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Slavery as a Metaphor of Abuse of Human Rights

In On Black Sisters’ Street,3 four African women work as prostitutes in Brussels. One of them, who falls in love with a white man, attempts to escape the control of their pimp and is killed by the mafia. Her death brings the remaining three closer, and the fear they have for their lives moves them to tell one another their stories and to give a closer consideration to those lives. Can humans own other humans the way we own pets or other animals? This question goes to the heart of article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security ofperson.”4 The naturalist school ofhuman rights, to which the UDHRowes its philosophy, as Marie-Benedicte Dembour argues, would answer in the negative to the above question.5 Humans cannot own other humans. That would be slavery, and slavery is a crime against humanity. Yet, the fundamental assumption of patriarchy raises the question of whether women’s bodies really belong to them. Patriarchy assumes that women’s bodies belong to society, that is, men.

On Black Sisters’ Street derives its depth largely from its subliminal association with transatlantic slavery, which is one of the grossest instances of the abuse of people’s rights in history. Dele owns a business, “Dele and Sons Ltd: Import-Export Specialists”6 that offers women “a passage to Europe.”7 His company purports to help girls escape the misery of Nigeria, which he calls a nonsensical country. Most of the girls are well aware of the type of jobs they will be doing in Europe. Nevertheless, given the economic stress they and their families face in Nigeria, they grudgingly agree to take part in the business. In exchange for making the necessary connections and for sending them to Europe, Dele charges them €30,000 each. They have to pay only when they arrive in Europe.8 They instantly become slaves—if only indentured slaves. Dele’s use of the phrase “passage to Europe” is one of Unigwe’s deliberate acts of association with transatlantic slavery, the Middle Passage. In so doing she provides us with answers to the question that these displaced bodies in pain ask about human rights in Africa. We are alerted to the fact that these women are not being accorded the dignities they deserve as human beings, who, according to the UDHR, “are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; rather, they are being accorded a passage just like their kin had been three centuries before.9

Dele is a synecdoche for the patriarchs of his society; his relation to women is that of master to his servants. Women exist in his life to serve his material needs, which includes functioning as sex slaves. If we understand Dele as a synecdoche, we must also read his relationship to women as figurative of the male-female relationship in Africa. While seeking to convince Sisi that she is a good product, Dele praises her body parts in obviously mercantile language. “See your backside, kai! Who talk say na dat Jennifer Lopez get the finest yansh.”10 Dele obviously fails to see Sisi as a person with dignity; he sees her as an object, something whose utilitarian value easily stands out. We observe a parallel between Dele and Baba Segi in regard to their attitudes towards women. There is nothing to suggest that Sisi sees herself as possessing rights and dignity; in this respect they are like Baba Segi’s first three wives. Furthermore, unlike the African slaves of the past,

Sisi is complicit in her objectification, and this presents a unique moral quandary. How can one empathize with a person who willfully accepts her own suffering? Yet it is important to understand the backstory of her selfdestruction. The severe economic conditions of her country have robbed her of the courage to lay claim to rights. What occupies her mind at the moment she agrees to Dele’s terms is how to escape the economic misery of her country; yet in agreeing to his conditions, she runs into a more difficult situation. She becomes someone’s property. Based on our discussion of polygamy in the preceding chapter, we establish a parallel between the conditions that drive women into polygamous marriage and those that force them to become sex slaves. In regard to women’s dignity, polygamy is not better than sex slavery. Both accord women no equal relation to men.

