By all reasonable standards, I should really like On Black Sisters Street. It deals with incredibly real and relevant issues to Nigerian women, so often trapped between the lack of economic and social opportunities in their home countries, and the mammoth impossibility of immigrating to the West. It was heartbreaking to hear the four main characters struggle with the compromise of paying off enormous debt with their sexualities in exchange for an opportunity to “make it” abroad in Belgium. It’s not a choice anyone should be forced to make.
And yet, I wasn’t drawn in. Perhaps I have simply become so jaded to the hard knocks narrative of the African writer that it’s impossible for me to feel a story like this in my bones. On Black Sisters Street read like a cliché for me: the daughter of a pious churchman silently suffering sexual abuse, the refugee from a bloody rebel massacre and violent rape, the child whose drunken father and dead mother force her to look to an older man for money and social mobility and ends up with a baby of her own. The only story that did seem real and poetic was that of Sisi, college graduate and devoted only daughter who seeks out sex work in Belgium to make money for her family. Her story was unusual, as much because only children are unusual in Nigeria (where children are life insurance for parents in old age) than because of a depth to Sisi’s character. The novel felt like too much drama packed into 250 pages for the sake of being compact.
Perhaps what vexes me then about the structure of the novel is how the main characters, who are faced with impossible decisions that compromise their sense of self and cause them incredible anguish, seem to exist in a vacuum. The peripheral characters to the story are all one-dimensional: the Madam who runs their brothel, the smarmy Lagos pimp, Dele, who arranges for the girls to be trafficked, even Luc, Sisi’s naïve, possessive boyfriend. They could be part of a richer tapestry of interactions, even characters with motivations and misgivings of their own, but they are glossed-over as irrelevant to the meat of the story.
Sociologically, however, On Black Sisters Street is an enjoyable way to understand the contradictions of Nigerian society and the incentives for illegal migration and trafficking to the West. The narrative gives faces to appalling developmental statistics and circumstances: a population where the GDP per capita is estimated at $1,128 (Human Development Report, 2005) and 51.6% of the population is living below a dollar per day. Trafficking happens, and On Black Sisters Street does a good job acknowledging both interests that fuel it—the emigration aspirations of poor Nigerian women and the severely limited possibilities for legal migration to the West.
The novel also portrays accurately the self-reproducing system of trafficking itself. Joyce takes the trafficking circle through its full rotation, first as a woman trafficked from Nigeria to Belgium, then taking on the roll of “head girl” in her brothel, and once she has repaid her debt, becoming a madam herself. And yet, the novel does not belittle or demonize the girls or the system itself, only (as I mentioned before) the one-dimensional villains who oil the machine.
In short, if you want a book that gives a solid introduction to the systems and situations which perpetuate trafficking from Nigeria to the West, On Black Sisters Street is an excellent option, and much more palatable than a dry academic text. If, however, you are looking for an engaging novel with memorable characters that capture your imagination and give insight into your own life, I suggest you look elsewhere.
**My review of this book is also posted here on Amazon.com