I wake to the sound of pounding. My mother is pounding groundnuts. She’s singing, her song keeping time with her pounding. For a few minutes I lie there enjoying the sounds and feelings of early morning. Then the reality hits me. It’s not my mother pounding or singing. It’s not early morning. It’s still dark and someone is pounding on my door. The singing is coming from a radio. A man shouts, “Get up! Get up! Now! Pack your bag. You are moving”. I jump from the bed, quickly wash my face, dress and put my few belongings in a plastic bag. I have learned to obey. I have paid dearly for delaying. The scars on
my body will never fade.
Outside my door, Teeth is waiting impatiently. I call him Teeth because he has enormous, prominent teeth. He spits when he speaks, and if you draw back, he pushes his face closer to yours so that he sprays you with spittle. “Kitchen, now. Eat. You are going on a long journey”. I eat cornflakes and drink tea. Across the table from me, the white girl is eating her breakfast too. She looks terrible, her cheekbones prominent, her eyes dead. I try to make her look at me but she just stares at her plate.
“Out. Now. Get into the car. Wait. Take this bread with you. We don’t want to have to stop for you to eat or to spend money on you”. He laughs, showing his horrible teeth, poking his tongue out over his lower hip. I hate him. He is the most disgusting man I have ever seen. The white girl and I get into the back seat of the car. Teeth and a white man get into the front, the white man in the driver’s seat. We drive off.
The city streets are almost empty and we move quickly. After some time, we leave the city behind us and head out into the open country. At a big barrier, the driver pays and we pass through. I think we are crossing a border, going into another country.
The sun comes up, lighting the sky behind us. We are travelling west, I tell myself. The road is smooth and we are going fast. No one is talking so I can think my own thoughts. How did it happen, I ask myself, that I am here in a foreign country, in a car with another woman and two men, travelling west to God knows where?
A few months before, I was a University student in Ibadan, Nigeria. My days were filled with lectures and tutorials, papers to be handed in, the debating society, choir practice. I was doing well. I was going to be a social worker. I was staying with my mother’s cousin, Joseph. He made it very clear to me that he did not want me in his house, eating his food, wasting his electricity. I put up with his complaining and worked hard so that I would have a good future, better than the life my parents had, back in the village. They had sacrificed so much for my education and I wanted to make them proud. I also looked forward to being able to support them in their old age and to making life more comfortable for them.
One evening, I heard Joseph speaking on the phone, “I have a girl here who could go with you. No, no questions will be asked. They are far away in the village”. I thought no more of it until a few days later when Joseph met me as I came home from college. “Stella”, he said, “A wonderful opportunity has presented itself. How would you like to go to Europe?” “Europe?” I asked, “How?” “A friend of mine wants a girl to go and work for him. He owns a business in Europe”. “But,” I said “what about my studies? I want to get my degree”. “He knows about your studies. He will get you into a European university later on and you will get an even better degree. With a degree from Europe you can go anywhere in the world. I need your answer tomorrow. My friend is coming to see if you are willing to go”. Surely this was an opportunity too good to miss. I said I would go with my cousin’s friend.
Next day, the businessman came to the house. “Don’t worry about anything”, he told me, “I have your papers. We will leave on Saturday”. I said I would need to go home and tell my parents I was leaving for Europe, but my cousin said, “No, there is no time for that. You can write to them when you arrive in Europe. Or phone them. I will tell them you are safe with my friend here, Mr Mumu”. Mr Mumu smiled. “I will take good care of you. Think of the money you will be sending back from Europe. Your parents will be able to live in comfort. By the way, don’t tell anyone about this. People can be very jealous”.
The following Saturday, Mr Mumu and I were on the plane. It was my first experience of flying and I was nervous and also excited. When we landed, we got into another plane and after about an hour we landed again. Outside the airport, we were picked up by the man I later called Teeth and taken to a house in a city. As soon as we got into the house, Teeth took my bag and my papers. He showed me to a bedroom and told me that would be where I would be sleeping, “And doing other things”, he said and laughed rudely. As he left the room, he locked the door. I sat on the bed and wondered what was going to happen next.
After some time, Teeth came back. “Now”, he said, “My reward. Let’s see what has come from Nigeria. I miss that place. Let me smell you”. He threw me down on the bed and raped me. I screamed and screamed, but no one came to help me. Then Teeth left me, saying, “Clean yourself up. We are expecting visitors”.
That night three white men came and had sex with me. They were rough. They did not look at my face. “Give me what I paid for”, one of them said when I tried to resist. Another said, “I always wanted to have a black woman. I wondered if they were black all over. Now I know”. When the last man left, I felt sick and disgusted with myself. How could I have been so stupid? Why had I agreed to come here? What would happen now? I thought of my parents and cried bitterly.
For several weeks, I lived in a daze, men coming in one after the other to have sex with me, insulting me and calling me names. Teeth made sure my door was always locked, allowing me out to the bathroom a few times a day and bringing me food. One day, I saw a white girl on the landing. I talked to her but she didn’t respond, just stared at me and hurried into the bathroom. Day after day, night after night, men came, white men, a few young men, a lot of old men, at least fifty years of age, wearing good suits and leather shoes. Every day, Teeth told me I owed the businessman, Mr Mumu, a lot of money for my air
ticket and I would have to do this “work” to pay off my debt. “Don’t forget”, he told me, “we know your relatives. If you don’t co-operate, we will kill your mother or your young sister, Anna. Yes, we know Anna. She’s such a sweet little girl”. After that, I felt the deepest despair. “I am in Hell”, I told myself. I wanted to die.
