Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage

That Nigeria is a failed state is no longer in question.  However, a major consequence of that is the organized exodus of Nigerian girls and women to Western Europe, where they are promised exciting jobs but end up trapped in brothels run by their own nationals - Nigerian “Madams”.

"Black Sisters' Street" by Chika Unigwe is a fictional account of four such women - Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce - each of whom left Nigeria for Belgium, with dreams of a better tomorrow, only to find themselves working as prostitutes in the red light district of Antwerp, or "Black Sisters' Street" named for the inordinately large number of African woman that work the street.  To tell you that none of the four went to Belgium voluntarily or that they didn't expect to be prostitutes would be to mislead the reader...however...what makes one angry is the fact that these girls felt it necessary to leave their homes, parents (in some cases, children) and enter this sordid industry only because they could barely make ends meet in their home country.  It is sad these girls had to take up a job that stripped them of all self-respect just so that they could be respected back home in Nigeria.

The character sketches of the four girls are detailed and intimate and yet, at the end of the book, none of them feels like a 'best friend', for despite the tiny details - how they dressed, their family lives, their thoughts, dreams and so on - one really doesn't get to "know" them well. For that matter, even though the girls live togther, they are strangers even to each other until one tragic event brings them together.

Unigwe's prose is clear and calm - although some terrible things take place in the book, the reader doesn't feel weighed down by it.  Unigwe is also skilled at introducing into the narrative issues that are typical to Nigerian society like polygamy,sexism, belief in superstitions, tribal divisions and so on, using just a single reference or a passing comment, leaving the reader with a fleeting but precious sort of cultural snapshot.

I also love her descriptions of Nigeria - from the chewing-gum pink walls of the sitting room in Ama's house (and yes, I know they have them, I've seen them in just about every Nigerian house in a Nollywood movie!) to the streets of Lagos in Joyce's story- her writing with its rich detail, truly entertains and informs.

"Lagos streets were rutted,gutted and near impassable,yet they were jam-packed with cars: huge air-conditioned jeeps driving tail to tail with disintigrating jalopies whose fault exhaust pipes sentout clods of dark smoke making the air so thick with pollution that a constant mist hung over the city and the bit of sky that one could see was sullied with dirt."


We get to know some of the girls better than the others.  The story mostly revolves around Sisi, a college graduate who was unable to find a job in Nigeria because she didn't have the right "connections", however, it is Joyce's story that moved me the most, perhaps because it was the saddest and also, of the four girls, she was the only one tricked into going to Antwerp.   To tell you more would be to give much of the story away and I certainly don't want to do that. 

When Chika Unigwe was asked why she wanted to write about Nigerian prosititutes in Antwerp, she had this to say:

Curiosity. The first time I saw the girls in lingerie behind their windows, I was stunned.  Coming from Nigeria where prostitution is very much underground, it was a cultural shock on a massive scale. I had never seen anything like it before. Then when I was told that a great majority of the African prostitutes in Antwerp were Nigerian girls from Benin City, I knew I had to write about it. The statistics are mind boggling. There is a new crop of middle class families cropping up in Benin City, mostly headed by women whose daughters are in Europe

I'm so glad she did (write about it), the novel does much to make us pay attention to that society that we do everything to ignore, also, it was interesting to see Europe - the destination for so many people's hopes and dreams - through the eyes of these four Nigerian girls. I appreciated that while Unigwe reveals to us that three of the girls did indeed travel to Antwerp while fully aware of what the job entailed, the background stories ensure we don't blame them...it's easy to see how girls like Ama, Sisi and Ete are pressured into taking up these jobs, if anything. it makes you angry at a society that sits back and allows these girls to sacrifice their bodies in order to put meals on the table.

Lastly, but not importantly, I noticed a few digs against Ghanaians in the book...would someone be able to tell me if there is friendly rivalry between the citizens of these two countries?

