Growing up, Zainab wanted to be an actress. She yearned to “write stories and act them.” She lived for her dream even when quick with monsters.
Then she grew up as all adults do, in time, to a sort of apprehension: that a little girl’s dreams, like a dismembered doll, may unfurl buried in quilted sleep. Ultimately, it gets tossed in the dump. Thus her imperative for a backup dream; Zainab decided to be a hairdresser.
It’s two decades from childhood and the 25-year-old has startled to knowledge. Zainab is a hairdresser now. From her remote base in Ijegun, Lagos, she recounted her forays into acting. But contrary to her fantasies of bliss, she would act as a prostitute and live as a sex slave, in a grisly reality that ran too deep.
Her “journey to hell” started several years after her parents’ separation. Zainab moved in with her aunt in Abuja as a young adult. There, she learnt hairdressing but the need to raise money to pay for her graduation and buy her equipment put her under severe pressure.
Enter “Mr. Ben,” a travel agent, like a knight in shining armour. Ben sold to Zainab, a colourful tale of gainful labour and enterprise in Europe.
“He said he would take me to the white man’s country, where I would make hair for big people and make big money. But I ended up in Cote D’Ivoire, where I saw hell,” said Zainab.
“There, he sold me to Madame Beauty, who forced me to work as a prostitute and sex slave from October 2017 to 2019,” she told The Nation in a private encounter.
At her arrival in Cote D’Ivoire, Ben took her to Abobo, a village in Abidjan.
In Abobo, Madame Beauty told Zainab that she had bought her from Ben. “She said I would work for her as a prostitute for two years for her to recoup her money, CFA 2.1 million,” said Zainab, adding that Madame Beauty forced her to drink a charmed water, as an oath binding Zainab to her.
“She warned me not to try to run away or betray her, else I would run mad or die. She then showed me a room in an area they called Tina Ghetto, from where she said I would be operating and that I would be delivering CFA 20,000 to her every day.
“I protested but she requested for a refund of her CFA 2.1 million, which I couldn’t raise. She then reminded me of the oath water and its consequences…I charged CFA CFA 2, 100 (an equivalent of N1,200) per customer; and she gave me CFA 500 daily for feeding,” said Zainab.
Life in Abobo
Abobo was a purgatory her dreamy heart could make no sense of. It was her turning point, where she morphed to suit the random lusts of gangsters, petty thieves, commercial transporters, street urchins and thugs, widely called “vagabonds;” frequent patrons of her hidden graces at Tina Ghetto.
Zainab broke upon Abobo, taking on the look of every ruffian’s fantasy and its fruits. Her base, Tina Ghetto, unfurled before her grisly and dark, like a ravine in a robe of pleated thorns.
She came in search of greener pasture but there in Abobo, several miles from her ancestral home in Osogbo, Osun State, she was paraded like a cow to be milked.
Her madame breathed thunder and fire. The vagabonds leered at her lustfully, cupping their calloused lusts to harvest her kernel.
The joke was on Zainab. “Temi bami (I am doomed); I cried,” she said. The truth dawned on her like eternal damnation; sadly, she acknowledged that she had become a sexual captive to a fiendish madame.
The horror she read and gossiped about back at home had become her fate. Her reality. She had become the victim whose pathetic fate hitherto incited from her, the passing tribute of a sigh.
A radiant captive in a dingy brothel, she shed her honour on the fields of shame. Zainab slept with 15 to 20 men during the day. Sometimes 30. Even so, she would not sleep at night. “Menacing, ill-smelling vagabonds” banged on her door, intruding her private space, to ravage her paling body, under her Madame Beauty’s eagle eyes, till the wee hours of the morning.
Speaking with The Nation, her voice occasionally drifted and flailed, leaving on the wind, a tinge of regret.
She lamented how reality imposed upon her, reprobate acting skills. To survive, she had to adopt a fictive image and stay in character. To repay her enormous debt, she must strip to her bare flesh and work her supple behind to the bones.
Thus Zainab learnt to live and hustle in the nude. Everyday, she shed her body of clothing and clad in her vagabond patrons’ lustful wishes. Her hidden graces unclothed, the vagabonds drooled to her door, mauling and harvesting her womanly fruits, till all’s left was a mop of faith and a grain of acheke (also spelled attiéké), in her arid body.
Acheke is a side dish made from fermented cassava pulp (an equivalent of the Yoruba Garri) that has been grated or granulated and it was the staple food for Zainab and her co-hustlers in Tina Ghetto.
