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The Naked Anthropologist · Africa


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I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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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




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Sex At The Margins of Surprising Europe was the title given to an interesting piece mentioning my book from This is Africa last week. The occasion was a new episode of Al Jazeera‘s Surprising Europe series entitled Under Pressure, on the experiences of African migrants who sell drugs or sex in Europe.

I have to say I wish these money-making activities had not been separated off from others, reinforcing the stigma about them. In a different episode I watched from the series, a woman living in Holland without money to pay rent is told to go to the red-light district and work. She says she would rather die than do that – which fair enough – and so she had a different kind of very hard time. I could also have done without one typically moralistic condemnation of prostitution as not the way for Africans to get ahead – when the programme actually contradicts her from a practical standpoint – but in general I enjoyed and recommend Under Pressure.

I often say that the so-called illegality of sex jobs is a moot point when workers have no right to be where they are in the first place: you are already breaking the law so why not earn more money while you are at it? Sex At The Margins of Surprising Europe says

Imagine trying to survive without the permission to do any kind of work. You’ve got to eat, which isn’t free, and you’ve got to sleep somewhere, so you need money for this, too. What would you do? This is the problem faced by undocumented African immigrants in Europe. There are only so many cash-in-hand positions for cleaners, fruit-pickers and building-site workers, so many find themselves having to turn to the more ‘illegal’ professions, such as prostitution or selling drugs. Your existence in the country is already seen as ‘illegal’, so what difference does it make?

On the topic of Sex at the Margins (the book) and selling sex they say

The women also possess agency, the capacity to make their own choices, even if these choices undermine the picture of the world that others choose to hold. The remittances, however, can make a huge difference back home, not just for the immediate family but for an entire community.

In this photo, migrant Africans in Italy can be seen possessing agency with Don Benzi, who spent his life trying to convince them to leave prostitution but only succeeded with some. One reason has to do with those remittances. It’s rarely acknowledged, but sex work is undoubtedly responsible for a large proportion of money sent back home, given the fact that it pays so much better than other jobs available to migrants. Read Contributing to Development: Money Made Selling Sex.

Here is the trailer for Under Pressure. Enjoy how it focuses on life for undocumented Africans not from the point of view of horrified or angry white people but from Africans themselves.

See the whole episode and others at Al Jazeera’s Surprising Europe website.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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What is gained by using the one word, trafficking, to describe a wide variety of social phenomena? Campaigners will say that they want to show that everything they have decided is an improper way for women to live or get by must be named and shamed as violence (whether people went along with or initiatied the activities or not, as we know). So we have seen how surrogate motherhood, sex tourism by lgbt people and marriage broking are all glossed as trafficking, with relationships reduced to exploiter and victim. In the article I’m considering here, several kinds of instrumentally motivated marriages are all called trafficking, and I see no benefit in it at all.

When I hear about a phenomenon, I want the details of how it works: who does what and how those involved talk about what they are doing. If some so-called authority with an ngo and an agenda simply tells me here’s another bad thing to condemn and outlaw, give us more support so we can get rid of it I automatically wonder what else is going on. I am not sure the authority-figure is lying, no. But I see the moralising and the personal agenda and want to hear from others, too.

This article uses several terms without defining them (seasonal, transactional and temporary marriages) and also contradicts itself. It is instructive to go through the sequence of ideas; my comments are interspersed:

A summer industry: Egyptian brides for Gulf visitors (24 July 2011, Al-Masry Al-Youm)

As Egypt enters the peak of summer, there is a shadow economy that few dare to discuss: “Seasonal” or “transactional” marriages between Egyptian women and wealthy men from Arab Gulf countries.

Journalism 101 teaches that you need to define such key concepts right away. Do you imagine their meanings are obvious? On the contrary, transactional is associated with a sex-money exchange usually contrasted with marriage. Unless you are alluding to this Christian sort of idea about wives thinking they have to have sex with husbands as part of the contract. And what do you mean by seasonal? Do you just mean summertime?

These marriages, which often involve women below the legal age of 18, are temporary and illegal marriage contracts and one of the most common forms of human trafficking in Egypt. Transactional marriages are considered a form of human trafficking because women are recruited and sold for the purpose of sexual exploitation internally or across borders.

Okay. But

The practice may not necessarily be associated with force, fraud or coercion.

So then in those cases, trafficking isn’t the right word – correct? Read the rest of this entry »


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AP Photo/Anthony Devlin

Have media reports caused people to believe that there are countless trafficking victims wandering around looking for places to be sheltered? Or if it is potential victims of trafficking they want to help, do people think they will be easy to identify and want to live in a shelter? Have things come to this? No organisation or church is mentioned in relation to the people described in the below story, who presumably moved to Lesotho. Where is the money coming from? Have they friends in Lesotho? What will their migration status be there? I hope this project is less naive than it sounds in this report. The desire to ‘make a difference’ is nice, it’s how to be helpful that is so complicated. Neocolonialism doesn’t begin to explain this story. Although, in searching for photos, I found lots of non-Lesotho folk holding children and of Prince Harry playing with them.