"Ama spied two Ghanaian guests going back for a second helping rice and smirked to Sisi that surely, surely Nigerians cooked better, made tastier fried rice than Ghanaians.  (People who threw whole tomatoes in sauces couldn't really cook, could they?) And both women agreed that Ghanaians were just wannabe Nigerians."



 An award-winning short story writer, Chika Unigwe, 34, was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and now lives in Belgium with her husband and four children.

37 comments:

Leela Soma said...

Hi Angie,

Had a quick read of your superb review of this book. I've seen a documentary about this subject before which was very disturbing. Young vulnerable girls in any country getting into the 'oldest profession' in the world is not surprising, but you've highlighted the fact that the girls knew what they were letting themselves in for.My heart bleeds for young girls forced, ensnared or lured into this job for life.

I like your quotes from the book and it is intriguing about Ghana and Nigeria. An oil rich country like Nigeria has squandered the wealth of its country and let down the citizens so badly.

Thanks for bringing the young writer to our notice. I am in a hurry, as always too much to do.See ya!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

No matter what one's background is I don't have any respect whatsoever for anyone who decides that the ONLY way out of poverty is prostitution. There are people who have tried to make it in the system no matter how difficult it is. Most people just want to leave their countries only because they want to be labelled as people who have travelled. And what I detest is when they say we were tricked into prostitution. It's just funny.

About the Nigerian-Ghanaian rivalry, don't mind Nigerians. They want to feel superior to us. lol. Personally, I can't even swallow any Nigerian food. It's like that. We are like brothers (Nigeria and Ghana)... Rivalry in everything we do including sports but a friendly one. Though I met one Nigerian in Ghana who was so haughty that when I read his travelogue about Ghana I felt like vomiting. But there are always people like that and they are few. Even the name Ama in the books sounds Ghanaian. In Ghana some born on Saturday is called Ama.

apu said...

Had no idea about this, Lotus. Whether or not the women were tricked into it, the fact remains that most women take up such jobs out of desperation. To give up autonomy over one's body is a sad thing to do and few women will do it willingly - no matter what slant people put on it, like your commentor above who seems to think that people leave their countries just because they want a label as travellers. Surely among the most ridiculous things I've heard about people who undertake such work to support their families.

I think enough studies have been done on the subject to show what drives women to prostitution.

The only Nigerian writer I've read is Chimamanda Adichie whose Half of a yellow sun is a very good read, IMO.

apu said...

Also, I have to say - I don't particularly like the cover; it seems voyeuristic - the nakedness of the woman does not give us an insight into her condition or her state of mind. Surely they could have thought of something less obvious and more meaningful.

Sanjay said...

Lotus, what Apu said. And loved reading your review.
As always well done.
The cover is designed to tittilate, alas a common marketing ploy these days.
Not sure if anyone touched upon this, and not that it makes it better, but if this is legalized prostitution, does it not provide some protection in what is a profession thy exploits women?
Regardless of what one says trafficking in women is a serious issue, even if some of these women appeared to have gone in to it by choice.
Enjoyed the the bit about Nigeria and Ghana.
Although did not find particularly interesting the description of the traffic conditions. Sounds it could have been anywhere and like it has been done before. But that is just me.
Other than raising awareness, what does this book say? Did the author say something more or did the books convey something to you?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Leela! I know you're busy and that's why I'm doubly appreciative that you took time to visit and comment. My next book was going to be Sonia Faleiro's "Beautiful Things' but since it deals with a similar theme (bar girls in Bombay),I'm going to have to pick up something else.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Nana! Yes, I have to be honest and tell you that I didn't exactly know how to feel when I discovered that these girls entered prostitution of their own volition (so accustomed are we to reading that it was "forced" upon them). Not just that, but at the end of the book the reader feels empathy for them. It is a testament to the author's writing that she is able to pull that off, don't you think?

Ahhh, friendly rivalry...I thought so! I also get the feeling (and this is from other books and articles that I have read) that the Nigerians consider themselves superior to all the other West-African nations -perhaps it has something to do with their size?

