Flirting with the dark

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On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe

Pp 296

Published by Vintage (2010)

Paperback £7.99

If there is one adjective to describe Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street, it would be ‘coquettish’. The book flirts around the dark subject of human trafficking and prostitution, and yet manages to remain remarkably decorous.

The lives of four young African girls trafficked to Belgium for prostitution are interminably entwined in this novel that examines the situations and ambitions that lead them to the booths on the Vingerlingstraat where they attempt to make the most of the “trump card that God had wedged between their legs”.

On Black Sisters’ Street is a peculiar book, misleading in its honesty; therefore, one never quite appreciates the subtle significance of events that begin the book until a second read. And it is not that Unigwe has not given her readers a reason to: She hints early on at the death of her main character but her cavalier mention of it, belies the fact.

All that Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce have in common is their African origin, and the man, Dele who is the point that connects them. All four bear their different pasts stoically until the need for communal ties in the desperate situation that they have resignedly convinced themselves to be “the good life” forces them out of the pact of silence they have sworn with their past.

Sisi is a university graduate, who haunted by failure- “an ineluctable destiny that she had contracted from her parents”- sought the fortune that had been prophesied at her birth. Efe, driven under by her mother’s death, her father’s alcohol addiction and an unwanted pregnancy thinks tacit agreement to Dele’s proposition is the only way back to life. Ama is angry at the world, bearing wounds sustained from childhood rape experiences; and employing a calculated cruelty as her shield. Joyce is the ungrateful survivor of a war that wipes out her family, resigned to whatever else life hurls her way.

The house on the Zwartezusterstraat – filled with the noise of Ama’s quarrelsome voice, Efe’s highlife music and Joyce’s relentless swish swish – is claustrophobic; made stuffy with the stench of mildewed dreams. Readers are, like the girls, hardly let out of the narrow door with the taped-over cat flap unless it is to return down memory lane, to visit with men in dingy hotel rooms and bar room toilets; or to a chance encounter with ill-advised love.

Flitting deftly between the present and the past, On Black Sister’s Street reads like a collection of tales, alighting briefly on subjects such as war, poverty, child abuse and cultural isolation while it tells of the entrapment, sullied self-worth, and the danger of un-extinguished hope borne by tens of thousands of African (especially Nigerian) prostitutes in Europe held at the mercy of pimps and public systems that care only for their own.

This novel is one of the recent myriad attempts by African authors to tell their own stories in a world made one-dimensional by the limits of the media in the developing world. It is not entirely devoid of hope either as the fate of its four protagonists affirms the time worn philosophy that there is light at the end of every dark tunnel.

First published in Vulture Magazine, May 2011

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