From African Village to Center of Ordeal
ADAM NOSSITER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
|The village of Thiakoulle, Guinea, where the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault grew up.|
By ANNE BARNARD, ADAM NOSSITER and KIRK SEMPLE
This article is by Anne Barnard, Adam Nossiter and Kirk Semple.
ADAM NOSSITER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Thiakoulle, Guinea, birthplace of the woman accusing Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault.
She was born in a mud hut in an isolated hamlet in Africa with no electricity or running water, a 10-minute hike to the nearest road. Unschooled, she was married off to a distant cousin as a teenager, had a daughter and was soon widowed.
Not long after, in her early 20s, she arrived in the United States — one more anonymous immigrant struggling to make a new life. She served stew in a cubbyhole of an African restaurant in the Bronx, and landed a more stable job a few years ago as a housekeeper changing the sleek sheets at the Sofitel New York, in Midtown Manhattan.
Then came the encounter on May 14. The woman told the authorities that she was sexually assaulted by the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn while cleaning his suite at the hotel. Now she finds herself in the glare of international scandal.
Lawyers for Mr. Strauss-Kahn have signaled they will scrutinize her character and background in a case that pits her word against his. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading contender for the French presidency before his arrest.
He has hired private detectives as well as prominent defense lawyers who have said in court papers that they have “substantial information” that could “gravely undermine her credibility.” They have not provided any details.
In dozens of interviews with people who know her or are familiar with her life, the woman, now 32, is portrayed as an unassuming and hard-working single mother. The interviews were conducted in New York and in her homeland, Guinea, with relatives, neighbors, co-workers and former employers. The woman herself has stayed out of public view in recent weeks and has not spoken to reporters.
“She is a village girl who didn’t go to school to learn English, Greek, Portuguese, what have you,” said her older brother, 49, whose first name is Mamoudou. “All she learned was the Koran. Can you imagine how on earth she is suffering through this ordeal?”
“The place where she is now,” he added, “I don’t even know where it is.”
The woman, the youngest of five children, was raised in a deeply religious household, according to Mamoudou and another brother, Mamadou, who is in his early 50s. Both brothers still live in a village called Thiakoulle, where they grew up with her.
(Guinea, in West Africa, is a mostly Muslim country, and many men from the woman’s ethnic group are called some variation of Mamadou, which is Muhammad in the local language, Fula. The New York Times generally does not identify people who say they have been victims of sexual assault. To protect the woman’s identity, The Times has also omitted the surnames of her relatives.)
Their father was a respected local imam, and when they were young they studied at home, the brothers said, using a set of traditional wooden panels inscribed with passages from the Koran.
As a girl, she was shy, sheltered and raised to respect authority.
“Before she left here, nobody even knew if she could speak up for herself,” Mamoudou said. “She never got into any arguments, with anybody.”
“Even if she were hungry, she wouldn’t tell you,” he added during an interview in the family home, a spartan, concrete structure that replaced the thatched-roof hut where she was born. Leather-bound holy books rested on a table. The only picture on the wall was of a white-bearded elderly man, their father, now deceased.
She lived in the hamlet until she was a teenager, then moved, possibly for work, to Guinea’s capital, Conakry, a 13-hour drive along rugged mountain roads. Two months later, her father summoned her back to the village. He had found a husband for her, a distant cousin. She had no choice but to obey, her brothers said.
The couple moved to a region three hours away, where she gave birth to a daughter.
But when her husband became ill and died, the woman moved with her daughter to the capital, where Mamadou was living at the time.
In the meantime, her sister, Hassanatou, had followed a Guinean husband to New York, joining compatriots who, compelled by poverty, political turmoil and ambition, had immigrated. In 2002, the woman decided to leave Guinea, too. She spoke no English at the time.
“Everybody wants to go to the U.S.,” Mamadou said. “You know why people leave Africa.”
Settling in the Bronx
It is not clear how the woman gained entrance to the United States. In the 12 months ending in September 2002, the United States issued 4,410 visas to Guineans, a vast majority for business trips or tourism, officials said.
TODD HEISLER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
|On Franklin Avenue near 166th Street in the Bronx, a neighborhood where many guinea immigrants have settled.|
But by the time she began her job as a housekeeper at the Sofitel in 2008, she had legal status and working papers, her lawyers said.
After coming to the United States, she settled in the Bronx, where many in New York City’s small Guinean population have blended in among other West African immigrant groups in neighborhoods like High Bridge, north of Yankee Stadium, Claremont and Morrisania.
