“This is not happening. This is not happening.”
Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street is the 2012 winner of the famed $100,000 Nigeria Prize For literature, and one word settled on my mind after reading it. Ruthless!
Originally written in Dutch as Fata Morgana and translated later into English, the novel is an exposé on a sex slavery syndicate from Lagos to Antwerp in the early 2000s that latched on the economic aspirations of young women to escape the respective torture meted on them by poverty, sexual abuse, irresponsible parenting, war, and relationship failure.
Four emotionally shattered girls from Lagos brought together by one pimp are asked to raise 30,000 Euros through sex work in the Belgian city of Antwerp, before regaining their freedom to do whatever they wish with their lives. Each girl has a terrible past she wants to escape before landing there. But they only land in another wahala. Their situation turns out to be what Chinua Achebe said through the character of Moses Unachukwu in Arrow of God regarding the Whiteman in Igboland during colonialism:
“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.”
Chika Unigwe deployed a storytelling technique in this book in what looks like a ladder with each step ahead getting steeper. It is something like ‘If you think you have seen shege pro max, then listen to my story first!’ In the beginning, none of the women care to share their stories, origin, and identity but are compelled to do so after the murder of one of them. Let’s meet the women.
Sisi (Chisom): an unemployed graduate who is the only child of her poor civil servant father fired by the state government after 25 years of service for not being originally from Lagos. Her fiancee in Lagos too is a government school math teacher with multiple teacher of the year awards and five siblings under his care. Chisom, who would become Sisi in Antwerp, sees that the future in Lagos is bleak and neither her parents nor her fiancee can salvage it and thus takes the tough decision of going abroad for sex work when offered the chance by Dele. She is dedicated to her newfound ‘profession’ for 8 months until Luc comes into her life. They become lovers and he encourages her to quit and report to authorities. She is killed the very day she quit.
Efe: a teenage single mother who lost her mother when she was 16. Shattered by the loss of his wife, her father can’t properly handle the pain and ends up as a disgraced drunk. Efe is now in charge of the house with her father providing the money and cares about nothing apart from that. She becomes the new mother of her other 3 siblings and has the freedom to do as she likes. She is wooed and lured into a sexual relationship and impregnated by a married man in his 40s called Titus. He rejects the son she gives birth to and later knows that she is his sixth victim. He would impregnate the women and allow his wife to chase and harass them when they showed up with the kids. Determined to work hard and give her son a good life, Efe takes a cleaning job and her third boss in the job would be Dele who tells her that with her good boobs and buttocks, she could amass wealth through sex work in Europe.
Ama: is raised by a father widely revered by society as a man of God and the assistant pastor in one of the biggest Pentecostal churches in Enugu. Life starts happening to Ama the day she turns 8 years old. Her father is a paedophile. He starts penetrating her on her eighth birthday when he throws a birthday party for her. This rape would consistently occur till the day she started seeing her period. He never touched her afterwards.
When she turns 21, she argues with her father; he calls her names and in replying to him she opens up about his abuse of her when she was a child. Riled by the revelation, he pushes her out of his house. It turns out he is not her biological father and that he married her mother when she was an infant. Her mother does nothing and prioritizes the safety of her marriage over everything; sending Ama to Mama Eko in Lagos. Mama Eko is her mother’s cousin who sells food in Lagos and Ama helps her in the buka. Dele is a regular customer in the buka and there he meets and scouts Ama; adding her to his girls in Europe.
Joyce (Alek): a Dinka girl from South Sudan, she has a dream to study medicine but it is cut short by the war in the Darfur region. Her father, mother, and younger brother are slain in front of her when she is 15 years old; she is also immediately gang raped by the killer soldiers. She remembers what her mother told her on the day she began her period; that she should never allow any man to touch her until her wedding night. But there she is, laid by killers of her family taking turns with her. In pain and loss, she consoles herself chanting “This is not happening. This is not happening.”
She meets and falls in love with a Nigerian soldier in a refugee camp who takes her to Lagos, lives with her for over a year, and later tells her it would be an unpardonable offence for him as the first child to go against the wish of his parents to marry a foreigner and not the Igbo wife they want him to marry. He takes her to Dele.
Each of the women is given a monthly target of 500 Euros to remit to Dele until the 30,000 Euros ‘debt’ is paid. However, when business is not doing well, a minimum of 100 Euros is accepted.
Unbeknownst to the ladies, they are under strict surveillance of Dele through his proxies in Antwerp. In their home, there is a man, Segun who stutters and they often mock him for appearing too weak. To their surprise, he fixes furniture for them which he does with efficient use of the hammer. When Sisi tries to escape and start a new life in Belgium, it is with a hammer that Segun smashes her skull to death.
After their freedom from a decade of sex slavery, Efe contemplates becoming a pimp herself, Joyce opens a school in Lagos and names it after Sisi and Ama opens a boutique in Lagos. This is my favourite quote in the book:
“Whoever said that money couldn’t buy happiness had never experienced the relief that came from having money to spend on whatever you wanted.”
This novel is a history and is recommended for everyone, especially women planning to relocate from Nigeria to Europe; to avoid falling into the trap of pimps. I rate this book 5/5. Hopefully, I would later in the year read Chika Unigwe’s The Middle Daughter, her latest work regarded by the critics as one of the best African fiction published last year.