Nigerian sex trafficking in Europe is a highly organized business just like transatlantic slavery. In Belgium Sisi is received by Madam, the European representative of Dele’s company; Madam promptly seizes Sisi’s passport and tells her to declare herself an asylum seeker, a gesture meant to underscore her lack of status.11 Madam’s role in the enslavement of other women is troubling. But, as Althusser argues, no ideology functions without the cooperation of its victims. Ideology co-opts individuals and makes them subject.12 The seizure of Sisi’s passport is eloquent enough to let Sisi know that she has lost any claim to rights. But when her application is rejected, Madam shows no surprise. She tells Sisi that the rejection papers issued to her by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mean nothing, and goes on to enunciate the symbolic relevance of the seizure of the passport: “All you need to know is that you’re persona non grata in this country. You do not exist. Not here... Now you belong to me.”13 In Madam therefore, patriarchal ideology disrupts the relationship between women so that they, too, see one another as objects. Her utterance brings to full circle in Europe the dehumanization that was begun in Africa. Again, this appears to be a subtle recreation of the experience of transatlantic slavery. In Europe, during that era, African slaves, some of whom had been betrayed by their village or townspeople, became part of the estates of their many European slave owners, just as Sisi has become part of Dele’s company. Unigwe dramatizes the crime of modern sex trafficking in Africa in hopes of rousing people to indignation, and thereby establishing the universal application of the principles of human rights. If we condemn transatlantic slavery— as we should—then we should also condemn Dele’s enslavement of his fellow Africans today.

On Black Sisters’ Street plays with the theme of slavery and racism not only by allusion to transatlantic slavery, but also directly through the story of Joyce, who is otherwise known as Alek. She is a Sudanese refugee who was raped into unconsciousness by members of the Janjaweed militia, who called her a “stupid African slave.”14 In Joyce’s story we are reminded of an often neglected aspect of slavery in African history, which is that from the Arabian Peninsula. The Janjaweed militias obviously did not see themselves as Africans. By the time Alek has regained consciousness, the militia has left; she is cared for by the members of a UN refugee organization. It is important to remark here that the UN has organized refugee camps in keeping with its commitment to the concept of human rights. At this point, the UN acts not only as an immediate foil to the Janjaweed militia in Alek’s world; it also acts as a symbol of Unigwe’s belief in universal solidarity, one that defies ethnic or racial boundaries, and aims at the humanity of each individual person. The Janjaweed inflict pain while the UN agency provides care. The UN therefore functions on figurative and literal levels. On the figurative level, it stands for the inviolability of human dignity, an idea that was inscribed in its human rights charter. On the literal level, it actually takes care of Alek.

Unigwe does not suggest that the abuse of human rights is only an interracial crime; it is also intra-racial. It manifests itself not only in violent forms like that of the Janjaweed militia; it shows itself also in more subtle ways, such as in regarding members of other groups within one’s own race or ethnicity as unmarriageable and therefore of less value as persons. At the refugee camp, Alek meets Polycarp, a Nigerian soldier on a peacekeeping mission in Sudan. He falls in love with her and takes her back to Nigeria where they live as partners with intentions of starting a family. But this is not to be. Polycarp’s mother rejects Alek, claiming that she is a stranger; she insists that Polycarp, her first son, should marry an Igbo girl, not a foreigner, who is thought to be inferior and by implication, as possessing no dignity. Alek is shocked and disappointed by this experience of prejudice, which she had thought she had escaped. Did the UN not restore her belief in the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all people? The actions and beliefs of Polycarp’s mother are, in regard to Alek’s dignity, equally heinous. We have thus far different levels of disregard for the rights of individuals: slavery, rape, and ethnicism. Unfortunately, the ethnicism exhibited by Polycarp’s mother pales when Polycarp leads Alek to Dele, knowing that Dele will help her make the “passage to Europe.” And, like the African slaves centuries before, Alek receives a new name, one thought out by Polycarp and Dele: Joyce. Unigwe displays some touch of irony in the selection of name for this “chattel.” Joyce is supposed to announce or bring joy to Alek. But she obviously does not see it that way. She feels that she has been objectified:

Dele pointed at her, slapped his thighs and burst into fresh gales of laughter, holding his head in his hands, as if the force of the laughter would snap it off... Anger rose in Alek’s throat and threatened to make her shout but she pushed it down. She had no energy left for anger. The soldiers that raped her that night in Daru had taken her strength, and Polycarp’s betrayal had left her unwilling to seek it back.15

It is perhaps no accident that the Janjaweed, Polycarp, and Dele all have targeted Alek (Joyce) as a woman. With them, the oppression of women crosses geographical boundaries and becomes no longer just cultural, but transnational.16

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