THE GUARDIAN NIGERIA
WRITERS are like town criers. And between the year 2000 and 2011, Nigerian creative writers have worriedly depicted the downward slide to criminality in the Nigerian polity. At the turn of the century, writers like Maik Nwosu (Alpha Song, 2001), Omo Uwaifo, (Fattening House, 2001), Wale Okediran (Dreams, Die at Twilight, 2001), Fola Arthur-Worrey (The Diaries of Mr. Michael, 2003), Chim Newton (Under the Cherty Tree, 2003), and Toni Kan Onwordi (Ballad of Rage, 2004), have shown Nigeria as a nation adrift. The writers listed above are discussed by this writer as “fleshly” (1), lamenting that Nigeria, after military rule has become a nation without a soul, a rudderless nation that had emerged from military dictatorship, into the raging fire of corruption, prostitution, debauchery, and mindless hedonism.
Within the same decade, another set of writers, as if on cue, began to scream at the level of moral decadence into which Nigeria had fallen in so short a time. They concentrated on seemingly new crimes which just reared their ugly heads, as if the engagements of the “fleshly” school of writers were mere dress rehearsals to new crimes that just emerged: kidnapping, ritual killings, selling of body parts, and human trafficking. Writers who have especially written on human trafficking are:
(a) Chris Abani: Becoming Abigail (2006)
(b) Jude Dibia: Unbridled (2007)
(c) Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: Trafficked, (2008)
(d) Tony Alum: Images From A Broken Mirror (2008)
(e) Chinedu Anyaso: My Daughters’ Trouble (2009)
Now, “Three Nigerian writers on a Theme” which is the subject of this paper are: Chika Unigwe: On Black Sisters’ Street (2009) (2) Ngozi Achebe: Onaedo, the Blacksmith’s Daughter (2010) (3) and Olusola Olugbesan: Only a canvas (201. Strangely what unites these three writes is their united pursuit of the theme of human trafficking and prostitution abroad by our women involving all other collateral crimes including murder and the international slave trade, plus general insecurity within the Nigerian polity which these crimes engender.
We may begin with Olusola Olugbesan’s Only A Canvas, without forgetting the general theme of this study which concerns the unhappy events in the Nigerian polity: corruption, prostitution and human trafficking. Only A Canvas opens on an isolated rural environment, segregated because they are Osu, with Eze and a local wrestling champion, Joe, with his 3 wives (Nneka, Ifeoma and including Ngozi), Amaka his daughter, plus a devious friend, Obi. On the non-appearance of Okafor for the wrestling championship, Joe became triple champion. Amaka met Jane who gave her chocolate bars, and Edgar, a photojournalist was there.
Only A Canvas while decrying the rot in the Nigerian society is written in the thriller tradition. The setting is “romantic” in its remoteness, an isolated Osu society segregated from other communities. As in the true thriller tradition, there is plenty of adventure, crime and criminals, cop and robber chase, a serious manhunt, sensational and action-packed scenes, law agents and criminals on the run. In a thriller, there is a happy ending, engineered by the victory of the hero (the good character) over the villain.
Only A Canvas in addition to reading like a thriller also reads like a fairy tale where Amaka, the protagonist, is Cinderella the Enchanted Princess who, in the end, does not marry Tom Bridge, the Prince Charming. If read like a fairytale, Mrs. Anna Bridge becomes the fairy godmother who not only protects Amaka but provides her with a magic wand - travel, education - all enabling her to excel and ride unscathed, to freedom and wealth, In a fairytale world, Amaka is a waif besieged by Obi, the ogre and demon- king. Amaka’s father, the wrestling champion becomes the culture-hero who in the end overcomes the machinations of the demon-king. As in fairytales, those who are good are so good they have no faults, and those who are bad have no redeeming features. Mrs. Anna Bridge, Amaka’s fairy godmother, is so good, but her husband Donald, ever corrupt and ever womanizing, has no redeeming features. Other good characters like the Eze of Umuise, police officers Nasir and Danladi are painted as saints. While police officer Bama (who rapes women in his office) and Mama T., end disastrously.
In spite of everything, Olusola Olugbesan on the evil-infested, corrupt-ridden polity called Nigeria that accommodates human traffickers like Obi, corrupt officers like the DCO in the Kano office, and devious white men like Donald Bridge. Although the story of Amaka ends on a happy note, Only a Canvas is not a happy novel, considering the criminal and human trafficking activities of captain Obi and his marauding gang.
Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is set mainly in Europe (Antwerp, Belgium) to be precise. It reflects unhappily the fears, exploitation, shame, murder, humiliation of being a prostitute in Europe. But the major issue is what pushes Nigerian women to Europe for prostitution: personal ambition? Problems with joblessness in Nigeria? Limited opportunities? The answer may be: all of these.
Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is a story of four mature women (Ama, Joyce, Efe, Sisi) who willingly trafficked themselves to Europe under the aegis of a one man criminal syndicate headed by Mr. Dele. Although these women were not forced, the fundamental issue is why each agreed to go abroad. The reason is that Nigeria failed them as a country to fulfil their dreams, and negates their longings to live a self-fulfilling life. But irony is the weapon used by the author to mock their ambitions. Chisom (Sisi) the most ambitious, with big dreams about the future because she is a graduate, is the most frustrated. She is murdered, not by racist Belgians, but by her own fellow Nigerian, Segun. Her death leaves everyone weak because of its seeming senselessness, at a point she was about to achieve her aim through marriage to Luc, a Belgian banker, Her murder has the implications of a double tragedy for she was an only child through whom her parents hoped to achieve the dreams of their frustrated lives: buy a car, own a house. Of the four prostitutes under madam’s control in Antwerp, Sisi reluctantly submitted to prostitution, a humiliating criminal way to make it to wealth and influence.
Irony skirts Sisi’s dreams for she never realizes any of the castles she built in the air:
She would work for a few years, keep her eyes on the prize, earn enough to pay back what she owed Dele, and then open up her own business. She would resurrect as Chisom, buy a house in Victoria Garden City. Marry a man who would give her beautiful children. And her beautiful children would go to private schools. She would have three house girls, a gardener, a driver, a cook. Her life would be nothing compared to what it was now. And nothing compared to her parents’. (pp. 102- 103).
Ama, who was violated at the age of eight by her step-father confessed: “you know what Joyce? I made this choice. I came here with my eyes wide open” (p. 114).
On Black Sisters Street is not a happy book. Its central theme is frustration. The four girls: Sisi, Ama, Joyce and Efe left Nigeria out of frustration and incipient despair. Sisi is frustrated because Nigeria could not offer her opportunities for a self-fulfilling job after a degree in Banking and Finance. She is further frustrated because she could not lighten the burden of her parents’ dreams since her joblessness compounded the frustrations of her parents. Ama’s frustration stemmed from the fake existence in her parents’ house. Her mother who was hailed by her husband Brother Cyril, as an angel and a virgin had actually come to Brother Cyril with a pregnancy that they had covered up. Brother Cyril, a sanctimonious “Man of God” in white, raped Ama at eight and when she later confronted him, to further cover up their fake existence forced Ama out of their house, to live with Mama Eko from where Ama escaped to Antwerp through the services of Dele.
Ngozi Achebe’s Onaedo, the Blacksmith’s Daughter joins Chika Unigwe and Olusola Olugbesan in expanding the imaginative terrain of African literature. This writer in an earlier study had accused African soil, while European writers imaginatively invade other continents. It has cited EM Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as examples. The three writers under discussion have each extended their stories to Brazil and America (Ngozi Achebe); Antwerp, Belgium (Chika Unigwe); and London, England (Olusola Olugbesan). They collectively give readers the impression that Nigerian literature is still evolving.
Ngozi Achebe’s Onaedo, the Blacksmith’s Daughter still harps on the unhappy theme of human rights abuses within the Nigerian soil as it touches on the vexed issue of the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade especially to Sao Tome and Brazil. Historians have graphically described the trans-Atlantic slave trade as an unhappy episode in our history. But Ngozi Achebe’s Onaedo, the Blacksmith’s Daughter is historically important by giving us rare insights into how criminal-minded Portuguese merchants, Alvarez and Pasquale, using criminal-minded natives, Ideheno and his comrade-in-crime, Oguebie, hounded out fellow citizens, and captured them, under the guise of working in the white man’s farm.
Through flashbacks the reader is given insights into a slave outpost in Sao Tome, a halfway house for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Life in Sao Tome is shown to be depraved and degraded both for the slaves and for the white slave holders. Diego da Silva, owner of the plantation in Sao Tome is shown to be debauched, depraved, and immoral, with his several wives, mistresses, and slaves. Diego sleeps with his female slaves at will, is an inveterate gambler and alcoholic. Although there were initial moral qualms among the white slave traders, this was brushed aside. When Pasquale objected to brutally capturing fellow men as slaves, Alvarez reassures him: you have to trust me. Slave trading is a business like any other. The only difference is we’re transporting workers instead of goods”.
The story of Onaedo is that the quest and struggle for freedom is an unending and eternal one. In the end Onaedo in spite of mind-numbing suffering and tribulations regains her freedom as well as the freedom of her three children, born under slavery.
In sum, these three authors, writing about prostitution, slavery, human rights abuses and all kinds of insecurity in the Nigerian polity give readers cause for worry. That about all the writers mentioned in this study, writers writing in the first decade of the 21st century harp on the same unhappy themes should alarm the Nigerian government. And it is indeed alarmed, having in recent years established the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), committed to rescuing Nigerian women engaged in prostitution abroad. How much energy it commits to this alarming pandemic remains to be seen.
Charles E. Nnolim,
Charles F, Nnolim. “Contemporary Nigerian Fiction”. Issues in African Literature. (Yenagoa, Treasure Books, 2009).
Chika Unigwe. On Black Sisters’ Street (London: Vintage Books, 2009).
Ngozi Achebe. Onaedo, the Blacksmith‘s Daughter (Lagos: Mandac and Best Publishing, 2010).
Olusola Olugbesan. Only A Canvas (Ibadan; Mosuro Publishers, 2011).