Title: On Black Sisters’ Street
Author: Chika Unigwe
Length: 298 pages
Publisher / Year: Vintage U.K Random House/2010
Source: From Nnedinma Jane Kalu
Why I Read It: Chika Unigwe is a terrific writer. I read a non-fiction account of how she met with these prostitutes while conducting her research.
Date Read: 26/07/15
I know I should have read this book a long, time ago. To be honest, I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Thank God I finally got to it.
On Black Sisters’ street follows the lives of four young African women who, by choice or fate or both, find themselves working on the red light district in Brussels. The novel opens with the death of the ambitious Sisi, an only child, who had travelled from Nigeria to Belgium in search of greener pastures. Her colleagues—Efe, Ama and Joyce—are shaken by the news. They wonder whether they will be next. Their fears are palpable and the tension in the house is so thick, it can be cut with a knife. And so, one by one, they begin to open up to each other about their past lives leading up to the moment. How did each one come to work as a prostitute. Their stories are as different as their faces and their temperaments. Chika Unigwe does a great job of sketching each portrait, of narrating each girls’ story so we get to know them intimately and can empathize with each of them.
It is a disturbing and searching investigation of the many elements that make many African women fall prey to ruthless pimps like Senghor Dele who acquire fake passports and visas for young girls to travel to Europe. These girls are then forced to pay back a whopping 30,000 Euros in monthly installments. Escape at your own peril. Senghor Dele has eyes everywhere and the police are on his payroll. And there’s the ruthless chaperone called ‘Madam’.
On Black Sisters’ Street is a solid work of fiction, and very relatable. Joyce’s heart-wrenching tale brought tears to my eyes. At fifteen, an ethnic conflict rids her of her family and her virginity. When peacekeeping soldier, Polycarp falls in love with her and takes her to Lagos from a refugee camp, I thought she had found freedom. But no, that was the beginning of her troubles. Polycarp cannot spend the rest of his life with her because he has a duty to make his family happy. Her tale is just as sad as the others’. Efe, whose mother died and suddenly found that she had to be mother, father (because her dad was often drunk and under the table) and even mistress to a hair extensions mogul. And Ama, whose stepfather often forced himself on her while her mother pretended not to notice. At some point Ama asks why? Why did Joyce’s boyfriend abandon her? Joyce says, “Because he did it because.” No one knows why human beings do hurtful, terrible things to people who have done them no harm.
The characters are strong and make choices within the limits of their circumstances and environments. Most of the suspense revolves around Sisi’s death and disappearance. The unfolding plot reveals her choice and its consequences and how each person’s choice was influenced by different circumstance. And Sisi was petrified by the thought that if she married her school teacher boyfriend, Peter, that she’d be as poor as her parents. Chika expresses it beautifully,
“When she thought about her life, the phrase that came to her mind was omnes errant…a series of mistakes.”
I shall never forget that paragraph or the details of the girls’ job descriptions. I was grateful for Chika Unigwe’s courage as she walked the red light districts of Brussels in her mini-skirt and high-heeled boots while she conducted her research for this solid book. Frankly, I found it difficult to put this book down.
On Black Sisters’ street will remain relevant until the end of time. And I applaud the NLNG judges for awarding this beautiful book it’s 2013 prize. I have always admired Chika’s strong, almost intoxicating and confident voice. The voice of a prolific writer. I love the way she uses onomatopoeia. I recommend this book to everyone, irrespective of their class, race and creed.