On Black Sisters’ Street
Random House 2009
Chika Unigwe’s literary career took off in Belgium – indeed, in Antwerp (the setting of On Black Sisters’ Street, which is the English reincarnation of her second novel, originally published in Dutch as Fata morgana in 2008). Unigwe’s first novel, De feniks, was also published in Dutch, in 2005 – a year after she completed her doctorate in literature at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. She lived for many years in Belgium with her husband and children, but is presently resident in the USA, where she is professor of creative writing at Brown University. While living in Belgium, Unigwe became aware that, among the black sex workers in the city, many were from her own motherland, Nigeria. With this point of connection (presumably), she was able to gain the trust of a number of them – to the point where they allowed Unigwe to interview them, or simply to hear them tell their stories: accounts involving the routes and methods by means of which they came to Belgium, how they were experiencing their social and professional situations, how they “acclimatised” emotionally and temperamentally to the work they were doing, and so forth. She acknowledges this openly in the brief final section of her text, writing as follows in its opening paragraph: “I am, in the first place, grateful to those whose story it is: the nameless Nigerian sex workers who allowed me into their lives, answering my questions and laughing at my ignorance” (297).
The stories of the four characters – Sisi, Ama, Joyce and Efe – which constitute the composite narrative of this novel, are not told in chunks, or chronologically, but are gradually released and narrated intermittently. Sisi’s can be considered the “main” story, with “her” chapters functioning like links in a chain that loops the text from its opening to its closing chapter. The stories of the other three women are told mainly when, under the emotional pressure and shock of Sisi’s sudden death, they, for the first time, open up to one another and enlighten their fellow tenants (since they pay rent for the small rooms and shared facilities in the house on Zwartezusterstraat [Black Sisters’ Street] where they spend most of their non-working hours). One character, in particular, links them: their Nigerian procurer, Senghor Dele. Repulsively obese but hugely wealthy, this man has become as enormously rich as he is by shipping willing women, whom he personally selects, to the “Western” countries where they work. The women whom he “recruits” are all desperate (for various reasons, mainly poverty) to get out of Nigeria, and accept the entrapping “repayment” regime (undoubtedly vastly in excess of what it costs him to obtain fake passports for them, purchase their one-way flight tickets and rent the houses required for their and their Madams’ and guards’ accommodation) to which they are obliged to assent in order to be hired. They have to work for Dele for years, while sending him a minimum of 100 euros – and a recommended 500 euros – monthly by means of Western Union money orders; this is “repayment” that he claims for the supposedly thirty thousand euros he has spent on each of them. It goes without saying that this is a form of slavery, even though all the women (on Joyce’s part, there is some initial misunderstanding, due partly to her naïvety and partly to her emotional numbness at being betrayed by the man with whom she lived and deeply loved) accept Dele’s exorbitant terms. “Technically” they are not sex slaves, but women who accepted an opportunity – at a cost, emotional even more than financial, that they soon (and, in Sisi’s case, with increasing intensity) begin to realise. Shame and humiliation, entrapment and loneliness take their toll in Belgium; but, in all their cases, compelling reasons – at least initially, in most cases enduringly – brought them to the decision to take their chances under available circumstances. Dele warns them menacingly that any defaulting would incur severe punishment. It can be added that, although Sisi dies young, the other three end up “free” and relatively well off: Ama returns to Nigeria, opens a boutique and lives to a crusty old age; Joyce (who is not actually Nigerian, but Sudanese) goes back to Lagos, where she had lived with the man who took her to Dele (when she wanted to leave his country, as he supposedly “could not” marry a wife who was not of his ethnicity), and opens a school; Efe, in turn, becomes a successful “Madam” who buys her employees from among black sex workers already in Belgium.
All four of these women’s stories are compelling, often moving and frequently horrifying. In my view, Unigwe’s text is carried by the power of these stories, as there is little in her text that is “literary”, in the sense of authorial style. But, of course, if we understand the notion of what is “literary” in a broader sense, as we should, Unigwe’s ability to render the women’s stories in a manner appropriate to who they are shown to be – to convince the reader (as I feel sure she does) that these are their stories, rather than primarily creations of an author – we begin to recognise the functioning of Unigwe’s art. Her very skilful narrative structure and sequencing of the different places, or parts, of the stories told her are also noticeable, although unobtrusive. She rivets one’s attention to the slow deployment of the various tales and experiences of the sex workers. She takes a calculated risk in dropping broad hints concerning Sisi’s early death by sinister and nefarious means, but this works; somehow, there is a remaining sense of both hope and dread around Sisi’s story. Moreover, although Sisi’s particular Nigerian background shows her to be the one among the four women whose position is closest to that of an economic migrant, Unigwe makes the reader care very much about her and what happens to her.