Sex work not movies
Acting slatternly takes effort; being a bad actress frequently earned her starvation and severe beating by her madame and her thugs, in her first year. Failure to moan and wriggle right earned her vicious blows from irate clients.
She was slapped, strangled and stabbed by her “customers for not servicing them well,” she said, adding that, “On the average, I slept with more than 15 men daily, in order to gross CFA 20, 000, the amount I needed to deliver to my madame. On a particular Sallah day, I slept with over 30 men and raked in CFA 200,000 for my “There was a day she had a case with the Nigerian Embassy officials and I tried to capitalise on that to escape, but it seemed like there was a conspiracy with them, as they simply told me to go and settle with my madame and pay her money. So I resigned myself to my fate and continued praying to God to come to my aid.”
Sometimes, the vagabonds would drug themselves and sleep with her thus spending as much as an hour. “On such occasions, I get dry with discomfort and the condom would break. I had to drink salt and water as the only antibiotic that I could afford, because madame Beauty would not give me money for medication or invite a doctor to examine us,” she said.
Asides her mandatory CFA 20, 000 daily remittance to her madame, all other money that she made must be submitted to Madame Beauty at the end of each day. Failure to gross the figure earned her severe beating even if she had fallen ill.
Zainab must work through ailment, which imposed greater burden on her to act for the benefit of her clients. Soon, she matured into the act and everything fell into place.
A strategy of escape
Everytime time she parted her thighs for a “vagabond” on her creaky bunk in Abobo, Zainab shut her mind to his painful gropes, the ‘sickening grunts’ and the ruts that he made all over her body. To the young adult, each session with a vagabond was akin to a bestial form of organised rape.
To escape her momentary pain, she often stole back in time to relive her quiet life in Ita Olowokan, Oja Oba, in Osogbo, where she lived with her father and stepmother as a child.
She remembered hauling her bag to Great Eureka Nursery and Primary School, while she lived with her mother in Ikare Akoko, Ondo State. She remembered her teenage pranks and saucy ripostes to seedy jokes by commercial transporters while she hastened to and from Mount Carmel Girls’ School, also in Ikare Akoko, as a teenager.
On her dreariest days in Abobo, she cringed from the painful irony of being pummelled and ravaged by random thugs for whom she wouldn’t deign a glance, back in Nigeria, and recalled her scenic strolls in Osogbo while the grim jewellery of harmattan glistened on fallen leaf and bow of grass.
She retreated to feel the gold rays of the early sun beams bathe her skin and the roof of her mother’s house in a brilliant, sallow glow, just before she departed for school, on most days.
“I survived because I had faith. Faith in the possibility of rescue,” she said.
In November 2019, Zainab’s madame threw her on the streets, claiming she had recouped her money and she was free to go. At that point, she was faced with the choice of continuing with Madame Beauty on renegotiated terms or becoming a trafficker and scout for girls that she could sell into sexual slavery.
“She said the girls would work and make money for me. But I had sworn that I would not enslave a fellow human the way she did to me. She gave me two days to work and raise money for myself towards my next move, but I just couldn’t,” said Zainab.
Within the period, she met one of the women who came to sell Nigerian food at Tina Ghetto. “The food-seller took pity on me and agreed to shelter me in her apartment.”
At that time, Zainab stumbled on Project Ferry, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), run by United States based Omotola Fawunmi, on Instagram. She sent representatives of the organisation her video and they intervened by bringing her home.
“Over 300 girls are currently stranded as sex slaves across Abidjan. Our government should rescue them,” said Zainab.
The Lebanon, Oman connection
Unlike Zainab, Grace, 27, is still struggling to secure a passage back home. She got to Lebanon in August 2019 with the help of an old school mate, Lola. Speaking to The Nation from a safe-house in Lebanon, she said: “I got here through a lady working here (Lebanon). Her name is Lola. She was my old school mate. She told me that there is teaching job here and that I should go and legalize my result in Abuja to apply for the job. She asked me to send N400, 000 as processing fee and that I will balance her up when I get here.”
Eventually, Grace sent N300, 000 to Adesakin. “My parents had to borrow the money from a cooperative society and they give it to me…When I got to the airport, one man, Mr. Hamad, came to pick me up and took me to his house. He said that I would be working with his wife as a house-help. I told him that I wasn’t here to work as a maid but he told me that he financed my trip to Lebanon; that he paid for everything and I have to work with them,” she said.