Lotus Reads said...

hi Apu! Lovely to see you here, was thinking of you only the other day and wondering how the move went.

Yes, most times girls will sell themselves because if they didn't their families wouldn't be able to eat. Not all do it because they are staring destitution in the face though. There are a couple of girls in the book who chose to go to Antwerp to make "better lives" for themselves. They weren't starving but they thought a better, bigger house for their families; new shoes and clothes for themselves would bring them respect. Women choose prostitution for a variety of different reasons...it's so much more complicated than we think.

About the cover...I guess they wanted something provocative? Something that would make people look at it twice? I wonder how much of a say writers get in choosing covers for their books.

I'm going to write to the author now and ask her! If she responds, I'll let you know Apu!

Sanjay said...

Lotus, interesting what your next read was going to be. Technically thought aren't bar girls not prostitutes?
I know prostitution is not legal in India so may be that is a cover? Just wondered.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanj, good to have you here! Prostitution in legal in Belgium but the girls had no protection because they were there illegally! As soon as they arrive their passports are taken from them and they are not allowed to leave the country until they have paid back the bond money to their agent (although he is more of a pimp) in Nigeria. The girls can't go to the police because, like I said, they are there illegaly and would thrown into jail.

yes, you're so right about the Lagos scene..it could have been Bombay eh? There were others too, but they were so long I didn't dare type them here!

Aside from raising awareness I would say that the girls' impressions of Antwerp (read West) and how different it was from what they had imagined were quite revealing. And at the risk of sounding highly repetitive, I really did enjoy it everytime the stories switched back to Nigeria -the descriptions,the pidgin English, the drama -all conspired to make me feel like I was reading something by Uwem Akpan.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey again Sanj - With regard to "bar girls" in India I think some are and some aren't! I've always thought "dancing girl" was a euphemism for prostitute, but I could be so wrong!

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, What an interesting review! Loved the bits of information about Nigeria and Ghana. Prostitution stories are never scarce in the literature world and I always find it painful reading their heartbreaking stories. This might be another good book to save for a future read.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Hi, Angelique. Very enticing cover Chika Unigwe's book has and I have always been interested in Nigerian literature, with Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lola Shoneyin being among my favourites. BTW tell us more about this other book you have on your wishlist: Dipika Rai's 'Someone Else's Garden'. This one looks good too :-)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Chitts! Not sure what made me pick up this book. I think it might have been after the BBC reviewed it. They called it powerful and gritty and it was all that, but funnily enough, it was those parts set in Nigeria that really engaged me the most. I look forward to more work from this author.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Hans! I feel the same way about Nigerian Literature, especially Adichie and Uwam Akpan. Lola Shoneyin's novel made for great reading too, wish she would hurry and write another one! My friends tell me to try Helon Habila, I haven't read anything by him yet.

I started reading "Someone Else' Garden" and while it is a good book,set in rural India and tackles the class divide and how we prefer having sons over daughters, I am finding it very slow going. The writing is lovely but its detail wears it down. I'm not sure I have the patience to finish it although I would dearly love to.

china through my dutch eyes said...

Sounds like an interesting read! I have read a few Nigerian writers until now and I really should add some more. There's still so much to learn about the world around us!!
Thanks for sharing, I will add it to my way too long (and not enough time) TBR list.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Hi, Angelique. Thanks for the recommendations. I'll try to look for titles by Helon Habila. And yes, Dipika Rai's book may sound slow, but the stuff she's written about (rural India, class divide) is something I enjoy reading about. So maybe I'll give her book a try. And yes, you finish reading 'Someone Else's Garden' fast. I know you can do it. Best wishes always :-)

Violet said...

What a fabulous review of an important book. Sexual exploitation just seems to be getting worse, with more women forced into prostitution for one reason or another. I really want to read this, as I've not read anything on the subject from an African perspective. Thanks for bringing the book to my attention.

Lotus Reads said...