Days and nights passed. Sex and abuse from the men who came in and beatings from Teeth when customers complained that I was sulky and unwilling to enjoy the sex. “Smile”, Teeth told me, “Smile. Show the clients you like them. That way they will pay more. The more they pay the sooner your debt will be paid”.
Now here I was in a car, going somewhere else for more of the same, no doubt, my companions a black man, a white man and a white girl who looked more dead than alive.
“Here we are”, the white driver announced. I looked out the car window and saw a road sign saying, “Welcome to Tubbercurry”. What a funny name for a place, I thought. It sounds like “tub of curry”. The car stopped outside a big house and Teeth ordered us to get out. The door of the house opened and a large black woman, in full Nigerian dress came out, smiling broadly. She embraced me and the white girl. “Welcome. Welcome”, she said loudly, then waved and smiled at some people walking past. Good afternoon. Lovely day”. Was I dreaming? Was my ordeal over?
As soon as we were inside and the door closed, she changed. “Get into the kitchen. Eat. Then I will take you to your rooms. I don’t put up with nonsense. You, white girl, you had better smarten yourself. We don’t want you putting the clients off. Are you Romanian? “No, Latvian”, the girl whispered”. It was the first time I had heard her voice. In the kitchen, we had a meal of rice and stew. It was the best food I had eaten in weeks. I allowed myself to enjoy the spicy stew and thanked the woman when I had finished. “That’s my good Nigerian girl”, she said, “We are going to get on very well. You can call me Aunty Bola. You, Latvian, learn to be like your friend here. Don’t despise my food or you will be sorry”. The girl had eaten a small portion, gulping down cold water as if she was choking on the food.
Next, Aunty Bola took us to our rooms. “Take a short rest”, she said, “I will call you when it is time to get ready for work”. No change then, no reprieve. I lay on the bed and must have dozed off, because I was startled to find her shaking me and telling me to take a shower and put on some make-up. Then the men came, one after the other, just like at the other house. When the last one left, I was numb. I took a shower, changed the sheets and lay down to rest. The next thing I knew someone was screaming, screaming, screaming. The sound set my teeth on edge. I covered my ears with my hands, but I could still hear the screaming. I tried to open the door, but, of course, it was locked. The screaming went on. Someone ran down the corridor and opened a door. Then I heard a sharp slap and someone shouting, “Shut up. Shut up”. But the screaming went on. I heard Aunty Bola saying, “The Latvian one has gone mad. She has broken the window and cut herself with the glass. There’s blood everywhere”. There were other voices too. Then the doorbell rang repeatedly and a man’s voice called out, “Open the door. Police. We heard there was a disturbance here. Open the door”. Aunty Bola shouted, “Everything is alright. A girl had a bad dream”. But the girl went on screaming and the police began to break down the door.
Next, Aunty Bola opened my door and said, “Quick, get ready. You have to leave now”. I dressed as quickly as I could and as I came out of my room, a man in uniform ran down the corridor and grabbed Aunty Bola, who was trying to get down the back stairs. “Not so fast, lady”, he said, “Give me that bag”. He opened her bag and I saw rolls of notes in it. “Just as I thought”, he said. Another man in uniform came out of the room where the screaming was. He was speaking on a mobile phone, “We need an ambulance here now. A young woman has been badly injured”. A uniformed lady took me and Aunty Bola downstairs and
out to a police car. An ambulance was arriving as we were driven away. “I am finished”, I thought, “I am going to jail”. Little did I know that that night was the beginning of my liberation.
At the police station, I was questioned by the policewoman and a policeman. They were very gentle and told me not to be afraid, but I was afraid, afraid to trust them. Trusting people had got me into this mess. After some time, I was taken to another room. I was shaking with fear as I waited. Then I heard another woman’s voice and an older woman was shown in. “This is Sr Marie”, the policewoman said, “She will take care of you. You will be safe with her. Don’t be afraid”. Again, the words “Don’t be afraid”. Sr Marie smiled at me and then she took me out to her car and drove me to a house near a church.
She brought me inside and showed me a lovely bedroom. “This will be your room for now”, she said, “Try to get some rest. It’s four o’clock in the morning”. There was no key in the door. Sr Marie saw me checking. “No locked rooms here”, she smiled, “You are free to leave your room at any time. The bathroom is next door and the kitchen is downstairs. Come down whenever you want to. Now, Goodnight, Stella, or rather, Good morning”. The next time I woke up, I didn’t know where I was. Then the previous night’s happenings came crowding back into my mind. I took a shower and went downstairs to the kitchen. There
was an old white woman there, making toast. “Ah, Stella, there you are”, she said, “Sr Marie will be back shortly. I’m Sr Joan. Sit down and have some breakfast”. She kept offering me food – porridge, toast, fruit, eggs. She couldn’t do enough for me. Her kindness made me cry and as my tears rolled down my face, she patted my shoulder. “You will be alright”, she said, “Just take it gently”.
That morning was the beginning of my long journey back from the brink of Hell. Long days and weeks and months later, after many interviews with different agencies, I am here in Ireland, completing my college studies, looking forward to doing social work and one day going back to see my family in Nigeria.
Images from “Trafficking Stories” are stock photos chosen for illustrative purposes and do not depict the actual victims of trafficking.