Chika Unigwe’s novel On Black Sisters’ Street is a sad story of four women drawn from various parts of Nigeria and Sudan. Recruited in Lagos, Nigeria, by a sex trafficker named Dele, the women work as prostitutes in Antwerp where Belgium’s red-light district is located.
The women Sisi, Ama, Joyce and Efe serve as the novel’s protagonists each narrating the circumstances that pushed them to choose life as prostitutes.
The question of what makes a victim is very much at the core of this chilling piece of fiction as the women refuse to characterise themselves as such.
Each woman is filled with a desire for a better life, and the dream of going back home rich enough to buy their families cars, houses, and businesses.
Suddenly, a murder shatters the surface of their lives, leaving the other three women to ponder what happened and why.
Drawn together by tragedy and the loss of one of their own, the women realise that they must choose between their secrets and their safety, sharing their own stories of fear, abuse and violence.
The novel exposes the terrifying and increasingly familiar story of how women are lured into lucrative jobs abroad only to end up victims of human trafficking.
On arrival in their destination country, many human trafficking victims suffer a rude awakening when their travel documents are confiscated, they are forced to work long hours, and some are forced into prostitution.
Unigwe gives a powerful voice to women of the African diaspora who are forced to use sex to survive.
One aspect of the novel that the reader might find confusing is that the chapters in the book are not numbered; they are repeatedly named after each ‘sister’ or the street Zwartezusterstraat (literally ‘Black Sisters Street’).
The chapters move between future and present, the reader learns of the future death of one the characters on the first few pages of the novel. Unigwe does so in order to build suspense.
The use of Pidgin English makes the novel a bit exhausting but luckily Unigwe manages to water it down to make it more palatable.
On Black Sisters’ Street gives the reader a visceral look into the lives of sex workers. It is also a story of courage, unity, and hope, of women’s friendships and of bonds that, once forged, cannot be broken.
Unigwe was born in Nigeria. Previously based in Belgium, she now lives in the United States. She is an award-winning short story writer and she writes in English and Dutch. On Black Sisters’ Street earned her the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2012.