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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: email@example.com.