We are in Agadez, Niger Republic. We are traipsing towards a run-down structure. The smell of dust, tobacco, and urine is everywhere. I am flanked by nine other girls going to Europe, from Nigeria, and we do not know each other. Though we are not acquainted, but we are like a bracelet of finely cut, shiny little spangles; trilling, tingling, and rubbing against each other. A soft music of hope and promise swelling with every step. The moonlight is a diffuse ocean above us, expelling the clingy blackness of the night, and giving life and purpose to the times.
The haphazardness of this place pours into me, and reminds me of home— of my baby sister, Ini. We had a family ritual when our parents yet lived. We believed that a cheerful moon has astronomical positive energy and, when channeled, it gallops, and can caress the heartstrings of unfeeling men, causing them to daydream about little flitting butterflies of extravagant colors. Today the moon is fulsome and merry. I look up into it and say a quiet prayer. I am sure Ini is tucked away in the embrace of softness, cooing, and dreaming about the myriad possibilities of tomorrow.
The girl beside me dips and backs up. I recede to check her out. The others don’t notice. They keep moving, but I sputter something incoherently, bringing their attention back to us. She is holding on to her neck,legs akimbo. Her face is pale, and sweaty. She is wheezing, and her breath is rapid, and the coughing won’t stop. She points to the bag hanging from her shoulder. I reach into it, fumbling for a reliever inhaler. The others are watching, rattled, unsure of what to do or say. Some of them say sorry, but it does not come out. They are soaked with too much compassion to rouse any words of definite sharp edges. She takes one puff of the inhaler every thirty seconds, up to a maximum of ten puffs. The symptoms begin to fizzle out. She says the elephant sitting on her chest is gone.
We proceed, this time languidly. She is leaning against me for support. I let her wear my bandanna over her nose to filter the poisoned air. Between the girls, I can feel a million questions strewing, and loitering, for when time allows. I have a few of mine. We go past two sentries, past an open jeep, past two other sentries in front of the building and, at each point, they exchange words with our escort— words we do not understand. They are minors, these sentries, and their youthful eyes won’t leave our breasts.
It is dim inside and the air is more pristine. A sliver of moonlight spills into the room, through the slanted louvers, Illuminating the vacuum some more. Our escort trips into a distant pathway. The room is silent. There is uncertainty lingering. We are sitting, our bods snuggling like phrases that cannot make perfect meaning on their own. She looks at me, the asthmatic patient; head askew, and says my name is Omah. My name is Julie, I say. Thank you for helping me, she says again, radiating gratitude. The other girls begin to introduce themselves, and soon we are seams of longing, abutting, finding perfection in the tiny strings of desperation that binds and makes us whole.
I ask Omah why she is here in her condition. The girls are dying to ask the same question. Omah says she has two little brothers, alone in the world. Even though she couldn’t go to school herself, she is determined to send them to school. Good schools. Nothing has worked for her in Nigeria, even prostitution is fraught with stiff competition. Her voice starts to break. I throw my arm around her, gently. We are bonding. All of us are eager to tell our tale. The next girl, Tonia; awkward and graceless. She says her mom sent her here. Her mom says she is tired of providing for two people. The Nigerian men at the brothels do not fancy her. She is no good to anyone; maybe the men in Europe will find good use for her. The next girl, Ese; firm and resolute, with a face that lights up the whole of Niger. She says she does not know her mother, just the treasured memories of her short life, passed on by her late father. He died when she was fifteen. Her uncles confiscated his properties. She joined the streets, and they have shown her no clemency. But if Europe is kind, she would come back, and visit her uncles with a wrath that is sure and swift.
Our escort comes back out, disrupting the moment. Her finger curls to Ije; she follows her back through the same course. Ije does not come back. Ese and others follow subsequently, and none of them comes back out. I am next. I trail this escort, hot on her heels. We make a right, past a guard, into another hallway with identical doors on each side. We keep moving, until we come to the last door, to the left. It is a connection to the other side. A cluster of buildings, walls smudged with sleazy graffiti, multiple doors from every side, and it leaves you wondering where they lead. I am queasy and ill, and everywhere funks of musk and infamy.
This escort points me to a door leading into a room and scrambles away. A man, queer and curt, with a voice that fills space is sitting across the room. Above him are atomic lights, whirling, and spraying happy colors across the surface. My eyes comb for the girls, but I don’t see any of them. He shows me to a seat in front of him. Circling around me lazily, he cuts strands of my hair, finger nails, three cuts at the back of the neck; each ingredient into a receptacle, and every movement promises a different incantation. I am receptive until he asks me to remove my panties. I ask what all of these have to do with my panties. He says it is for an oath taking. That is how they ensure the girls come back to repay their sponsors and, if they don’t, they die painfully. The door is always open if you do not want any of this. He carries the halo of someone who is doing me a huge favor. Not exertive or persuasive. Nothing of the sort. I remove my panties. He cuts hair from my pubic parts. Reciting gibberish after him, I gulp down the content of this receptacle. And, by God, a cosmic part of my soul inhabits it.
