A must read story: 21st century slaves (3)

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Nkechi is capable of “love” in any kind of weather. Come rain or shine, in intense heat or cloudburst, she hitches up her skirt by the hem for random male clients “to penetrate,” by the roadside.

“Sometimes, I take men in abandoned buildings and in deserted market stalls,” she said. For the 20-year-old, it’s the practical thing to do since the government shut down brothels and bars in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

“I do female customers and couples too, sometimes. In this business, I can do anything as long as the price is right,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Couples pay good money. In the last week of February, I collected CFA65, 000 servicing an old customer and his wife, from 1:00 am till daybreak. They even gave me breakfast before I left. Some of these people are crazy but na money I find come here,” she said.

But how did she get here? What’s her backstory? Her eyes, weary and gaunt, darkened like two open graves, at the mention of her backstory. She said, “My father was a carpenter and my mother was a trader. I lost them both in a road accident in January 2017.”

Soon after their demise, precisely July 2017, Nkechi was taken from her home in Ebonyi to Lagos by her late mom’s cousin, Aunt Clara, who promised to send her to school. But rather than send her to school, Aunt Clara apprenticed her to a hairdresser in Shomolu, Lagos.

“I thought I was there to learn hairdressing but my madam, her name is Christy; she made me prostitute with six others. I was 16 and I was staying with her with six other girls in her three-bedroom apartment. We would be eight but two of us came and left at will. I heard they were travelling out. I didn’t bother to ask where. The lust to travel out to Europe gripped me like a fever. I became very eager to enjoy their fate as our madam persistently bragged about them. She said they were sharp girls and would do well in life.

“Three months after I joined Madam Christy, she acknowledged that she never knew I would become a hard worker. She said she had been thinking of selling me off to some brothel because I proved difficult and a great loss to her. That was when I knew my aunt actually sold me off to her at N120, 000. Madam Christy said a brothel in Unity Estate, Ikeja, had agreed to purchase me at N250,000 but she had decided against selling me because I made N200, 000 for her in that month. So she kept me,” said Nkechi.

Just before she turned 16, Nkechi got to live her dream as her madam paid her fare to hustle internationally. “She said I would be going to Italy but through Burkina Faso. I spent two months in Ouagadougou and moved here (Abidjan). I was supposed to travel in September, last year (2019) but I had issues with travel documents and Madam Christy said I should wait till this year. But I later found out that she had no plans to send me to Italy. One of her friends, who is also a madam here, told me because we are from the same town and she likes me. I asked her to buy me from Madam Christy but she refused to sell me,” said Nkechi, adding that she couldn’t run away because she was bound by blood oath to her madam.

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“It never ends well for girls who run away. They run mad and suffer hot death,” she said.

Nkechi is, however, determined to make it to Europe. I don’t care. Europe na Europe, whether Spain, Greece, Italy or France, I will go anywhere. I have no parents and my trusted aunt sold me off into slavery. Na the price tire me. How could she value me at N120, 000? Right now, I owe my madam N2.8 million. She claims it’s money for my feeding, clothing, and medicals since she bought me. I have paid N1.7 million so far. I intended to pay off my debt by January next year. If not for this COVID-19,” she said.

Sex for cash in the time of coronavirus

Nkechi was on the path to achieving her dream until tragedy struck in the form of the coronavirus aka COVID-19. Since the pandemic spilled to Cote d’Ivoire, she has suffered a loss of patronage by her active clients.

“But I still make house calls…Sometimes, I take customers quickly in a garage or uncompleted building any time of the day. I discovered that the police are always looking out for us at night,” she said.

Gloria, however, cut a different portrait hustling from her home in Yopougon. Until the outbreak of COVID-19 in Abidjan, the 26-year-old native of Ohaji, in Imo State, ran a thriving enterprise with her girlfriend and roommate, Esther.

Her words rippled around, unveiling her secret fears about what new miseries the dreaded virus may bring.

She said, “This coronavirus has ruined business for us. But I will survive. I have started to learn how to process and prepare acheke. I intend to start making and selling it as a side hustle.”

For her main hustle, Gloria prowls the streets at night for male customers, and makes house calls during the day. For those who can’t receive me at home, we go to the nearest hotel and have sex or wherever they feel comfortable to do it. I charge between CFA20, 000 to CFA25, 000 from night till dawn. I charge between CFA10, 000 to CFA15, 000 for ‘short time’ sessions,” she said.

Gloria attended Community Primary School, Ohaji, and Owerri Girls Secondary School in Owerri, Imo State. She dropped out of secondary school in 2015 after her father died. Life became hard on Gloria and her family until January 1, 2020 when she met her childhood friend, Angel.

“She (Angel) came for her mother’s burial in Owerri. After the burial, I saw her and talked to her that I needed help. I asked her about her work here and she said she was doing fine. She said she was into buying and selling. She said she sold provisions and ‘services’ to people and that they paid her handsomely. I urged her to take me back with her to Abidjan, and she agreed. We arrived in Abidjan in January and she told me that I owed her CFA50, 000 for my transport fare to Abidjan. I said ‘no problem.’ It took us two days to get to Abidjan by road,” said Gloria.