The Hamads forced Grace to sleep on their balcony, “like a dog” and she protested thus earning herself a severe thrashing. “ I told them that I couldn’t sleep on the balcony and that is how they started beating me. Sometimes, they would take me to one Mr. Abdullah, who beat me with belt,” said Grace.
Things got to a head at the dawn of winter; at the onset of the blistery cold, Grace’s master refused to buy her a jacket. “They gave me no jacket, and starved me. I couldn’t withstand it. I was sick and bleeding seriously and they did not pay my salary. So, I told them to use part of my salary to get a jacket for me but they ignored me. I didn’t wish to die, so, I made my move out of their house very early in the morning on December 27.
Grace and 25 others are currently lodged at the safe house in Beirut – at Project Ferry’s intervention – on January 16 after staging a protest.
“It’s over four weeks since we have been lodged here. We are tired. We want to come home. We don’t feed well and we don’t get good medical attention. Most of us are sick we need to go back to our country,” she lamented.
True, the plight of the ladies deserve urgent attention; there is Busayo, a heavily pregnant woman afflicted with bouts of an inexplicable medical condition; there is Wuraola, a chronic ulcer patient whose persistent crisis and tears has become a cause of worry to her peers; and scariest of all is the case of severely ill Oyeronke, whose medical condition defies explanation. Recently, she gave her peers and Nigerian Embassy staff a frantic scare.
In a mobile video obtained by The Nation, Oyeronke is seen shuddering with spasms of an unidentifiable ailment. She couldn’t move parts of her body and a co-tenant in the safe house is seen massaging the immobile part of her body. Further findings revealed that she suffers such sporadic spasms for at least two hours every time it strikes.
According to Grace, “The doctors do not know what is wrong with Oyeronke. They don’t have good doctors here. They just prescribed ulcer drug for her ailment but she was trembling and couldn’t move parts of her body”.
Ayomide’s plight equally incites the passing tribute of a sigh. The young lady was subjected to severe abuse by her Lebanese master. She was made to sleep in the toilet and beaten several times. In her desperate search for freedom, she contacted Project Ferry with whose help she was rescued from her slave master. She is now at her agent’s office in preparation for her return journey back home.
Then, there is Monsurat Omolara, who is currently in dire straits in Oman. In an audio recording obtained by The Nation, Omolara complained of being subjected to physical abuse by her master, while pleading for urgent intervention from the Nigerian government. In another recording that has gone viral on social media, Omolara’s master could be heard issuing death threats to her. He said he would kill her and dump her body.
In a recent twist to her predicament, her slave master dragged her to Al Khoudh police station in Lebanon, because she refused to work in inhuman conditions, but she was returned back to his house. He subsequently beat her and smashed her phone on the floor, ostensibly to cut her off from her people. Omolara has since being incommunicado.
A not so lucrative venture
Several Nigerian women and girls embark on the perilous trip abroad, deceived by the assurances of highly lucrative overseas employment as domestic workers, hairdressers, or hoteliers given to them by traffickers. Some of them revealed to The Nation that they were shocked to learn that contrary to the promises made to them, there were no high-paying jobs abroad. Instead, they had huge debts imposed upon them.
Some actually pay more than the debts imposed upon them; for instance, Zainab’s slave master, Madame Beauty, spitefully revealed to her that she had recouped CFA 3.1 million from Zainab even though the latter allegedly owed her CFA 2.1 million.
Arbitrary charges for food, accommodation, medical care, contraception, and fines are also imposed on the victims by their traffickers and madames thus stalling the their ability to have savings.
Some of the girls, argued a Lebanon based trafficker, knew the nature of jobs they were coming to do. “But when they get here and things aren’t as rosy as they expected, they start calling for rescue and attention. If you leave Nigeria to serve as a housemaid in Lebanon, don’t expect to live a life of luxury,” she said.
‘What we should focus on are preventive measures’ – NAPTIP DG
Julie Donli, Director General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), disclosed that five of the trafficked girls in Lebanon have returned to the country.
In an exclusive interview with The Nation, Donli stated that the rest of them would return to the country in due time. Reacting to the plight of the trafficked girls in Oman, she said: “If there is any case in Oman, they have to make their way to the nearest country. Since there is no Nigerian Embassy in Oman, they have to make their way to the nearest embassy. There is nothing anybody can do about that.
“We have been trying to get approval to station NAPTIP operatives in all the countries where human trafficking is endemic. At least, we can have at least a NAPTIP officer in all the embassies to serve as a liaison between Nigerians there (including victims of trafficking) and the people here.”
