On Black Sisters’ Street has been on my hit list for over three years now. It is one of those books that caught my eye immediately but kept getting bumped for academic or work related reading. There is something near hypnotic about the naked black back on the cover. The smoothness and sheen of the skin is picture-perfect, tempting you to explore the depths of the book. If this cover image is a metaphor for the theme of prostitution in the narrative, then it works superbly. On a surface level, an ode is being paid to the beauty of Nigerian skin; a beauty that makes our women high prized commodity in the international sex trafficking game – a blessing and a curse. It can also be seen as homage to the age old adage: “all the glitters is not gold” - because the protagonists of this narrative seek ‘abroad’ as a way to fix life’s inadequacies, only to find that their dream comes with dire strings.
Chika Unigwe’s approach of enlisting four protagonists – Sisi, Joyce, Ama and Efe - enabled her to break the construct of the single sex-worker narrative. On Black Sisters’ Street portrays the decision to go into sex work as stemming from more than naiveté and trickery. Nigeria as an economy failing its graduates, women and families creates conditions that allow for a man like Dele to flourish selling the bodies of women not protected by a wealthy home or progressive career prospects. The respect Dele garners simply for being a “big man” is well captured in this narrative. Unigwe also touches on the flexibility of religious beliefs and morality in Nigerian society. This is done through the highlighting of people’s acceptance of amorality providing it has a successful outcome – of which, in this case, success is measured in monetary gain.
What Is In A Name?
One thing the four-protagonist approach allows Unigwe achieve is a discussion around the import of names. For two – Sisi and Joyce - of the four protagonists, the name given at birth is not the name that is used upon entering their profession. Even then, both women adopt new names for vastly differing reasons. Sisi’s (a nickname meaning sister) choice of name proves ironic as the women come to realise how little they know about her. She falls into the cliché psyche of using a new name to key into a false reality. Her hope is misguidedly that by shedding her traditional name, she can better assimilate to her new job - one far from the prospects she had upon completing her Undergraduate degree.
Joyce on the other hand leaves her traditional name behind in the flat where her family is brutally murdered. This interjection in the narrative, exploring war crimes and refugees whilst unexpected, elevates On Black Sisters’ Street from a Nigerian narrative about sex work to an exploration of the brutality of womanhood in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. As the protagonists are all of African descent, name change as a way to aid assimilation with their new European home would not be shocking: it is in fact expected. Unigwe however, keys us into the realisation that for a European market the exoticism of an African name pays sex workers. It is interesting to see names we take for granted being idolised even if it is by sleazy men keying into sexual fantasies.
‘It Is Not The Blood That Binds Us In The End’
A great deal of the narrative takes place in a room on the wrong side of Brussels as three women bound by their profession are forced to confront the fact that they are strangers living under one roof. They are in unknown territory here, having always had a relationship which skimmed the surface like milk. This meeting is brought about by tragedy; the death of one of their own forces them to pull back the curtains between their past and present and redefine the relationships they have with one another. The one thing all their stories have in common is that they are all survivors of rape; Belief that sexual assault victims are prime candidates for sex work is reaffirmed in this narrative. Ironically, the only one who entered the trade without a history of sexual assault is Sisi, and perhaps it is her lack of disillusionment with sex that informs the choices she makes prior to her demise. For the three surviving women, sex becomes a power tool and love plays no part in what happens between the sheets.
By toggling between the past and present, the women are stripped bare in a manner more personal than physical nakedness and ultimately create what we are to believe is a life-long bond. Efe’s story which looks at the power of religion to serve as a cover for abuse, is a raw and honest depiction of the dangers of “Nigerian Christianity”. With the number of churches now averaging about two per street just in Lagos State – an estimation being made solely on the basis of personal observation - Nigeria’s 'religiousness' is becoming a money making endeavour. Religious leaders and officials gain respect based off their title, and this respect is so warped that it impinges upon the freedom to critique them should they be in the wrong. This means that, potentially, under positions still predominantly held by men in Nigeria, atrocities are going on unchecked.
The World Is My Oysta
The promise of autonomy that informs the women’s decision to go into sex work is so string attached it boggles the mind. Apart from being illegally in the country, the women have no hold of their passports and are 30,000 Euros in debt to Dele who arranges their trip into Brussels. No repayment is not an option - a fact Dele knows given the lack of opportunities for the women back in Nigeria. The need to survive their origin stories coupled with the bleak reality of financial prospects in Nigeria forces these women into near servitude for a man who lives lavishly off their labour.
For many sex workers, the money owed to their benefactor limits their ability to save and keeps them in the trade far longer than desired. This increases the risk of arrest and death. The high odds of never getting out of the trade is perhaps why, Unigwe’s tidy ending did not sit well with me. We are given glimpses into the surviving protagonists futures: futures which see them escaping the profession that binds them. Whilst this should be a cause for celebration, it seems - given the odds of this profession, unrealistic to see a three-quarter survival rate where none of the women become victims of drugs or deportation.
Apart from the overly optimistic references to the futures of the women, Chika Unigwe provides a compelling angle one being a Nigerian woman – specifically as pertains to poverty and the desperation for a “better” future. Her exploration of tribalism, culture, family, love and loss provides a wonderful array of positions to explore how the sex trade is able to thrive. These women have their stories told in a manner that elevates them from the blasé umbrella of victims. It is not so much that we can relate to their stories, it is simply that we can see them.