deteriorate to the point at which a formerly independent minded individual becomes wholly dependent on their abusive partner. How the victim becomes unable to reach out and ask for help and find themselves cut off from close familial ties and bound to the relationship because they have no money of their own. How the victim’s confidence is totally destroyed and they are potentially without even travel or personal documentation.

The answer is that the abuser is in control and in a position of power from day one because they know what they are doing.  The victim, on the other hand, is manipulated without their knowledge from the start – the lucky ones realize it and get away in time.  But the window of opportunity for escape is very narrow.  What the victim would once have seen as completely unreasonable and bizarre behavior becomes the norm for them.  They adapt, cover up, lie and become unwillingly complicit in the entire charade of their ‘loving’ relationship.

And what better way to enhance this untenable situation and intensify the extreme isolation than to move your victim overseas – well away from the prying eyes of concerned neighbors, worried friends, and frantic family?

For instance, in 2017, a 55-year-old Kenyan living in Belgium killed his wife, Elizabeth Wafula Ololo, who was also Kenyan. According to Belgian newspaper HLN, James Ololo drove to his wife’s residence to try to beg her to stop the court process which was ongoing and orders which were issued that he leave the lady alone.

No study has ever been undertaken into the level of domestic or interpersonal violence that exists in expatriate communities – it remains the dirtiest little secrets of the ‘wonderful’ expatriate lifestyle.

Abusers strategy

  1. First, the abusers remove their victim’s potential access to safety and assistance by moving them abroad, they can take their abuse to the next level and assume complete control in their relationships. 
  2. It’s common for passports and travel documentation to be ‘lost,’ hidden or simply destroyed. 
  3. New bank accounts and financial arrangements can be made solely in the name of the abuser. 
  4. Any contact made with neighbors, colleagues or potential friends will be managed, manipulated, restricted or simply banned, and the abused individual’s life is effectively over at that point.

Sometimes the victim is able to communicate but unfortunately, we live in a shitty society where everyone is playing safe by ‘minding their own business’. The last thing you need if you’re vulnerable is a support mechanism that crumbles when you need to lean upon it.

What to do

If you are trapped abroad there are practical steps you can take to get out of the untenable position you’ve been placed in. 

  1. The first thing you need to know is that it is categorically not your fault.  Your abuser has deep-rooted issues that cause them to behave as they do – you are their victim, and if it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else.  So do not blame yourself.  You can spend time later reflecting on how you found yourself in the position you are in – but now is the time to plan and enable your escape.
  2. If you are in the position where you have no money then yes, if it is at all possible, squirrel some away whenever you can.  But be careful that your partner doesn’t find out.  If you have someone you can truly trust, perhaps they can look after the money for you…however, I would never let having no money stop you from escaping.  After all, freedom is priceless – and once you are free to live as you want and think and do as you please you will find ways to bring in an income and build a better life.
  3. If you have no travel documentation then your position is of course far harder.  However, try and get to the point where you at least have some proof of identification – a driving license for example, or the visa you need to live abroad in your current country.  Perhaps it’s the case that you can persuade your partner that you need to hold your own driving license, health insurance card, bank card or ID card simply in case you are ever stopped by the local police and asked who you are.

How to help victims

Be there – 24 hours a day if needs be – and offer emotional support if you can offer nothing else.  Do not appear cold or indifferent or even angry and negative towards the abusive partner otherwise they will do everything they can to prevent you ever getting near their victim.  You may have to play along with their displays of having a ‘normal’ relationship in order to support the victim.

You may believe that the local police should intervene and help in some way, but it’s unlikely the victim of the abuse will ever press charges or even report abuse.  What’s more, police even in the UK and USA are very unwilling to get involved with cases of domestic violence.

Perhaps you can contact the local embassy or consulate on behalf of a suspected victim and find out if there are any local support mechanisms in place.  If there are, maybe you can verbally pass this information along to the abused individual – or somehow make it known within the local community. 

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