@China ~ Love your blog handle by the way! :) Tks for the comment...Nigerian literature is liberally peppered with proverbs, fables, beautiful social settings and where the characters are usually trying to affect social change. The writing is almost always colourful and so are the environs and the people. I don't claim to know a whole lot about Nigerian lit. but I know enough to suggest some good books for when you're ready to delve in! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Hans!!! I guess I'm just not in the frame of mind for a long book now. My mind is more on travel as the Spring Break is coming up. :) I'm inbetween titles now, not sure what I am going to pick up next!

Lotus Reads said...

You're more than welcome Violet. Yes, we don't often think about prostitutes,much less about girls who have left their homes under duress to work the streets. This book forces us to contemplate those lives that are not normally a part of our social framework.

Chinoiseries said...

I didn't know that there were so many Nigerian women prostituting themselves in Belgium. I find it incredible that there is a culture that not only condones but actually pressurizes women into prostitution, so they can feed their families back home. What about the men? How do they help in putting food on the table?
I just finished a book that touches on the topic of Eastern European being tricked into prostitution/slavery in the West.
On Black Sister's Street sounds like a very educating read, it will now go onto my tbr list.

farmlanebooks said...

I listened to this author speak at an event last year and she made the book sound very interesting. I had forgotten about, it so thanks for reminding me. I'm going to have to track down a copy now.

Sushil kumar said...

I will surely bookmark this. Great blog

Lotus Reads said...

@farmlanebooks ~ You are so welcome and I'm very jealous you got to hear Chika Unigwe read! Thank you so much for the visit, I'm thrilled to see you here!

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you Sushil Kumar!!!

cone crusher said...

I obtain someting from your blog.
Thanks Sushil Kumarl.

Katherine Jenkins said...

I don't know if you do blog awards, Lotus Reads. I haven't done them for awhile, but I received one recently and thought, "Heck, why not share some love!" So here's to you and your lovely blog and for sharing all these wonderful books with everyone! You can pick it up on my blog!

Lotus Reads said...

HI Katherine! How thoughtful of you to nominate me for this lovely award! I'm so excited about your book...cannot wait to read it!

Katherine Jenkins said...

Thanks Lotus Reads! I'll let you know when it comes out!

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy to discover this book through your blog! I live in Antwerp and part of my work is helping women in the red-light district step out of prostitution. The factors that lead to a life in prostitution are so numerous and complicated and they affect Nigerians as well as so many other women (and men) from around the world. I'm grateful to Chika Unigwe for bringing it to our attention in this book!

ashirwaad-holiday-apts-goa said...

Need to buy this book. Thanks for the review

Brasil said...

Great stuff here. .Oh, I love this one! I just stumbled across your blog and enjoy reading your blog is fabulous! Thank you for sharing your work, it's just informative! Nice one indeed.

Madeleine said...

I am presently reading this book, looks good, thank-you for the review which inspired me to buy it

jamesreegan said...

I think enough studies have been done on the subject to show what drives women to prostitution.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Lotus,

I live in Lagos.The book provides a god account of realities in this country well captured and narrated in style to keep the readers attention sharp.

Having lived and worked in Lagos for four years(with intermittend breaks though) I feel prostitution is a major institution in Nigeria also.This is a sexist society.Add greed and corruption at all levels with extreme inequality in wealth distribution and you have the perfect recipe for a mess of a society.Remember Nigeria is the world's fourth largest Oil producing country!

Back to the oldest trade,you will find swanky massage parlours with Chinese, Labanese,Moroccan,Syrian girls abundandly in Lagos catering to the local wealthy and expatriates! There is even a spa where you find Indian girls.They provide massage with happy endings and further more depending on how many dollars you can spare!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Anon, I'm always happy when readers offer insights into a book's subject matter like you did. Wish I had a way to contact you as there is so much more I would like to ask you about Nigeria. Sorry for publishing your comment in such a delayed fashion, blame it on my vacation! :)