South Texans Move To Africa To Stop Human Trafficking

28 December 2010, Spencer Lubitz, KZTV

Corpus Christi – Tears filled the Corpus Christi Airport Tuesday evening, as family and friends gathered at the airport to bid farewell to a group of local residents moving to South Africa to combat human trafficking. “I just can’t believe it’s finally here,” said Sonya Martinez, the group leader. Excitement exuded from those about to take the 10,000 mile journey to Lesotho. “We’re so anxious and excited just to get on the plane,” said Charles Martinez. “Just to be in Lesotho, I can’t get my mind off of that. It’s exciting.”

The group will be housing and caring for the countless victims of the human trafficking industry, a multi-billion dollar business that revolves around buying and selling people as slaves.

“I am a little excited to go to Africa and help the people where help is needed,” said Maya Martinez, who, at age 13, will join her parents and become the youngest person to make the move. Sonya, who has visited the area in the past, said the children are in dire need of assistance. “They’re just very oppressed, and they’re very unfortunate, and they’re in need. They’re in danger,” said Sonya.

The society’s oppressive nature isn’t enough to deter Sonya’s husband Charles from counting down the days. “I will kiss the ground when I get there, and take a very long nap,” he said. “I’ve been so excited; I haven’t been able to sleep very well.”

This group is just the first wave. Next year, they will be joined by a second group of South Texans who will follow them in making the journey to Southern Africa. Their work will already be cut out for them once they arrive, but they say South Africa is only the first stop, and it’s due to end right back here at home.

“Corpus represents freedom to me,” Sonya said. “I’m just looking forward to going to many different places, but starting with South Africa to help make that dream a reality in other places as well.” In two years, the group will return to establish a similar care center in South Texas. “I am from South Texas, I was born and raised in South Texas,” Sonya said, on the importance of returning to build a local facility. They say they hope to come back with the knowledge to make changes in our own community. “Hopefully make a difference,” Charles said. “That’s all we want to do, is make a difference.” With their suitcase filled with wishes and dreams, they were gone.


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The faith in technology is touching. Not that they shouldn’t try, not that there are not bad people abusing the absence of technology. But without understanding why people want to get out of Nigeria, why they want to go abroad to work, and send money back, and see the world and be able to come back and then leave again, this technology will be a very partial solution. And that’s after they get it all working correctly; anyone stuck in a rich country’s border-control queue when a new machine fails knows about that. As quickly as the state installs clever new machinery for detecting fraud, fraudulent-document producers come up with a way around it. Which is what migrants look for in entrepreneurs (here called middlemen) who will smuggle them out of one country and into another.

However, let’s say these machines do present significant obstacles to people wanting to get on airplanes. In that case, arrangements to leave via the wide-open other borders will become more popular, getting rides to other places, other airports. To prevent that, Nigeria is going to build fences with check-points: just like in the olden days, just like on the US and Israeli and Melillan borders, where surveillance would have to be 100% efficient (and 100% non-corrupt) to prevent everyone who wants to make a hole in or dig under the fence or wall. Not to mention Nigeria’s sea border.

Immigration installs IT equipment to check human trafficking

28 February 2011, Vanguard

Abuja -The Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) has installed Document Fraud Readers, scanners and other passenger registration equipment at the various international airports to check human trafficking. NIS Comptroller-General, Mrs Rose Uzoma, on Sunday in Abuja, said that the equipment would also check movement of people in and out of the country.

At the international airports, we have taken necessary steps to install IT equipment, the Document Fraud Readers and the Scanners. We have installed the Passenger Registration Equipment that enables us take stock of whoever is leaving or coming into this country. I could tell when last and if you have ever travelled through our international airports in the recent times, I will tell you the time and hour and the immigration officer that cleared you. The facilities we have had enabled us to a very great extent to be able to ensure that people don’t travel with forged documents.

Uzoma said that the era when people used their relatives’ passports to travel was over as the immigration service had installed machines that could identify every individual and detect look-alike photographs on passports. She noted that officers had been trained and sensitised to be able to tackle the challenges of human trafficking to help to reduce the bad image it had given the country. Uzoma said that the service had been collaborating with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to tackle the menace of human trafficking. She said that the NIS had also established human trafficking units at its areas of operations in the states and at its headquarters in Abuja as a complement to the efforts of NAPTIP.

If anyone has travelled and sees the peril under which our sisters operate, nobody will wish it on his or her worst enemy. So our officers are living up to their responsibilities.

The immigration service boss said that the absence of notable physical structures on Nigeria’s borders in many places was a challenge as it was difficult to identify the border route in many instances.

If you have had the opportunity of travelling through any of the borders in the northern part of the country, you can see how extensive and expansive they are and many of them don’t even have what could pass as international border control structure.

Uzoma said that the service would soon put in place passport control plazas and necessary structures to enable officers to effectively patrol all the border areas. She added that trans-border criminality also remained an ongoing battle between the law enforcement agencies and criminals. She added also that the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) has issued about three million electronic passports to Nigerians between 2007, when the new passport was introduced, and February 2011.

I know we have issued a little less than three million electronic passports from 2007 to date. As we speak we are also giving permits to foreigners. Recently we have started registration of Africans and ECOWAS nationals. We didn’t have their data, but they are also foreigners. We had to borrow the equipment from INEC that they used in the previous voter registration; re-programmed them and we gave them to all our local government area officers for them to take biometric data of all those Africans in our midst. At the last count we had about 400,000 non-Africans residing legally in Nigeria.

The NIS Comptroller-General said that one of the major challenges confronting the service was the attitude of some Nigerians as regards the p