The women are all talented in ways utterly different to the sexual skills by which they end up making their living. Efe wanted to write books, and can still cite a Dickens passage with relish and love of its poetic power. Sisi has a hard-earned, respectable four-year degree in finance and business administration, and hoped to find employment with a leading Nigerian bank and work her way up the corporate ladder. Joyce wanted to be a doctor, while Ama had business sense and a compelling desire to see more of the world in its variousness. They all have their different dreams crushed, either before joining the sex trade in Belgium (in most cases) or by participating in it. As sex workers, they are forced to relinquish who and what they know themselves to be and to be worthy of, and have to take on assumed identities (even new names) in order to satisfy men’s sexual fantasies. And, if they do not catch enough male eyes and please enough customers, their Madam has her ways of punishing and disciplining them, with Dele’s menacing “presence” (even from Nigeria) looming behind her.
A man whose real role and true nature the women cannot quite determine is the sixth person living in the house on Zwartezustersstraat. His name is Segun, and he is the driver/chauffeur and handyman of the household, especially – and unexpectedly for an otherwise so clumsy-seeming an individual – as a carpenter and skilled wielder of a hammer and other tools. Although the women think him a bit stupid because of his taciturnity, his pronounced stutter and his awkward manner, it is revealed in due course that Segun keeps a definite eye on the four sex workers – not as a man attracted to any of them, but in a more “professional” capacity as a type of guard and/or spy of their various non-professional activities. Of course, he turns out to be their Madam’s (and particularly Dele’s) enforcer. Dele even has a hammer tattooed on his neck. “Madam”, as she is known and demands to be addressed, is an interesting figure in her own right: a menacing and hard-as-nails taskmistress towards the sex workers; a compassionless, domineering, secretive and aloof sharer of their “home” space; and, evidently, a highly intelligent, multilingual and sophisticated woman, as well as a shrewd and skilful businesswoman and negotiator. The Belgian police, it seems, are no less corruptible than their Nigerian counterparts – only requiring much larger bribes than the African cops do, in order to be “bought off” from looking too closely at the women’s circumstances.
In the household, the women remain on the whole fairly separate from one another, even though there are some vague alliances, especially between Sisi and Joyce, who arrived in Belgium within a week of each other. They also quarrel frequently, and their squabbles often escalate into physical and vicious verbal violence, with Ama notorious for her aggressive manner and Efe mostly acting as the peacemaker among them. They do not know one another’s true or full stories, not even (in two cases) their co-workers’ real names or identities. In no way are they friends, but merely fellow employees thrown together by circumstances – until Sisi’s death breaks down the barriers among the remaining three. Through this moment of shared grief and shock, they do become lifelong friends, even though their later lives separate them geographically and professionally.
Unigwe’s rendition of the Sisi story starts by depicting the dismayingly dreary and increasingly squalid conditions of the family home where she lives with her mother and her father. Sisi’s real name is Chisom; she chose “Sisi” herself as more appropriate, once she had committed herself to joining the sex trade. She took this desperate step because of the intensity of her feeling that Nigeria “has no future” – with her father’s promise that, if she “face[d] her books” (acquired the tertiary education he himself never could), the “sky” would “be [her] limit” (18), never having materialised. Sadly, none of Chisom’s experiences subsequent to obtaining her degree lived up to her family’s expectations. Hard-to-spare money had been squeezed from her father’s meagre earnings in his dead-end job in the expectation that, once Chisom was suitably qualified, it would be plain sailing for her to get very lucrative employment and lift the family out of poverty into a lifestyle where they could live in a clean, spacious home that they need not share with anyone else; Chisom would then also be able to acquire a car each for her and her father, and, for both her parents, ensure a comfortable old age. None of her “meticulous application letters” to “the many different banks in Lagos” even earned her an invitation to an interview, while “less intelligent classmates with better connections” (22) easily landed cushy jobs. Chisom’s boyfriend, Peter, does have a (poorly paid) job as a mathematics teacher, but, quite evidently – and despite his big promises of taking Chisom to luxurious, exotic destinations – “Peter’s life was a cul-de-sac” (27). His ambitions seem limited to the certificates of being “Employee of the Year” awarded to him by bored officials, and he has no prospect of a proper pay rise or even a decent salary, while he is obliged to share his meagre living quarters with his many younger siblings, also feeding them.