On her first night in Abidjan, Angel asked Gloria to accompany her out very late in the night. “She told me to follow her to hustle. I asked what she meant by that. I told her provisions are sold during the day and not at night. She insisted but I told her that I was too tired from the road trip; hence, she dressed up and went out. She returned very early in the morning. Gloria couldn’t be bothered; she was too exhausted. The following day, however, Angel told her to dress up and join her on the streets.

“I asked her what we were going out to do at night and she told me that we were going out to hustle,” she said.

Looking askance, Gloria sought further clarification from Angel and the latter repeated, “I said we are going out to hustle. Dress up. You are not a small girl. Answer me.”

Angel told Gloria she ought to understand what was about to happen. “After she explained to me, I told her I couldn’t do it. Then she told me that if I couldn’t do it, I should move out of her house. She said I owed her CFA 50, 000 for my transport fare to Abidjan, and that I must hustle and refund her money. I refused to do her bidding and she threw me out of the house at midnight; I couldn’t beg her. My pride and anger couldn’t let me beg her.”

Gloria got robbed that night. “The robbers took my phone and threatened to kill me. When they realised I had no other valuable, they left,” she said.

Eventually, she met a Nigerian man that night while she loitered the streets of Abidjan, in tears. “He asked me what was wrong and that why was I outside with my luggage at that time of the night? I shared my travails with him and he offered to link me up with his sister. He took me to her in Yopougon.

To her chagrin, the man’s sister, Esther, also “hustled” but unlike Gloria’s childhood friend, she didn’t force her to join the commercial sex work.

After staying one month, free-boarding in her hostess’s house, Gloria couldn’t bear to live “like a parasite” anymore. “I had to join her and hustle. I had been staying for free in her house and eating her food. It didn’t feel right to me. I had to contribute my own quota,” said Gloria, adding that she started exchanging sex for money in February, one month after her arrival in Abidjan.

Back home, her family believed she was doing fine until she revealed to her mom what Angel did to her. “My mother was angry. She threatened to confront Angel’s people and register her displeasure but I advised her against that because the whole thing could become really messy and scandalous. Her late mother was my mother’s friend and they were both church elders. It would be a great shame on our families if people knew what happened,” she said.

Gloria could not summon the nerve to reveal to her mother that she had finally yielded to the lure of prostitution. “She doesn’t know the work I am doing but my brother knows. I have explained everything to him,” she said.

Several kilometres from Gloria’s base, Franca pulls daring tricks with her side-kick, Vivian. According to the duo, Franca, 17, serves as bait, while 18-year-old Vivian reels in their catches for the night.

The natives of Agbor, Delta State, and Enugu respectively, travel from their base in Port Bouet every night, into the heart of Abidjan, to search for customers. So doing, they prowl the streets of Treichville, Atteccoube, Abobo, Yopougon, Markory, and Cocody among others.

In an encounter with the duo, they offered a threesome encounter at CFA42, 000 – split CFA21, 000 per girl. Further findings revealed that asides working the streets as partners, Franca, for all her sass, answers to Vivian, who plays the role of a madame of sort to her “friend and partner.”

Franca is barely four months old in Abidjan although Vivian arrived several months earlier. “We came here to work,” said Vivian and corroborating her, Franca, said, “This place na hustle ground.”

Journey to the ‘hustle grounds’

Border police receive money from traffickers and turn a blind eye as they smuggle girls out of the country without any questioning. Both Nkechi and Gloria, for instance, admitted that their traffickers paid immigration officers and border police at the various land borders as they were being taken outside the country.

Nigeria suffers from significant corruption and governance problems. It ranked 144 out of 180 countries in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, which ranks countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. According to a 2017 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “The vast majority of bribery episodes in Nigeria are initiated either directly or indirectly by public officials and almost 70 per cent of bribes are paid before a service is rendered.”

Law enforcement and the judiciary are areas of particular concern, according to the study, which also says that roughly N400 billion(approximately $1.1 billion) is spent on bribes each year, and that Nigerians consider bribery the third most important problem facing their country.

The 2018 US TIP Report chapter on Nigeria notes, “Widespread and pervasive corruption affected all levels of government and the security forces and undermined accountability for trafficking offenses.”

The 2019 report said there were “continued reports of, and only insufficient efforts to address, government officials’ complicity in human trafficking offences.”

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The common route for most of the girls is through Lagos. Some of them work a bit in Lagos before saving up to foot their transport fare through West Africa’s road corridor. Some girls, including Gloria and Nkechi, however, enjoy the assistance of a sponsor. As citizens of ECOWAS member states they are allowed to cross borders without a passport and to stay legally in any other member country for 90 days. However, few migrants heading north towards Europe seem to experience crossing from one West African country as a major problem. When they cross to Algeria and Morocco, they are likely to be in contravention of the law, since a visa or other valid documents may be required. This greatly increases the motivation of migrants to approach professional smugglers or others with a sustained interest in criminal activity at the point when they cross from the ECOWAS zone into North Africa. Since this transition involves an element of illegality, it also greatly increases the profits to be made by criminal entrepreneurs.