The community was still recovering from the killing of Amadou Diallo, a street vendor from the woman’s region and ethnic group, who was shot to death by the police in 1999 in a case that received widespread attention. The officers were acquitted after testifying that they had mistakenly thought he was pulling out a weapon.
The woman melted into this community. She did not seem to be well known even in the neighborhoods where Guineans often lived.
After prayers at a few West African mosques, Guineans often go to Guinean-owned restaurants to eat cooked cassava leaf and beef stew, drink homemade juice made from hibiscus flowers and watch television broadcasts of African news and sports. They shop at Guinean stores that sell West African staples like cornmeal, yams, palm oil and spices.
In Guinea, a former French colony, many people closely follow the news from France. In fact, one of the oddities of this case is that before he was arrested, Mr. Strauss-Kahn — often referred to in the Francophone world as DSK — was probably better known in Guinea, at least among the educated, than in the United States. (It does not appear that the woman knew of Mr. Strauss-Kahn before the encounter in the hotel room.)
After arriving from Guinea, the woman showed up one day at African American Restaurant Marayway, near Grand Concourse in the Bronx, looking for a job, recalled the owner, Bahoreh Jabbie, who hired her.
For several years, she worked the busy evening shift, helping Mr. Jabbie and his wife, Fatima, in the kitchen behind smudged bulletproof glass or serving customers at the restaurant’s three tables. Her daughter sometimes stopped by to visit.
Mr. Jabbie, an immigrant from Gambia, in West Africa, said the woman revealed little about her private life, but was a steady worker. “She was good with me,” he recalled.
During this period, she received asylum, her lawyers have said, though they have not revealed the basis of her asylum petition to federal immigration authorities.
According to community leaders and immigration lawyers, most Guineans who have received asylum in recent years have sought sanctuary from political persecution in their homeland, though others have petitioned to avoid social practices, like female genital cutting and forced marriage.
One day, the woman told Mr. Jabbie that she was leaving the restaurant for a better paycheck at the Sofitel hotel.
With that, she entered a new world, with a grand, golden canopy and wood-paneled suites, blocks from Times Square. She was considered a good employee there.
In her telephone calls home to Guinea, her brothers recalled, she talked only about her daughter, now in her teens, and never about the rest of her life.
Still, she could have drawn on the company of a growing extended family, with one relative living among a cluster of West Africans on Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx, where a street sign and mural commemorate Mr. Diallo near the building where he was shot.
“On Sundays, he had 50 to 60 people over in the backyard,” recalled Andre Landers, a retired police officer and neighbor, referring to the woman’s relative. “When they had a baby born, they had ceremonial get-togethers.”
The only other hint of the woman’s social life came from acquaintances who said she would sometimes stop by a West African restaurant, Café 2115, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, where livery-cab drivers and others eat, socialize and watch French news programs on widescreen televisions.
“She isn’t a fiery woman,” said a friend, who did not want to be identified so as not to appear to be meddling in the case.
At home, for fun, the woman watched Nigerian comedies on DVD, the friend said. “She was watching that every day,” he added.
For now, her life, once unremarkable, is under intense scrutiny — by journalists and lawyers, and investigators working for the prosecution or the defense. Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers have already suggested that any sexual encounter was consensual, an assertion that her lawyer has called preposterous.
Her lawyer is a former federal prosecutor whose practice includes criminal defense and employment discrimination matters, and who has obtained large civil settlements for his clients.
Meanwhile, in the immigrant neighborhoods that she has called home for the past nine years, residents are also trying to get a sense of a woman very few have met.
For many in the Guinean population, which has fierce ethnic rivalries that reflect tensions back home, the case has taken on a special resonance.
The woman is a member of the Fulani ethnic group, Guinea’s largest, which has suffered years of persecution by other ethnic groups. Many Fulani feel that their grievances have never been fully addressed.
“It wakes up the trauma that we have,” said Mamadou Maladho Diallo, a Fulani journalist in New York.
The woman’s brothers in Guinea said they had not spoken with her since the hotel encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn. One brother produced a notebook with several New York cellphone numbers that he said were his sister’s. He has tried calling them, but no one has answered.
The brothers seemed worried and confused about what was happening.
But they said their sister’s upbringing would anchor her as the case against Mr. Strauss-Kahn proceeded.
“She has faith,” her brother Mamadou said. “She will never change that.”
- © 2011 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, New York Region, of Wednesday, June 15, 2011.