One day, as Chisom sits in a hairdressing salon, a huge, pompous man swaggers in, in the company of a gorgeous and evidently much younger woman, towards whom he has an evidently possessive attitude. He demands that the hairdresser “Make am beautiful” because “She dey go abroad. Today!” and even “Make she look like oyibo [a white] woman” (31). The man is, of course, Dele, and the young woman – or girl – is one of his prospective sex worker “employees”, rather than a teenage “girlfriend”. When Chisom, seated next to the girl, attempts to ask her about her plans, Dele brutishly forces himself between them and – noticing Chisom’s own good looks – thrusts his “gold-edged” card upon her, inviting her: “If you wan’ comot from dis our nonsense country, come see me we make talk” (32). Over the next few days, Chisom notes bitterly that, for days on end, the family meals consist of nothing more than gari [made from cassava flour, and about 90% carbohydrate] and vegetable soup, that her ageing father is likely to lose his poorly paid job in the civil service, and that the toilet of their communal housing is broken and overflowing with filth, because there is a city-wide water shortage. Not entirely conscious of how she reached her destination, Chisom finds herself at Dele’s sumptuous office. She believes, initially, that she will never accept work of the kind he offers her, but the next chapter, overleaf, refers to her presence on Black Sisters’ Street. Chisom makes up what sounds like a respectable reason for her move to Europe and its funding for her parents’ and Peter’s consumption, but she senses that they are not hoodwinked. Nevertheless, they make no effective move to deter her. And, Sisi (as she “becomes”) believes that, within a few years, she’ll be able to pay off the debt to Dele, return to being Chisom, marry a good man, have children (in Nigeria) and live in a luxurious home with many servants.
On Sisi’s arrival in Zwartezustersstraat, Madam tells Sisi that her first task, the very next morning, is to go and register at the ministry of foreign affairs as an undocumented refugee, and to tell the officials an evidently bogus story that she barely escaped murder, rape and mayhem in Liberia. Ironically, the details of the fake biography largely resemble Joyce’s, in a different part of Africa, which we hear much later in the novel. Sisi’s passport is unceremoniously confiscated, and Madam tells her that she can only have it returned once she has fulfilled the terms of her “contract” with Dele. When Sisi returns to report that she was refused asylum and will be deported as an illegal immigrant unless she leaves Belgium within three days, Madam is entirely unfazed. It turns out that this is exactly the outcome she wanted and foresaw, as it makes Sisi totally dependent on the “refuge” of the home in Zwartezusterstraat and traps her in the “job” of prostitution, as “managed” by Madam. Were she to go to the police to report her entrapment, she would not be believed and would simply be deported. But, Sisi’s first experience of “offering” paid sex is ghastly: even as she wants to scream at the man to “Stop!” using her body:
His moans swallowed her voice. His penis searched for a gap between her legs. Finding warmth, he sighed, spluttered sperm that trickled down her legs like mucus, inaugurating Sisi into her new profession. And she baptised herself into it with tears, hot and livid, down her cheeks, salty in her mouth, feeling intense pain wherever he touched, like he was searing her with a razor blade that had just come off a fire. (213)
For the first few days, Sisi is obliged to work in a tawdry pick-up bar, but she is soon relieved to hear that Madam has “found her a display window in the Schipperskwartier, on the Vingerlingstraat”, since this is a “better job” and the “window girls were far classier than the bar girls” (236). She soon learns the rates she should charge for the various services provided to her customers – who pay “thirty euros extra” for full penetration without a condom. Sisi also soon learns to assume the appropriate poses, the practice of rapping on the window to demand attention from preoccupied passing men, and constantly “to smile, to pout, to think of nothing but the money she would be making” (237). She and her “neighbouring” sex worker, supposedly from Albania, converse desultorily with probably fake memoirs and invented details. But, the more “human” contact helps the women retain a vague sense of normality.
“When business was good Sisi did an average of fifteen men. She was diligent about her payment” (260), and replies in non-committal but vaguely reassuring ways to her parents’ occasional telephone enquiries. Then, Sisi meets a good-looking man named Luc at the church where she occasionally attends services. Much later, Sisi will find out that Luc wandered in there more by mistake than by intention. He is, however, immediately struck by Sisi’s beauty. He asks her out, and persists in asking, in a veritable campaign to woo and win the African woman. Convinced that if he had any idea of what she does for a living, he would reject her, Sisi for ages puts him off, declines to meet him, or lets him down despite saying she will join him in a restaurant. Luc is a banker, single despite his eligibility, and resembles a famous Belgian writer, whose photographs Sisi has all over the tiny wall of her bedroom because she considers him a heart-throb. Luc’s persistence, nevertheless, makes her fear that he is beginning to distract her from her aim of making enough money to earn her freedom and prosper afterwards. So, she dresses up in a deliberately “tarty” outfit after having agreed to meet him, and bluntly tells him that she does “ugly things” (266). She again dresses “for the prowl” when he, later on, is allowed to visit her on Zwartezusterstraat; she wants to shock him into realising that she is a sex worker. But, when she bursts out angrily that he must go away and leave her alone, Sisi is overcome by his hurt at her rudeness. So, she hugs him in apology; they kiss, and, of course, they end up making love on her bed. Thereafter, Sisi regularly visits Luc at his home. As their relationship intensifies, Luc predictably starts resenting her sex work and complaining about it. Though knowing Luc to be naïve in thinking they could simply go to the police, Sisi admits to herself that “it was getting more and more difficult to walk away from him into the arms of a trick” (270). Eventually, she decides that she will follow Luc’s advice, after all, and that the two of them can go and report Madam to the police. Then, the qualms hit her, especially the realisation that “she would be literally forcing [the other three sex workers: Ama, Joyce and Efe] to give up their jobs” (273). What Sisi does not initially mention is that her action would likely “implicate” (274) the other women, and this would bring about their deportation back to Africa, destroying their dreams and plans. So, Sisi adapts her plan. While she will no longer humiliate herself and subject her body to customers’ use of it, what she does is walk out quietly from the Zwartezusterstraat house in the early morning, taking only her nightgown and toothbrush with her. “Eight months was a long time to live in a world ruled by Madam and Dele,” she decides, as she “walk[s] out into the cold May morning, desperate for some air” (277). She wonders whether the others feel betrayed because she left without telling any of them that she was going.
Joining Luc at his breakfast table, Sisi is “greeted … with a hug” and told, reassuringly, “You are doing the right thing, schat” (281). Still tense and hardly eating, Sisi feels calmer – indeed, flooded by a new happiness – later that day when, bored at Luc’s home because he is at work, she decides to waltz into the city centre and spend the 500 euros previously intended as a “debt repayment” to Dele. The weather is so benign as to be “perfect” (282), and Sisi allows herself to shop for clothes at expensive boutiques she has previously studiously avoided. She also telegraphs three hundred euros to her parents – considerably more than she has ever sent them from Belgium. She returns to Luc’s home with her proudly displayed shopping bags, thinking: “There was no turning back now. She had defied Dele, cut all links with Madam and the house on Zwartezusterstraat. She was ready to deal with whatever the consequences might be” (286). Back at Luc’s place, Sisi deposits her loot in the bedroom and kicks off her shoes. Just as she enters the kitchen to wash the breakfast dishes, the doorbell rings. Surprised, Sisi goes to open it, finding Segun at the door. He does not want to come in, he tells Sisi, but then adds:
“Bu … bu … but I want you to come, I mean … to … to … to come with me in the car. We … we … we … I mean, we … we … we have some … thing to dis … dis … dis … to discuss.” Busy hands “flailing all the while”. Restless feet tapping the concrete. “Discuss, ke?” [Sisi asks him, puzzled]. “We can discuss it here,” she [tells] him. Where was Luc? Luc, please come home now! Maybe she should have gone to the police after all, [Sisi thinks]. (292)
As Segun persists in saying that the place is unsuitable and that the discussion will not take long, Sisi reconsiders: “What harm would it do? Nobody can make me go back to the Zwartezusterstraat. That part of my life is over. And certainly not this wimp of a man. This man with only half a brain, whose mouth always hangs open” (293, original italicised). I feel sure that the majority of readers want to yell at Sisi not to take a foolish risk, but she gets into the car, and, of course, her fate is sealed from that moment. She does not see it coming, however, before Segun’s hammer drives into her skull, all but killing her; he bundles her body into the car boot, “nonchalantly” throwing “one of her leaf-green flat-heeled slippers” (a brilliant detail) after her, before closing the boot and taking a road to a “safe” spot, where he can dump her corpse undetected. Here, it will be found by a passing jogger the next day, and Madam will calmly “square” the police to whom the gruesome “find” is reported, to prevent them from questioning Sisi’s housemates. According to the narrator, because Sisi is not yet quite dead when her body is pushed into the car boot, this allows the “escape” of her soul to Lagos to say a sort of unseen farewell to her parents – “telling” her father how wrong his belief in the success recipe of a degree has been, but finding him planning to request (almost demand) a car from Chisom. Then, her soul “flies” to Dele’s palatial home, finding him speaking on the telephone. He is addressing Madam (whose real name turns out to be Kate), confirming that he expects her to “take the necessary steps”, and berating the dead Sisi for causing him “trouble” (295). Madam must also warn the three remaining women that they had better not offend him, Senghor Dele. He already has three other beauties lined up to replace the murdered woman, he tells Kate. Sisi imagines Madam sharing the heartlessly triumphant laughter of Dele on the other end of the line. Finally, her soul flies up the staircase to the bedroom where Dele’s two little girls lie sleeping, and she curses their future lives and enjoins them to “ruin” their father. For, adds the narrator in the penultimate paragraph of the novel, “Sisi was not the sort to forgive. Not even in death” (296).
Turning to the stories of Sisi’s three colleagues, I start with Efe. Her narrative begins quite bluntly: “Efe discovered sex at sixteen at the back of her father’s flat. That first experience was so painful, so ordinary that she had spent days wanting to cry. She had had no notion of what to expect, yet she had not thought it would be this lackluster, this painful nothing” (49). Efe’s difficulty is in reconciling what she feels with her school friends’ giggling descriptions of sex (with boys, of course). Titus, the wealthy, married man who in typical seducer’s language wooed her insistently with extravagant compliments, gifts of money (never all that much!) and promises of further, much larger “rewards”, of course drops Efe like a hot brick as soon as the girl tells him that she has (inevitably, as the reader, of course, knows) fallen pregnant, four months after they start having sex. Her mother’s early death from an unspecified illness (probably cancer), we further learn, has pushed Efe into the maternal role vis-à-vis her three younger siblings, because her father relapsed into intense, debilitating bitterness and alcoholism when his beloved wife died, considering it an utter injustice. He does mete out fairly meagre household expenses to the plucky girl before going off to drown his enduring grief in getting drunk, returning to shout at his children and sing doleful songs to disturb the entire neighbourhood, in which the previously kindly and helpful women have stopped helping this rudely ungrateful man.
Efe consoles herself after Titus’s abandonment with the thought that, unlike many girls and women, she, at least, knows her child’s father. “That in itself was a blessing” (63), as Efe tells her slightly younger and generously loyal sister, Rita, who is really her only friend. Other former friends have turned away from her and her shameful pregnancy (as they and/or their mothers consider it). Efe believes that her child will never want for anything, since his (as she already “knows” her baby will be male) father is so wealthy. The girls’ father, a labourer working for building contractors, does not even notice Efe’s pregnancy, and does not bat an eyelid when Rita, at a late stage of her sister’s pregnancy, comes to him to ask for the household allowance, as she efficiently takes over the housekeeping duties. When Efe complains to Rita that “[p]eople look at me as if I am dirt”, her sister consoles her with the reassurance that “[o]nce the baby is out and the father starts taking care of him they will know you’re not one of those useless girls who just sleeps around with any man” (65). And, the baby is sure to be a boy, she adds, because they both believe that all men desire to have as many sons as possible. After an eventually thirteen-hour labour in hospital, Efe leaves it up to Rita to name her son. She calls him Lucky, to which Efe later adds Titus’s middle name, Ikponwosa. About the only contribution their father makes is to insist that the long “double” name is unwise: “All this business of two names will only lead to trouble. Giving a child a mouthful of a name is incurring the wrath of the gods. It is a big name that kills a dog” (77). Henceforth, the child is known as LI.
Three weeks after the birth, Efe wraps up the baby boy and sets off for Titus’s home, sure that the child, “the spitting image of his father” (69), will win Titus’s favour and earn his largesse. A maid lets Efe and her baby into the grand living room, where, seated at the dining table, Titus and his wife are having an evidently tasty meal. At first, they both ignore her and her announcement that she has brought Titus his baby. Then, the wife arises and comes to Efe, insulting her with ugly accusations of lying and being a “loose” young girl trying to pin the responsibility for her pregnancy and child on her blameless husband, Titus – who has continued his meal as if neither Efe nor her crying baby were in the room. Efe “could hear him smacking his lips as he sucked the bone marrow”. She gets up and walks out with her baby; “Lucky Ikponwosa would never see his father again” (71). Efe will never know that she is the sixth young woman (about one per year) whom Titus has seduced and left pregnant. His wife is not at all disturbed by these flings of her husband’s, and always deals with the young mothers in precisely the same way as she does with Efe, while Titus complacently ignores their appeals. Having stuck with Titus through his early years of poverty, she considers herself (as he does) permanently and solely entitled to be the woman (along with their children, among whom the only boy is conspicuously favoured) to share in her husband’s wealth. She knows that pregnancies and babies will result from Titus’s extramarital affairs, since she is fully aware that he never wears a condom. However, she also knows that he always chooses “inexperienced [and ‘innocent’] young girls” like Efe, who would be quite unlikely to infect her husband with sexual diseases or infections that he might otherwise have brought home into the marital bed.
Although she wants to resent, even hate, her baby, Efe falls in love with the child and forgets the humiliations to which having LI subjected her. Hence “Efe was still determined to provide her son with the kind of life she had dreamed for him”, even though her father has refused to contribute anything to the raising of “another man’s child” in addition to his own (77). Hardly seeing her child because she works such long hours in cleaning jobs to earn what she considers enough for her son, Efe is delighted when she spots an advertisement for yet another such job. She gets the job, and her new employer is Dele. He treats and pays her well, and, over time, Efe develops the hope that he might consider her a suitable woman to have an affair with – assuming that, unlike Titus, he would treat his young mistress with respect. He might even take her as his wife, she thinks. Still, Dele “never asked her out”; and, it is only when she starts complaining to him that she needs to find a good (implicitly conveying an expensive) nursery school for her boy – so that her sister, Rita, who has been looking after LI while Efe works, can return to school – that Dele suggests she might go to “Belgium. A country wey dey Europe. Next door to London” (81). Here, he says, she would live in a house with other women from Nigeria, in order to work in that country to repay him the expenses incurred for her journey there. She replies by saying that no one needs to ask a child whether it wants a sweet; she is, in other words, only too eager to take him up on his offer. When she asks Dele whether her work in Belgium would be cleaning, he answers, “No. Sales,” and the way he laughs soon makes Efe realise, without much of a shock, what kind of work she would be required to do in order to earn enough to repay Dele. She does not find it a difficult decision, since, in her eyes, “LI was a worthy enough investment to encourage her to accept Dele’s offer”. Efe will send him to good schools; he’ll become wealthy and look after her when she is old, she firmly believes. “And even though leaving him would be the hardest thing she would ever do she would endure it for his sake” (82).
When Efe, that night, tells Rita where she will be going and what she will be doing there, there is no disapproval whatsoever in Rita’s generous acceptance of these facts and their implication – that Efe is entrusting LI to her care. “Rita’s response was a hug and a whispered ‘Get me a Mercedes too’” (85). Efe will remain abroad for thirteen years, and Rita will pretty much replace her as the protective, caring and (when required) disciplining maternal presence in LI’s life. While Efe becomes a blurred memory to her son, she will, later on, tell Ama and Joyce that LI “gives [her] life meaning”, and that “everything” she does, she does for him (94). When she does go back, LI will barely recognise the woman who gave birth to him, and will need to be prompted by Rita to greet her in an appropriate manner …
Moving to Ama’s story: one can consider it as initiated by her wry remark – as the three women from Zwartezusterstraat who are left behind when Sisi dies begin to confess their deeper feelings to one another – stating: “I don’t know if I’m happy or not. I don’t like Madam. She’s a bitch. But in which other job do you earn money just for lying on your back?” (114). Ama’s childhood was ended by the man she did not know as her stepfather, but took for her parent by blood – a man known to almost everyone as “Brother Cyril”. Ama “had learned from her childhood to keep secrets” (123), because to admit to her actual desires and yearnings would, in many cases, have led to heavy disapproval or painful, even terrifying, punishment. For, those in the household of three – ie Brother Cyril, Ama’s mother and herself – are expected to maintain a constant facade of blamelessness and Christian purity. Ama is not allowed to have friends over or to go and play outside the home after school, for fear of being contaminated by “unchristian” influences, in her stepfather’s profoundly hypocritical and puritanical conception of what being a “Christian” entails. Little Ama can only confess her true feelings to the pink walls of her room, for they cannot and will not betray her. Brother Cyril always calls Ama his “princess” (127), unaware that secretly the little girl believes that this grossly obese and unfit man (whom she takes to be her own father, a man whose name or identity she never learns) would need to be “carried” to heaven by “strong-muscled angels” after his death. Of course, the child obscurely realises that Brother Cyril’s condition proves plenty of “sinful” over-indulgence in rich food and fattening drinks. He is the “assistant pastor at the Church of the Twelve Apostles of the Almighty Yahweh, Jehovah El Shaddai, Jedova Jireh” – the absurdly lengthy name satirising Nigerian Christians’ tendency to aggrandise their religious observances, as numerous Nigerian authors have noted. The church is “one of the biggest churches in the city”. Were Ama to admit, for example, that she finds the music of the Christian performers – the only recording artists allowed to be heard in their house – gratingly irritating, her “father” would “put her across his knee and with her mother watching from a corner, tear into her with a treated koboko, the cowhide cane that he nicknamed ‘Discipline’”(128). Ama’s mother, Rose (whom Brother Cyril constantly celebrates as having been “a virgin when he married” her), never dares to utter the merest peep in defence of her daughter when her husband mistreats her. Brother Cyril’s “virgin” story is a complete myth, as Ama (and the reader) learns only much later on. Brother Cyril married her mother when she was pregnant with Ama, but without a husband to show for it. She is terrified that the least transgression of her husband’s tyrannical rule would lead to her rejection and ejection (along with her daughter), forcing them onto the streets.
Ama is expected to “follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a model wife for a good Christian man some day”. Brother Cyril wears only pure white outfits – “White for Holiness”. At home, all his outfits are “white safari suits and white dashikis”; to ensure these outfits’ blinding whiteness, Ama’s mother must wash and bleach them herself and never entrust the arduous task to a maid. On the evening of the wonderful eighth birthday party that Brother Cyril holds for Ama, after she has been sent to bed, “her father floated into her room in his white safari suit” (131). Ama would have uttered a scream in fright at the arrival of this “ghost”, had Brother Cyril not immediately smothered it in her throat with one large hand, while with the other “he fumbled under her nightdress”. The appalling scene is described in harrowing detail (as are its “follow-ups”), no doubt indicating how fully Ama recalls every awful detail of the premature, violating sexual experiences to which her stepfather subjected her for years – until she started menstruating and there was a chance of a resulting pregnancy. This would have exposed the man’s disgusting and cruel behaviour, which Brother Cyril could not, and would not, allow to happen. When Ama (but seldom) dares to try and resist her stepfather’s abuse of her small body, “her father would demand, ‘What’s the fifth commandment?’” to elicit the inevitable response, “Honour thy father and thy mother,” and force Ama to relax her body to allow him to do what he wanted (132). There is deep pathos in the child’s conviction that she had not wept, even though “her eyes were dry” and red in the morning, prompting her deliberately “blind” mother to give her treatment for an imaginary eye infection (133). Much later, Ama will begin to think that a truly loving mother would have allowed herself to notice that something was seriously wrong, and asked her daughter gently, but insistently, what the matter was. At a much later stage of her life, when her detested stepfather criticises Ama (whose self-confidence he has left deeply damaged) for “laziness” in not obtaining the desirable university exemption that would have allowed her to get away from her oppressive family home, she bursts out, at last, with her revelation of what Brother Cyril has done to her. Of course, he bluffs it out, with her cowardly mother betraying her with “shocked” accusations of lyingly besmirching a good man’s reputation. It is she who arranges for Ama to join her kindly cousin in Lagos, but she, too, insists that Ama leave their home immediately, which is why Ama departs so early the next morning.
At first, Ama is happy with the natural freedoms of her “aunt’s” home: to swear when something is irritating, and to enjoy “sinful” but beautiful and exciting music and excellent food in this utterly non-hypocritical household atmosphere. She assists her aunt in running her roadside food stall, which is all that is required of her for living there free of charge. But, gradually, her life begins to seem dull and routinised to an Ama who is hungry to experience a wider world and savour its opportunities. Hence, when Dele – a frequent customer at the food stall – invites Ama to come and see him at his office, the young woman is immediately interested, and goes there despite her aunt’s warning her against Dele, whom she mistrusts. At first mortified at his wanting to employ her for sex work in Belgium, Ama later on takes it as a probably effective way of escaping the confinements (as she experiences them) of her life in Lagos. She returns to Dele’s office, and is forced to apologise repeatedly and abjectly to a supposedly deeply offended Dele; but, then, he compliments her for showing “fire” and becomes sexually aroused, forcing her to give him what is known as a “hand job”, in order to forestall penetration. This is how Ama, known among her colleagues for her aggressive behaviour, becomes what she is and lands up in the Zwartezusterstraat. Years later, she is able to “retire” from the sex trade and open a boutique in Lagos, in which she makes her aunt her business partner. She lives until she is an old lady, known still for her fierce nature.
The final story re-narrated in this profile is Joyce’s. It turns out that she is not Nigerian at all, but Sudanese, even though she came to Belgium from Lagos, where she had lived with her boyfriend, a UN soldier, until he rejected her for being unacceptable (as his wife) to his family. The boyfriend (Polycarp) pays off Joyce’s travelling costs to Dele, a “friend” of his who is willing to take the woman off his hands and out of reach. Joyce remains unsure of whether or not he knowingly pushed her into doing sex work. She must make peace with this uncertainty, her colleagues Ama and Efe advise her, and look to the future. Years after Sisi’s death, Joyce will hang a motto about the value of friendship on her office wall, having returned to Lagos to open a school employing twenty-two young woman teachers, and regularly helping bright but financially disadvantaged children with bursaries.
Joyce’s real name is Alek. Her story is, perhaps, the most dreadful of the four accounts. Hers was a prosperous, cheerful, middle-class family torn to shreds when the Janjaweed – Arab soldiers employed by the government in Khartoum, to clear the area where they lived of Dinka people, for occupation by these predators. They invaded their home as they were about to leave for a faraway shelter; her parents, in a pathetic effort bound to fail, tried to protect Alek and her younger brother from the attackers by hiding them in a bedroom cupboard, even as the parents themselves cowered behind their locked bedroom door. Inevitably, the raiders do burst in, and first shoot the father, before raping and then killing the children’s mother. Alek finds the tension of hiding unbearable and wants to avenge her parents’ death, so she bursts out of the cupboard and tries to claw and hit the invaders, exposing her brother to death by shooting. The soldiers, of course, easily subdue her, and then gang-rape the fifteen-year-old girl. As she wakes up, naked, damaged, dazed and the only one of her family left alive, she decides that it is her duty to her beloved deceased family members to survive. She joins a “caravan” of women and children heading on foot to a refugee centre. Here, Alek’s terrible story is listened to impassively by a UN official as nothing unusual. She is given a tent and a few other things, and begins living on her own.
Alek refuses to share her stories with the other women in this camp, and detests hearing theirs, so she lives a rather solitary life in the camp, with mainly her memories and visions of her beloved, murdered family members for “company”. But, eventually, she notices the handsome Polycarp, who is an unusually sensitive and kindly presence among the mostly arrogant, swaggering UN soldiers protecting the camp. He, too, has noticed the beautiful young woman, and begins to pay court to her; soon, they become lovers. Not too long afterwards, Polycarp is transferred to Lagos, and he takes Alek with him when he leaves. They live together for quite a long time, very happily, in a flat that Polycarp has rented. But Alek, who is longing to have a “family” again and is eager to meet Polycarp’s mother, in particular, is bothered by his constantly putting off a visit to his Igbo people. When he eventually does arrange this, he wounds Alek’s feelings by doing so by himself, without her. Alek’s dream of loving and being loved by Polycarp’s mother is shattered when the cold-hearted woman rudely rebuffs Alek’s attempt to welcome her with a hug. Not long hereafter, Polycarp reluctantly tells her that, even though (as he probably in complete sincerity believes) he deeply and eternally loves her, it would destroy his father if he, as the eldest son, married a non-Igbo woman – a “foreigner”, as he now refers to Alek. Polycarp knows that Alek cannot go or be sent back to Sudan, so he makes another plan for Alek – without consulting her or preparing her with information. Hurt beyond measure at this betrayal and abandonment by the man she has loved, Alek is emotionally numb when Polycarp takes her to Dele’s home and behaves with (in Alek’s view) despicable abjection, while they organise the terms of their “contract”, which will utterly alter Alek’s life and circumstances. She detests Dele and sees through the rich man’s swagger to the vulgar and empty-headed show-off he is, but, as she no longer cares what happens to her or where she is sent, she utters no clear protest and makes no effort to resist the plans made for her by the men. It is Dele who chooses Alek’s “working” name, Joyce, as much more suitable than her own. She refuses to cry, and can only wonder without uttering the question why a name change is required for looking after Belgian children, which she believes she will be doing in Europe, and as the men lead her to understand. Polycarp will, at least, faithfully continue to pay off the debt to Dele in instalments, earning Joyce a few modest privileges in the women’s home on Zwartezusterstraat.
Joyce, always known for her hardness, weeps sobbingly at her childhood memories and remembered rejection by Polycarp – no doubt mingled with her grief at the news of Sisi’s death, for the two of them were relatively close. It is “the first time any of the women have seen her cry”. And now, “Ama sighs and then puts a hand out and touches Joyce on her cheek. It is a warm touch and Alek smiles through Joyce’s tears” (239). This makes Joyce rally a little bit, and she tells her colleagues that, compared with some of the stories she heard at the refugee camp, what Polycarp did to her was not anything like as terrible. But Ama and Efe, although “the territory they are charting is still slippery” (241), defend the depth of her hurt as perfectly valid. Efe “gently” reminds Joyce that she promised herself “that day at Dele’s”, that she would never again allow her “happiness to depend on another’s” (241). This, too, comforts Joyce. Nevertheless, a child weeping in their neighbourhood makes Joyce ask musingly: “I wonder how she [Sisi] died. If she cried for help” (251). It is Joyce who is most explicitly outraged by Madam’s callous indifference to Sisi’s death. Ama asks what they can and should do, to which Efe replies: “We fit go to de police” (289). Ama, too, soon starts weeping. She asks Joyce and Efe to join her in a group embrace, the three women now standing together in emotional solidarity.
Their tears mingle and the only sound in the room is that of them weeping. Time stands still and Ama says, “Now we are sisters.” Years later, Ama will tell them that at that moment she knew that they would be friends for ever. They will never go to the police but they do not know that. For now, they believe that they will and that gives them some relief. (290)
Soon afterwards, a distraught Luc bursts into the room, asking, “Where is Sisi?” (291) and it is up to the remaining women to break the terrible news to him, although we do not witness the painful scene.
At this point, I conclude my rendition of Unigwe’s poignant, effectively intertwined narration of these women’s lives. She honours them in the way she writes, and opens our eyes more widely to circumstances we may often prefer to avoid thinking about, or which we speak about with careless insensitivity. Her novel is profoundly memorable, perhaps especially for its refusal to represent the women as passive victims of brutal sexual and financial (and fundamentally racist) systems of exploitation, and for its determination to acknowledge the weaknesses and hard edges in the women’s own attitudes and personalities. It is especially Unigwe’s rendition of each of her main characters’ uniqueness in circumstances, setting and personality – the absence of othering of the sex workers in an either sentimentalising or demonising manner – that achieves the novel’s powerfully humane purpose. There is a fierceness in the author’s vision that lets no one off the hook and will not allow any of her readers to retain moralistic or self-righteous notions regarding situations such as those that create the Black Sisters’ Streets of our societies – in “the West” or in Africa, or anywhere else in the world.