FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Survival of the Fittest?

There have been a repetitive number of negative works by Nigerian writers in the past few years, written mostly by women and highlighting the day-to-day difficulties of survival in a society riddled with corruption, dominated by Big Men, and their encounters with young women who see their situations in the country as futureless, dead-ended. Besides several recent short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there was Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance, a rollicking but bitter account of the 419 scam, with an unforgettable central character named “Cash Daddy.” In an op-ed essay in The New York Times over a year ago, Nwaubani referred to her countrymen as suffering from “Amnesia Nigeriana?the tendency of Nigerians to blank out natural trauma.”

Nwaubani further observed that “Even everyday hazards turn deadly. We have electricity for only a few hours per week, and countless families have been blasted into oblivion or lulled to a permanent sleep when their generators have exploded or discharged fatal fumes.” These happenings in a country that supplies electricity to its neighbors but can’t provide a stable electric source for its own people. “Our country is one of the largest producers of crude oil in the world, yet an excruciating fuel scarcity persists, with fuel queues that people joke stretch all the way to Calcutta.”

More recently, Sefi Atta’s Swallow chronicled the diminishing options for young people in Nigeria to find a job, especially educated women. As I wrote in a recent review of Swallow, one of the options her two main characters consider is becoming mules, swallowing condoms full of cocaine and moving the drug overseas?something that risky to make some money. The recent elections in Nigeria (ending on April 17th) led to immediate riots within the country. This election appeared to be less rigged that other recent ones but the riots highlighted tribalism once again, the scourge of the country, ever since its independence in 1960.

To this morass add Chika Unigwe’s novel, On Black Sisters Street, the story of four African women in Antwerp, where they have all been sent, seduced to believe that the Nigerian businessman who helps them with their passports and transportation has good income-producing jobs for them once they arrive in Belgium. These women, four Nigerians and one Sudanese, quickly realize that they are little more than indentured servants/prostitutes who will need years to generate the necessary money to pay back the man who talked them into moving to Belgium.

Their individual stories, which provide the bulk of the narrative, are about as hopeless as they can be about the prospects of young women in Nigeria (or dozens of other African countries or those in the Middle East). Sisi actually earned a university degree, as did her fianc?, but neither have decent prospects for dependable jobs. Her fate in Antwerp becomes the worst of the four because she tries to escape from her situation. Then there’s Efe, seduced and left pregnant by an older man, whose decision to go to Belgium is previcated on the money she will earn in Europe which can be sent home to pay for her son’s education.

Next, there’s Ama who was raped by her step-father, a minister, when she was eight years old. The rapes continued nightly until she had her first period when the step father stopped for fear she would get pregnant. Ama flees the country for Lagos but decides all too soon that “Lagos was a city of death.” And finally, Joyce lured to Lagos and subsequently abandoned by a Nigerian soldier who was fighting in Darfur after he tells her that he will marry her.

The novel is narrated with almost delicate concern for the four women’s occupation; their counters with men could have been sensationalized but, instead, Unigwe has wisely decided to hint more than to show the lurid details of their profession. Here, for example, a comment on Sisi “advertising” herself:

“She learned to stand in her window and pose on heels that made her two inches taller. She learned to smile, to pout, to think of nothing but the money she would be making. She learned to rap on the window, hitting her ring hard against the glass on slow days to attract stragglers. She learned to twirl to help them make up their minds, a swirling mass of chocolate mesmerizing them, making them gasp and yearn for a release from the ache between their legs: a coffee-colored dream luring them with the promise of heaven. She let the blinking red and black neon lights of her booth comfort her with their glow and, tripping the light fantastic?.”

Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street chronicles the harsh realities of sex trafficking in Europe because of the surplus of young African women, living in countries where women too often have few opportunities for work that is not exploitative. Unigwe has lived in Belgium for years and published her novel in Dutch in 2005. The “translation” into English is by the author, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Leiden, and researched the lives of African women in the red-light district before she wrote her novel. The story is imaginatively narrated, interweaving the lives of her four main characters?and the story of the Big Man in Lagos who benefits from their work?but no matter how you look at it, another sad commentary on Nigeria today.

On Black Sisters Street
By Chika Unigwe

Random House, 261 pp., $25.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

Limited Time Special Offer!
Get CounterPunch Print Edition By Email for Only $25 a Year!

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Glenn Sacks
Teachers Strike Dispatch #8: New Independent Study Confirms LAUSD Has the Money to Meet UTLA’s Demands
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposable Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail