Sex trafficking campaigners often single out Nigerian women as the worst case of sex trafficking, because of debts that sound the largest and the sometime presence of so-called rituals that are supposed to have bound these migrants in a specially sinister way to their traffickers. It’s old-fashioned racist colonialism – an unwillingness to imagine even the most superficial aspects of a non-western culture, jumping to lurid conclusions instead, in which juju ceremonies are somehow not comparable to Roman Catholic ones, for example – though promises, talismen and emotion are found in both. As though one sort of prayer for help or success were inherently irrational and the other not.
That’s not to say that conditions are not pretty dire for many women and men in western Africa, politically and economically – which means people can be willing to take big risks and assume onerous debts when they travel to work abroad. I learned about how some migrants think about that in Lucciole neri – Le prostitute nigeriane si raccontano (Iyamu Kennedy and Pino Nicotri, editors, 1999), one of my sources of ethnographic research with migrants who sell sex in Europe, for what eventually became Sex at the Margins. These Nigerians were working in Italy.
On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe, came out in 2009, but I have only just read it (prompted by This is Africa’s mention of it along with my book recently). It’s a novel telling the stories of four women’s migrations from Nigeria to Belgium where they work in windows in the red-light district. None of them has had an easy life and none of them sees herself as a victim, despite the presence of a powerful smuggler in Lagos and a controlling madam in Antwerp. They are, the author says, willing to play the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs. Unigwe has said:
If your parents can’t help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. He’s your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys.
At the end of the book we are told how three of the women fare in the future. After nine years in Antwerp, Efe became a madam herself.
It would take eighteen months to get her first of two girls whom she would indeed buy at an auction presided by a tall, good-looking Nigerian man in sunglasses and a beret. It would be in a house in Brussels, with lots to drink and soft music playing in the background. The women would enter the country with a musical band billed to perform at the Lokerenfeest. The man in the sunglasses was the manager of the band and as usual had, in addition to genuine members of the band, added the names of the women who had paid him to the list he submitted at the embassy in Abuja. The women would be called into the room one at a time for the buyers to see and admire. They would all have numbers, for names were not important. Their names would be chosen by whoever bought them. Names that would be easy for white clients to pronounce… Efe would buy numbers five and seven. Number five because she smiled easily. Number seven because she looked docile and eager to please, the sort of girl who was grateful for little. Like Madam, Efe would have some police officers on her payroll to ensure the security of her girls and of her business. She would do well in the business, buying more girls to add to her fleet. pp 278-9
Yes, this is an auction where employers bid on women who will sell sex. It is not slave-trading, however.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist