Agreed, I haven’t read much on Nigerian-women-immigrant-prostitution. A fact, the multitudes of hearsays and valid stories that I have heard, ones which all culminated into the same story of women trafficking, could easily make banality of any fiction that hinges on that theme. In Nigeria, especially in Ubiaja, Edo state where I spent the early years of my teens, we call the women of this ignoble foray the ‘Italos’. Whether what they do was in Belgium or Italy, the least mattered to us and the tag we gave them stayed untainted. What we saw of them were splotches of skin-burns that gave them the peculiarity their sudden wealth brought. Riches that separated them at families’ funerals as they threw money at everything, even at anybody who complimented ‘welcome Sista. Sista, you just too fine’.
With my foreknowledge of this subject that the media seems to give this book so many accolades for, I didn’t go into On Black Sisters’ Street starry-eyed like a reader who obsequiously feeds on the imagination of a writer with unrealistic hope that he would be satisfied with mere literary figments. I already had my preconception of the conflict and resolution. When Sisi’s death is known from the few pages I had hurriedly zapped, my mind fleshed out the characters and the mysteries that may surround them and I wondered what more should I give my curiosity to. At the estuary of tossing the book to the back of my shelf and wanting to know why the denouement had hurriedly been given away when Sisi’s demise welcomed me into the book, my indifference was somewhat redeemed.
It was few pages later that I got to know the book isn’t only about the death of a particular character. The demise of Sisi is simply an image about what may have gone wrong with the lives of the characters before their arrival at Antwerp. Though the reader knows the death of Sisi beforehand, the circumstances that lead to her death are also the conflicts of the theme of the book. In the book, Sisi’s death is inevitable if the reader must know the cruxes of the conflict that climaxes in the lives of the other characters. Sisi is the beginning of the novel, the crack in the window that allows us a satisfied look at the lives of Joyce, Ama, Efe, Dele, and the resolution of the conflicts.
Political and Family Imbalance – Either affects the other. When something goes awry with one, the other shoulders the responsibilities. The political shame that exists in the African terrain is no doubt what writers have always given a larger part of their literary devotion to. If Nigerian economy were good, perhaps, Sisi’s dream of nailing a job would have been a reality and the prophecy of greatness given at her birth a certainty. Chisom (later known as Sisi) becomes the prime investment of her family after her degree. She will dream of riding in her company’s executive cars, her parents will debate over the model she will buy and how they will be lifted from the muck of poverty. After many applications to known and unknown companies without a response, Dele shows her what treasures she could get on Zwartezustraat posing her flesh in booth for whoever pays for its pleasure.
Alek (Joyce) faces trauma at its worse. Hers is the story of a country’s defeated political structure. Alek loses her parents and sexual privacy to the militia who evade their home on the kill the Dinkas’ rampage in Sudan. When she arrives at Black Sisters’ Street, the price to pay pales in comparison to the pains she bears at the penetration of each member of the militia on her parents’ bed in Sudan.
When Ama’s parental cocoon breaks at the revelation that the man who had been violating her is not her father, the short-lived freedom that gives her at the place of Mama Eko, her mom’s sister, paves the way for Dele, who introduces her to what the black sisters in Antwerp do on Zwartezusterstraat.
Verisimilitudes of Life – When Sisi’s father’s pay rises up a notch at work, the future gleams to him at the prospect of more pay-increases at work. The skewed shape his life takes after so many years of hoping when his next salary would swell directs his dream to the glory his daughter’s (degree) would bring. When Ama hitches to explore more places and escape from the mundane task of shuttling between home and Mama’s Eko’s restaurant, she is little aware of what may come afterwards. Excitedly as she brims with dreams at the proposal of Dele to travel abroad, she only becomes prepared for the fate that lies ahead of her when Dele samples her for her new job with the black sisters.
Fiction is a fragment of the assiduousness of imagination with a subsumed division of researches. The in-depth knowledge a writer possesses about a story spices the art of storytelling and rid fiction of unnecessary complexities that only tend to cover up for ineptness. Ironically, I have also read writers whose extensive examinations become the very undoing of their craft. At most times, one can hardly come across a well researched book whose writer doesn’t convulse with what he wants the reader to know rather than what they should personally observe. For this, Chika Ugwe should be commended for how she unfurls her story without blurring the narrating view with unnecessary journalese and academic inclination. The contents and style of this book is not short of my recommendation. Chika, in On Black Sisters’ Street, really does write well with the beauty of a first-hand witness.
Thanks to Ayọdèlé Morocco-Clarke who gave this book as a gift.