I have always liked to read, and struggle to find great material to feed this habit, so when my local bookstore started a book club, I enthusiastically joined it. My stay in that book club was short lived, but it was long enough that I read the book for the first month, Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street.
Chika was born in 1974 in Enugu, Nigeria. She is Igbo and she writes in English and Dutch. She has published short fiction in several anthologies, journals and magazines; and has won many awards, among them the Nigeria Prize for Literature – valued at $100,000 (Africa’s largest literary prize). On Black Sisters’ Street was her second novel and was initially published in Dutch in 2008 under the title “Fata Morgana”. The English version was published in London in 2009 by Jonathan Cape.
Chika tells the story in a mix of British and pidgin English, spiked with smatterings of Igbo and Yoruba. She writes about four women, from very different backgrounds, who leave Africa for the riches that Europe promises. They find themselves in Antwerp, in a house on Zwarterzusterstraat (Black Sisters’ Street), from which they go to work every day – standing in the windows of Antwerp’s red-light district, promising to make men’s desires come true. They work to pay off their debt of 30,000 euros to their benefactor, Senghor Dele, and to obtain access to their fake passports with valid visas and a right to live in Europe once this debt is fully paid. A great tragedy occurs, resulting in the women being drawn together, and as each speaks in her own voice, we learn what has brought them to their present lives. Chika uses their voices to delve into the psychology of each woman and calls the reader to empathize with them. Joyce is a beautiful woman whose life was destroyed by war, Ama’s past is colored by great injustice, Efe is motivated to keep earning money by a particular zeal, and Sisi has an imagination that takes her out of the tragic reality she finds herself in. Right at the beginning Sisi gets into trouble because she finds “…the love of a good man”. She struggles with the impact of this love on her relationship with her ‘sisters’ – “…She hadn’t abandoned them. Had she? She had just . . . moved on. Surely, surely, she had that right.” And in worrying about Sisi’s unexplained absence as they get ready for work, her ‘sisters’ introduce us to the terror that lurks at every turn of the story – “…For Sisi’s sake, Joyce hoped she would be back on time. How could anyone forget what Madam did to Efe the night she turned up late for work? Nothing could excuse her behavior, Madam said. Not even the fact of her grandmother’s death.”
Chika’s characters are not passive victims, they are cool minded decision makers, who make informed choices based on the circumstances they find themselves in. The women dream of attaining different goals – financial support for struggling relatives back home, big houses, fancy cars, gold jewelry and expensive plait extensions. They go to Europe to shake off their past and flee an Africa that is framed as a place best forgotten. In Sisi’s words “…She banished the notion. Lagos was not a memory she liked to dredge up. Not the house in Ogba and not Peter. She tried to think instead of hurtling towards a prophecy that would rinse her life in a technicolor glow of the most amazing beauty.” And they find that Europe is both great and horrific. “BEFORE EFE CAME to Belgium, she imagined castles and clean streets and snow as white as salt. But now when she thinks of it, when she talks of where she lives in Antwerp, she describes it … created for elegance but never quite accomplishing it.”
Chika probes the stereotyped images Africans have of each other when she speaks of “Kenyans who ate samosas and had no traditional clothes and complained about the pepper in Nigerian food, not really African”; and “South Africans … claiming another continent for their country? And it was especially the black South Africans”. She alludes to the underlying belief in the power of omens and curses, “Her husband would not cry. He would sit on the chair facing the door so that he saw everyone that came in and everyone that left. He would sit there and look at the mourners coming and going, trying to see behind the tears those that wished him ill. For it was not normal that his daughter should die just as she was starting to do well.” And she captures our unwavering belief in the power of education to transform lives, “…The only way to a better life is education. Akwukwo. Face your books and the sky will be your limit. It’s in your hands. Her father’s eternal words.”
The relationship between parents and their children gets a lot of attention. She writes about the concept that children will provide for their parents when they grow up, “she went to the house in Ogba. When she came, her father was in the sitting room reading the Daily Times, thinking that when next Sisi called he would mention that at his age and with a child abroad he ought to have a car and could she not send him one?” She writes about African mothers’ preoccupation with the perceived beauty – and its impact on the marriage prospects – of their daughters, “leaving her with a tomboyishness that both disappointed and worried her mother”. She explores the challenges of negotiating cross-cultural interactions with the parents in a romantic relationship, “Polycarp’s mother, freezer eyes and hissing lips, rejected the hug with a ferociousness that landed Alek on the floor, buttocks first. Pwa! The humiliation! The shock! And when she looked at Polycarp he averted his eyes and said something in Igbo to his mother”. And she brings to light the challenges that face many African young people when they are making the choice of life partner, “…‘I’m the oldest,’ Polycarp began when they lay in bed. Alek pressed her nose to the wall. ‘I’m the oldest son and my parents want me to marry an Igbo girl. It’s not you, Alek, but I can’t marry a foreigner. My parents will never forgive me.’…”
Chika tells a tragic story with great humor. She gives voice to a normally voiceless group of people. She humanizes them. And she opens our eyes to the dark side of globalization, sex trade and modern-day slavery.