He calls for the guard at the door. Take her, he says, and turns to me; eyes half lidded, mouth twisting: do as you are told from here on out, everything depends on it. We walk out of the room, each foot placed carefully where the other vacates. We go past a dark alley, into an enclosure, and down to a cellar. This place, in the cellar, is a rectangle of lurid red, and music is thumping from everywhere. I am static, absorbing a world I do not fit into. A pitch-colored man is dancing on the stage. He is lusty and unclad to his cock. A harem of honey-colored women are moving convincingly to his tune. The girls on the rostrum are bare and slinky; green eyebrows extending to their temples, heels high, liquor rolling on their skin, and they nestle and lap from each other. One guy is cartwheeling. A girl abets him; her mouth bouncing gently on his cock like hydraulics. They take the form of a catapult. Everyone here is springy: they are a rubic cube puzzle of different shades, shifting with abandon, and converging to remain singular.
A guy comes to collect me.The blackest and shortest man I have ever seen. He brings me to a doorway; his head moves in a silent command. There are three men inside. They are set. They are gaping at me, but they do not talk. They spring all over me like a swarm of bees. I try to wriggle away but their hold is steady. I don’t stop trying, still. Bawling. Whinging. Kicking. Finally, one says with a deep voice, and an accent that is thick and elastic: you best keep still, if you wish to travel with the others tomorrow. His words conspire to kill what little fight is left in my broken spirit. I have persevered and journeyed this far, If this is what it takes to ensure my sister gets the good life, then amen.
Piping chortles heave— rising and falling—ruckus cueing in to fill in the gaps; a bright coppery sun is skimming the horizon, as new morning bedlam rises. We are sitting in an open jeep,our minds chewing on the events of yesterday, but our tongues are unable to string together any words of coherent drift. So we let our eyes fall on each other, regarding and gleaning, hoping that by some miracle, we find peace in the choices we have made. We are heading to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, through the Sahara, and I can’t help but worry for Omah.
The coast of Tripoli: a morass of people traffic and a mishmash of jostling struggles. Voices are tussling to topple themselves, pitches littered, and the brisk and warm Mediterranean Sea air is circling and circling and it breathes inside your head like a coconut, unfaltering and drenches out everything significant, even the tiniest little thoughts. We meet our sponsor for the first time. A thick-set, ebony woman. We are gathered in one place, waiting for the boat that sails to Italy. It arrives, the boat—a dinghy. Hundreds of people are scrambling to get in. The girls too. People open their legs for another to sit in between. Packed,they sail. Another comes around. Same thing happens again. The last one comes around. The girls are shouting at me to get in. I freeze. Time is whizzing past and you pray it slows down. Time is you getting a pedicure, and it leaves a slight perforation at the edge of your biggest toe. The spindly toe next, niggles at it because there is pleasure that makes the pain sweet. Sweet pain. Spindly niggles and niggles until the sweetness silently drifts away. Pain is all there is, and it spreads. And you struggle to get spindly to stop because the movement is almost involuntary.
Before me is unbounded panorama corrugating, whorling, and straggling as far as the eyes can see. Same blush adjoining to form a curve that falls far behind me—a world that is blue, misty and unclear. All we have to test this vast world is an overload dinghy. The odds are staked firmly against us. I am unable to see any flickers in all of the chaos. I had promised my sister a better life, not a bloated body, half-naked, face discolored and hands with skin peeling off in large chunks, floating face-down near the water’s edge. The world is darn cold, and I cannot leave her alone in it. Not while it is in my power. Omah, in a bid to convince me says, sometimes you have to shut your eyes and just make a leap, hoping that when you land, you don’t break a leg. If I know anything about life, it is this: that when the stakes are higher, we do not pleasure in taking risks and, if ever we do, it is because what is on the other side is worth the candle. However, when events begin to wind down; we like to kid ourselves that we are there because we had dared to hope. Hope is just a puff in the air, believe is the wind that gives it power and direction. Standing here, it is much easier for me to just try to hope, but deep inside I do not have the believe to make this final leap. I bid the girls farewell, and ramble into the the city of Tripoli, from there I will find my way back to Nigeria. And back to my sister.
Much later, I stray into an establishment. It is owned by an Algerian. Here, I learn that none of the boats that left this morning made it into Europe. They all sank in the Mediterranean Sea. It is all over the news. They say there are few survivors rescued by the Italian authorities. The rank and file are distempered and the people stink. They blame the European Governments. They blame war. They blame everything; even the sea. The countries have all their defenses up. My feet slips into my belly. The air around me pauses for a moment. Time is suspended and images become blurry. I manage to muster and mumble a few words of supplication: that If perhaps the girls didn’t make it, and if there is ever a God and some golden paradise bundled up somewhere, I hope they get recompense. I pray they get a look-in. Nigeria was hell enough.