Paul Muhoho @PeopleDailyKe
When Winfred Njoki Clarke checked into Nairobi’s Hotel Inter-Continental 20 years ago, she was unaware of the impending nightmare looming over her.
Njoki, a married woman, briskly entered the five-star establishment at 6.30pm on March 19, 1998 without the knowledge that unaccompanied women, except residents, were unwelcome.
Njoki, accompanied by her close friend Jane, was to meet another friend, Mary Waithera. The two women went to the hotel’s bar and Njoki ordered for two bottles of beer while holding Sh400.
To her utter shock, the barman demanded “cover charge” which she did not seem to understand. She asked to see the manager.
On asking why she was denied service, one of the waiters told her in Kiswahili while pointing at two unaccompanied women at the bar: “Why don’t you go ask your colleagues?”
One of the hotel’s security officers approached and offered to help. She was told that women who were not booked at the hotel could not be served and all women were required to pay “cover charge.”
Undeterred, Njoki asked whether men were required to pay the fee. The security officer rudely told her it was none of her business. Just then, two white women entered the bar and proceeded to the counter.
The two guests were promptly served with their drinks of choice. Njoki asked them whether they resided in the hotel and they told her they lived in Westlands in Nairobi. She was in for a rude shock.
Drama started when the hotel security officer pulled her out of the lounge and ordered her to leave. When she called out to the taxi drivers, they were told not to take her as a customer.
Apparently, the hotel had reported the matter to the police, who arrived at the parking lot and asked for the woman who was causing problems. The hotel security officer pointed at her and they arrested her and drove her to the Central Police Station.
The police did not record her name in the Occurrence Book or take her statement. She was whisked to the cells despite her protestations of innocence. Her husband, Terence James Leonard Clarke visited her but could not secure her release.
Njoki spent two days in cells before she was granted free bond on condition she reported every day for one week. Finally she was told there was no complainant and there was no charge.
The aggrieved woman had the last laugh last week when the High Court awarded her Sh3 million for her tribulations. The hotel will pay her Sh2 million while the Attorney General, on behalf of the National Police Service, will top up with Sh1 million.
High Court judge Msagha Mbogholi said Njoki was a victim of discrimination, humiliation and embarrassment, regardless of the hotel’s admission and service regulations. She lodged the suit on March 17, 1999 complaining of defamation and unlawful imprisonment.
Njoki had protested that she was branded a prostitute with questionable moral character. Her visit to the hotel was misconstrued as soliciting and she was embarrassed because the offending words were uttered in the presence of other waiter and customers.
She was a respectably married woman and her reputation was seriously damaged and she suffered great distress. The hotel staff had acted out of spite and malice and her arrest in public subjected her to severe shock and mental anguish, she said.
The hotel, in its defence, blamed Njoki for unruly behaviour which could have led to a breach of peace hadn’t the police been called to intervene.
“There was no notice displayed in the hotel that unaccompanied ladies are required to pay cover charge for the drinks they wanted to take. It was, therefore, within her rights to ask what this cover charge was. Instead of an answer, she was dragged out of the hotel and ended up in the police station where she was held in custody,” the judge said.
“This is a matter that should not have reached the courts had the hotel’s servants acted in a more civil manner towards people who accessed its premises. Malice can be imputed from the language used and actions taken,” he said.
“Regrettably, Njoki’s conduct was put into question and she ended up losing her freedom for two days when she was locked up at Central Police Station without any charge whatsoever,” the judge observed.
Justice Mbogholi said an award of damages, however high, could not restore damaged reputation. “The defendants never offered any apology when Njoki wrote a demand letter. That contempt in itself aggravated the humiliation visited upon her,” he said.