The NAPTIP boss stated that her organisation has been working to stem the tide of trafficking of Nigerians within and outside the country. For instance, following the conviction of the Lebanese and Nigerian traffickers connected to recently rescued victims, Omolola Ajayi and Gloria Taye Bright, they have been charged to court and are currently detained in Ilorin.
NAPTIP has also secured the conviction of one Rosemary Amarachi at the Federal High Court, Ilorin, Kwara State. Amarachi pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one-year imprisonment and a fine of N150,000 to be paid to her victims, said Donli.
Challenges of a rescue mission
Omotola Fawunmi of Project Ferry, revealed that so far, the organisation has facilitated the return of 17 girls to the country.
She said, “One of our greatest challenges is getting the relevant authorities to act promptly or respond when we reach out to them. For instance, at the beginning, we usually reach out to NAPTIP. In the case of Lebanon, we reached out to the Nigerian Embassy in Lebanon and also Abike Dabiri, the Chairman Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM). All our efforts at reaching them were not helpful. NAPTIP was for a very long time, between November and January, not responsive. At some point they complained about not having budget approved yet and so they could not work.
“I had to reach out to a contact in UNODC to get a NAPTIP official to respond to us. In fairness, the Office of the Chairman House Committee on Diaspora did reach out and we have continued to communicate via email. We have sent them a partial list of some of the girls in our care and they have done a letter to relevant agencies, a copy of which was sent to us in the course of the week.”
Fawunmi disclosed that two of the ladies in Lebanon received the assistance of NAPTIP to return home a few weeks ago, and are currently at the NAPTIP Shelter. Three more girls have returned to Nigeria at press time, thus increasing the number of returnees from Lebanon to five.
Efforts to get in touch with the Nigerian Embassy in Lebanon proved futile. Consular Zainab, the diplomatic staff handling the case of the Lebanon girls, persistently evaded questions and calls in respect of the trafficked girls. “I will call back,” she promised on two different occasions. She wasn’t picking calls as at press time.
Few days ago, NAPTIP revealed that it received concrete intelligence that around 20,000 Nigerian girls have been forced into prostitution in Mali. Many of the girls are working as sex slaves in hotels and nightclubs after being sold to prostitution rings by human traffickers, according to a fact-finding mission carried out by the agency in collaboration with Malian authorities in December 2019.
Authorities in Ivory Coast also rescued 137 children, of ages six to 17, who were trafficked to the country to work on cocoa plantations or as sex workers in the eastern town of Aboisso. The children are from Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Benin, and Togo.
There have been attempts to calculate the overall value of the smuggling of migrants;
human trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers, according to the 2014 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report.
Nigeria occupies a central position in West Africa as a country of origin, transit and destination for victims of human trafficking for labour exploitation and forced labour. Victims are shuttled within and outside the country, into Cote D’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Europe in a wide range of industries, including domestic work, mining, stone quarrying, manufacturing, plantations and prostitution.
While the Nigerian government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it is making significant efforts to do so. But the efforts are considered inadequate.
The government is expected to hold complicit officials, including security officials, accountable for trafficking offences.
Adedoyin Okin, a social worker and anti-trafficking campaigner, suggested improved coordination among law enforcement actors, including NAPTIP, the Nigerian Immigration Service, police, and others while supporting independent criminal investigations into alleged trafficking abuses among security officials in the country.
But while such efforts may bear good results in the long run, in the short run, more drastic measures are needed to check the burgeoning trade in humans, or modern slave trade if you like, within and outside the country.
In Abidjan, Nigerian girls are beaten and forced into sexual slavery in brothels administered by vengeful madames. In Beirut, slave masters force Nigerian girls and women to sleep on balconies, like dogs, under staircases and on top of kitchen cabinets.
In Oman, they make them sleep in toilets and advertise them on a website with order numbers and passport numbers. They are eventually sold and purchased like household items or garden implements.
Zainab’s case is instructive; in October 2017, she departed the country, ravishing and bustling with hope for gainful work in “the white man’s country.” But she ended up as a sex slave in Abobo. Two years later, precisely November 2019, she returned, her beauty severely ravaged.
“I am currently being treated for Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). I have started taking my drugs and I have found work as a hairdresser. My life is picking up. But I cannot go home yet,” she said, with the lustre of a moonlike being truest in eclipse.
She is no longer the punching bag of dangerous vagabonds nor is she the sexual slave of a vengeful madame. But Abobo continually intrudes her peace, like an apparition, whose gruesome pangs flourishes in the ruins of her dreams.