On Black Sisters’ Street starts with this quote from Brian Chikwava’s Seventh Street Alchemy; “Armed with a vagina and the will to survive, she knew that destination would never lay claim to her.”
Written by Chika Unigwe and published in 2009, On Black Sisters’ Street tells the story of four ladies brought together by the same will to survive by selling their bodies in far away Antwerp, Belgium. So close yet so distant, each had their own past which they weren’t willing to share with the other until a death brings them closer than ever.
The story focuses more on Sisi, the only child of her family and a graduate of Business Administration from University of Lagos. Sisi was determined to have a better life than that of her parents. Coming from a poor family, it is no surprise that she became the hope of the family, the one who is to remove them from poverty upon getting a good job after graduation. However, this wasn’t the case as years after, no job seem to be out there for her. Then she met Dele, a man who specializes in recruiting young ladies to become sex workers for “Madam” in Belgium. In return for this “opportunity”, these girls are to pay an amount to him for a specified period of time before they can be free from Dele and “Madam”. Out of desperation, Sisi agreed to Dele’s offer. Knowing her parents and boyfriend wouldn’t agree to such, she lies to them about the job she would take up once in Belgium. Her dream was to make enough money to eventually come back to Nigeria and set up a business. However all this wasn’t possible after she met Luc. She fell in love and he convinced her to stop her “job” and be with him. Unknown to her, her life was what she would have to pay for quitting the “job” and going against Dele and Madam.
Efe, the oldest in the business amongst the four lost her mother when she was little and this totally destroyed her father so much that he could no longer take up the responsibility of taking care of his children effectively. Efe, with no parental care believed the next guy who claimed to love her and promised to take care of her. The result was an unwanted pregnancy. Efe had to take up extra jobs to take care of her baby. One of such jobs was as a cleaner to Dele. After working at his office for a while, he proposed his idea to her and she eventually agreed. Her dream was to work as hard as possible, gather enough money so her son (who was in the care of her younger sister) could have a good life and a good education. Years after, she would resign and become a younger version of “Madam”, setting up the business of recruiting sex workers.
Ama, was raped at a young age by the man she had always thought was her father. At the age of 21, she was sent out of the house by her parents and had to live with her mum’s cousin, who owns a canteen in Lagos. She wanted more for herself than just the normal routine of assisting her in the canteen. When she met Dele, it took a while before she eventually agreed after considering and conluding that she had nothing to lose. Years later, she would eventually come back to Nigeria and set up a boutique business.
Joyce, the closest to Sisi amongst the four was a victim of the war in Sudan. Not only was she raped by the soldiers, she also watched as her whole family was killed in her presence. She was distraught but seemed to bounce back when she met Polycarp. She fell in love but that was cut short when Polycarp revealed that his family wouldn’t let him marry a foreigner. Knowing she had no one else, he offered to get her a job overseas and introduced her to Dele. It wasn’t until she got to Belgium did she realise that the so called job was as a sex worker. Years later, she would eventually come back to Nigeria and set up a school named after Sisi.
This book was written in an unusual manner. It starts with the present and then takes us back to the past in between chapters, more like a flashback approach which I liked. Another thing I liked was the finite ending the book provided. The author made us know exactly how the lives of each of these ladies ended. It was a detailed insight into the lives of Nigerian sex workers working abroad and their struggle to survive. This is a book I would love to see adapted into a movie.
~But the past is never far away. She has discovered that it never leaves us completely, no matter how hard we try. The past is like the juice from a cashew. It sticks. And whatever it stains, it stains for good.- Chika Unigwe, On Black Sisters’ Street~