Ritual oaths ceremonies

The women and girls are often forced to undergo a voodoo oath-swearing ritual that commits them to repay the money they owe to their smugglers on pain of death or insanity. “The juju, the voodoo rite, it’s not a bad practice. It was used to bring justice, but they ruined everything,” said Isoke Aikpitanyi, a former victim of trafficking in anger. “They don’t care how they make their money as far as they make it. They use Juju to enslave.”

Madams are the key, she explained, stressing that they force girls into prostitution and ask for money to repay the debt. They work with “brothers,” men who are in charge of physically trafficking the “babies,” as girls forced into prostitution are called.

According to the Nigerian National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP), about 90 percent of girls that are being trafficked to abroad are taken to shrines to take “oaths of secrecy.”

The oaths are taken in ceremonies that include body parts from the person on whom the oath is being administered, as well as from one of her relatives, usually her mother or sister. The use of body parts such as fingernails, blood, sweat, teeth and pubic hairs in the care of the voodoo priest creates a sense of fear and an unwillingness to speak out.

Consequences of breaking the oaths

The inobservance of the pact can “anger the gods” and “jeopardise the victim’s life.” The girls are strongly persuaded that terrible things such as illness, death and madness will befall them and their families if they don´t repay the debt. According to a victim, “those who do not respect the pact will eventually die gruesomely after living a wretched life.”

All the misfortunes or problems that may happen to the victim after breaking the ritual oath will be linked to this rupture. Sometimes, the trafficked girls may even think that voodoo magic has impregnated them as a form of punishment for breaking their pact with the traffickers. Victims usually believe they deserve these consequences because they broke the ritual oath. This reinforces other victims’ belief in the power of the oaths, as they witness how the rupture has caused misfortune to their peers who defaulted.

The fear of breaking the pact is so strong that traffickers usually do not even have to closely monitor the women. Some operators confirm that in contrast with other sex trafficking victims, African women enjoy considerable freedom unlike their peers from other regions of the world who are subjected to extreme violence and abuse by their traffickers. Nevertheless, physical threats and violence against the victims and their families is also a reality of these networks, as well as the confiscation of documents, money, and the lack of independence. Coercion only begins when the victims seek to escape the pact by breaking their oath, and not at the time when the oath is sworn. This is the moment when the women begin using the word “voodoo” as synonymous with black magic and spiritual entrapment.

To the grave

A Nigerian diplomatic staff in Abidjan lamented the influx of girls into the city, claiming many of them were misled. “I have worked with some of those girls, even when you try to rescue some of them, you become their enemy,” she said.

Asides increasing awareness about the dangers of irregular migration, she urged the government to enhance the oversight of law enforcement agencies. According to her, law enforcement agencies play a key role in irregular migration either by curbing irregular flows or by letting them through.

“Some immigration officers receive bribe from smugglers and irregular migrants and let them through. This is wrong. We must work with Interpol and other nations affected by the activities of human traffickers to curtail the evil trade in humans,” she said.

A few years ago, a Nigerian girl, Queen Ebimaho, was murdered in Abidjan. On August 24, 2013, Ebimaho, 24, was found dead inside her room in a brothel in Ajame, Abidjan.

Eyewitnesses said the body of the girl, who arrived in Abidjan about two months before her demise, had a series of punctures. She was allegedly brought into the country by a Nigerian woman.

Although the Consular Department in the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan was detailed to work with the Ivorian security agencies to ensure that those behind the murder were unravelled, nobody has been arrested for the girl’s murder till date.

Ebimaho’s death, predictably, left many Nigerians in Ajame in fear as many described her fate as terrible.

Like Nkechi, Gloria, Franca and company, Ebimaho probably never regarded herself as a prostitute, but a hustler. She probably lived in cabins partitioned into rooms without a fan and proper sanitation. She probably toured the shanties and highways of West Africa, like Nkechi, offering sexual gratification to under-age boys and ubiquitous criminals called vagabonds, and gang lords on bug-infested mattresses at ridiculous rates and threat to her life.

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It’s seven years since Ebimaho’s heart-rending demise and many more under-age girls, unemployed graduates and fortune hunters are trooping to Abidjan, Bamako, Ouagadougou and other West African cities in a daze spurred by prospects and attractions of the good life promised by the next “Good Samaritan” and ever generous “Madam Christy.” They will complain of crippling poverty, joblessness and persecution as their reasons for braving West Africa’s perilous road corridors in search of a better life.

Like their predecessors, they will watch their dreams disappear into thin air, while they toil, hopeless and stranded, far from home and saddled with debts that will take years to repay. But the lure will survive in captivating accounts of unbounded bliss and greener pasture promised by the fabled sidewalks of Europe, where the girls who made it out of West Africa, continue to loiter, ravaged and half-naked.

Like Ebimaho, their ends may be predictable!

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