Uche Peter Umez
On January 29, 2013, Chika Unigwe, the Belgium-based Nigerian writer, was presented to the public as the winner of the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature for her heart-wrenching novel, On Black Sisters’ Street. The public presentation ceremony took place at her alma mater, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. First published as Fata Morgana in Dutch in 2007, On Black Sisters’ Street was later released in English by Jonathan Cape, London in 2009. Unigwe has often said in interviews that she got the
idea for her award-winning novel from the cultural shock she experienced when she moved to Belgium. There, she saw sexily dressed women behind display windows in the red-light district of Antwerp. This shock inspired her to write stories about prostitutes, most of whom incidentally were Nigerians.
On Black Sisters’ Street is Chika Unigwe’s second novel. While awarding her the prize, the panel of judges described the novel as ‘a sobering revelation on the horrors women face.’ On Black Sisters’ Street actually tells the harrowing experiences of four African sex workers who share an apartment in Belgium. Three of the girls – Sisi, Efe and Ama – are Nigerians, while Joyce, the fourth girl, is a Sudanese. Although the novel opens with Sisi, the leading female character, relishing thoughts of new beginnings, the reader realises before long that she has been jobless for many years, even after having graduated from a renowned university. Efe, nicknamed the ‘Imelda Marcos of wigs’ because of her passion for high-heeled shoes and wig, is abandoned by her old lover soon after she got pregnant for him. Sexually abused night after night by her stepfather, Ama is forced to leave Enugu for Lagos, where she is taken in by an aunt who runs a canteen. And Joyce, having been gang-raped by militias in Sudan, has her heart crushed completely, when her Nigerian army boyfriend dumps her because he is not brave enough to fight off ethnic sentiments. In a bid to escape their personal tragedies in Nigeria, the four girls, with the help of a loud-mouthed pimp, relocate to Belgium separately, where they believe they could start a new life altogether. The pimp’s help, however, turns out to be the ‘devil’s gift’, which entails grim consequences and proves fatal for one of the girls. On Black Sisters’ Street is a compelling story of friendship and sisterhood, and of dream renewed.
Instituted in 2004 by the Nigeria LNG Limited with a view to identifying and rewarding excellence in literature, the Nigeria Prize for Literature appears to be the most prestigious literary prize in Africa. So far the most significant value it bestows on its winner is the sumptuous cash prize; with $100,000, I suppose, a writer doesn’t have to feel much impecunious for a long time. You could keep writing away without worrying the least bit about the cost of bread or bottled water. Even so, I don’t know if the prize changes things for African literature since it is primarily a Nigerian prize for Nigerian writers only. Of course, literary prizes tend to generate a lot of interests within a country, but I doubt if they do define much of the quality of literature in that country.
It has been reported time and again that Nigerians account for 60 percent of sex workers in Europe. Italy is a choice destination for many Nigerian girls. Therefore, so long as female trafficking and sex slavery still thrive mostly in Europe and Asia, so long as certain westerners easily stereotype the African woman as exotica, a sex object, On Black Sisters’ Street will remain a very telling novel. As a literary text, it offers a poignant narrative of the extent of exploitation some Nigerian females are willing to suffer abroad, in their struggle to make ends meet. One strikingly far-reaching importance of On Black Sisters’ Street lies in Unigwe’s unstinting ability to humanize, and even decriminalize, prostitutes, a social class whom society is ever ready to condemn and eradicate. Overall, On Black Sisters’ Street contributes richly to the ongoing dialogue about girls who are either tricked or forced into sex trafficking beyond the cold shores of Nigeria. Likewise Abidemi Sanusi’s Eno, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s Trafficked, Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail, Jude Dibia’s Unbridled and Ifeanyi Ajaegbo’s Sarah House have all enriched this dialogue with their stark portrayals of the various processes of the commodification and dehumanization of Nigerian women in foreign lands.
It is instructive to point out that in her novels The Phoenix and On Black Sisters’ Street, Chika Unigwe equally probes themes ranging from loneliness, displacement, loss to consumerism and racism (her first two novels were set in Belgium for the most part). Postcolonial themes also resonate in her novels, and this appears even more pronounced in On Black Sisters’ Street, where Africa stands out as the impoverished other, and Europe is the affluent centre; where African girls are marked as exploited territories, and European clients are insatiable exploiters.
Judging by her first two novels, Chika Unigwe’s thematic engagements are quite different from those of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila. In Purple Hibiscus, Adichie’s first novel, the family unit reflects the tyranny that defines the larger unit of the state, whereas Habila’s first novel, Waiting for an Angel, situates the debilitating effects of tyranny across various units of society. Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun and Habila’s Measuring Time employ the backdrop of war to foreground the personal and common tragedies in a crisis-ridden country. Notwithstanding, both Adichie and Unigwe are genuinely concerned about the plight of womanhood, as could be seen in how they deploy their narrative to resound and heighten the voice of the oppressed female in a society so patriarchal and relentless in its attempt to asphyxiate any strident, dissenting or resistant voice.