columnBy Khainga O'okwemba
About five hundred years ago, in what is today Belgium, an unruly giant, very ruthless, rapacious and capricious - like the Erymanthian Boar in Ancient Greek folklore - terrorised residents of Antwerp City.
The giant had built a castle on River Schelde which passes through Antwerp, like the odours Nairobi River, and the legendary Nile in Cairo. The giant imposed exorbitant tax levies on anyone passing by his castle. Woe unto boatmen who did not have money; their hands were severed. A boatman needs his hands to pull the oars and row the skiff! People were murdered and their cadavers given to sharks! A brave young man barely known to the community emerged and killed the giant. He cut off the giant's hands and threw them in the river. The overjoyed people watched with amazement. They named their city "Handwerpen," which loosely translates into "to throw a hand away."
Much about places and how they got their names! Nairobi is named after a river, whereas Kenya is named after Mount Kenya. Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe writing of Antwerp in On Black Sisters' Street is not in the business of educating you on how your village or town acquired its name. In fact this digression in her novel is an allusion to the sacking of young African ladies into sex slavery. Chika Unigwe may not be the hero who confronted and cut off the hands of the unruly giant, she is however, the brave scribe who risked wearing the lipstick and a skimpy skirt, as the undercover police do, and went behind Antwerp to unearth an international cartel of sex trade and human trafficking.
Set in the Belgian city of Antwerp, On Black Sisters' Street is the tragic story of four African ladies who find themselves ensnared in forced prostitution in Europe. Wrapped in the glittering cellophane that is "life abroad," the unsuspecting women in their prime are made to believe that Europe offers a better life than their Africa. Like trans-national drug trade, human trafficking is a multi-billion industry that thrives under the nose, and with the tacit approval, of immigration officers and security agents. The masterminds grease the palms of these officers in order to circumvent the law. Once at an airport in Africa, I saw a veiled woman overlap the queue with the aid of an airport officer, who winked at the clearing officer at the desk, and accompanied her through all the rigorous security checks and delivered her to the waiting lounge where the lady sat secluded and started making telephone calls.
Chika Unigwe makes the link between Africa and Europe. She unmasks the players in Africa, invades the secret lives of their European clients, and shows how the trade works: A girl is lured to Europe. She is coached to present an almost believable story to immigration officers in the host country; show her vulnerability and lay claim to asylum status. The immigration officer, working in cahoots with the cartel, punches holes into the story and declines to approve her application. When the girl goes back to her hosts, she is told flatly that she is in the country illegally, but she could be helped to live under fake papers, but she must pay. Her passport is taken away and she is directed into a brothel to start work.
"He was harmless, everyone knew it. So the hammer hitting into Sisi's skull had come as a shock. She was not yet dead when he dragged her out on a deserted road." That is how Sisi, a university graduate and major character in the novel, meets her death. Nine months into her psychological torments, Sisi decides to quit without reporting to police because she does not want to jeopardize the lives of her "black sisters" who are still entangled in the undignified business of parading their flesh. Scared that Sisi knows much about their underworld, the barons murder her, carefully covering their tracks. There's a resonance here with the tragedy of a Kenyan university student who died in almost equal circumstances. Depending on your call in society, you may remain indifferent, disaffected, or be cajoled into doing something.