Mama Itohan was in the kitchen singing as she always did while carrying out her chores. She heard her name being called from outside so loudly that it made her jump. "Na who dey shout my name this afternoon" she answered.
She ran to hug her friend whom she had not seen in at least three years. "Ivie na so you just waka comot from village, I no come see you since?!" Ivie looked good and somewhere in Mama Itohan's heart she wondered why the gods had not yet smiled on her. She had been in the same village with Ivie until her disappearance three years ago with no forwarding address.
The two women spent time catching up and laughing heartily like old times. They grew up together and had been closest of friends for as long as they both could remember.
When Mama Itohan asked Ivie where she had been, Ivie only told her that she had moved to the city and quickly changed the topic. A secret she intended to keep.
Mama Itohan's children returned from school and were equally excited to see their mother's friend. Unfortunately, they knew their mother would neglect them for the rest of the day. She had not even cooked for them. Itohan swung into action and made sure a meal was prepared for herself and her siblings.
Ivie had been studying Itohan, her mother noticed and asked what the problem might be. Ivie then told her how Itohan was growing into a beautiful young woman and she would like to take Itohan to the city. Itohan would be her children’s nanny and in return, she would ensure that Itohan completed her secondary school. It would be up to Itohan to choose if she wanted to continue schooling after then. Mama Itohan leaped for joy, her child would become the star in the village, she thought to herself. She accepted the proposal without even checking with Itohan.
Itohan packed her things amidst tears, she was forced to leave her life behind and the one she was just beginning to fall in love with. She was only fifteen. A part of her was curious to see outside her village but she just was not ready.
Two years down the line, Itohan was not very pleased with the way her guardian had been treating her in this strange land. She only got to speak very briefly to her family once a week. They had moved to a European country and for that Itohan was grateful. She remembered the joy in her mother’s voice the day her mother was told they were leaving Nigeria. For some reason, parents in her state loved the thought of their children moving abroad, it gave their reputations a boost.
Itohan would turn eighteen soon but Ivie had started to act even more coldly towards her. The affection Ivie once showed seemed to vanish with every passing day. Itohan kept her cool and passed her time bonding with Ivie’s children. They were such a joy to be around.
On that fateful day, Ivie walked straight to Itohan looking extremely mad at her. Itohan was shaken to her bones. She had never seen the woman so angry. After having it out and raining all the insults on Itohan, she finally made her declaration. "You have to find a way of paying me back for bringing you to this country". Itohan was blank, wondering what she meant. It was like Ivie heard her thoughts, “keep staring, I will show you how when I have your time” she said.
A night to Itohan’s eighteenth birthday, she woke Itohan up at night and asked her to get dressed. Itohan obeyed and she took her on a long drive. Itohan was so sleepy that she hardly heard anything Ivie had to say. Suddenly, they seemed to be in a red light district. Itohan was wide awake. Girls so skimpily dressed were all over the streets, they seemed to be having the time of their lives. "You like what you see don’t you?" The question jolted her out of her thoughts. That was when the realisation suddenly hit her. This was how she was meant to pay! She jumped out of the car and ran, ran for her dear life!
Ivie was in shock that she could not even bring herself to chase after Itohan. Knowing she didn’t have any place in the country, she knew Itohan would be back. Then, she would learn a hard lesson.
Itohan finally stopped to breathe, that was when it hit her that she had probably made the biggest mistake…or not? Her travel documents had been confiscated by Ivie, she had absolutely nowhere to go. She wondered what Ivie's role in this could be...was she a ring owner?
Weeks passed, yet Itohan had not returned. Ivie knew she had to do something drastic. She took a trip back to the village to meet with Mama Itohan.
She stormed into the compound calling out as usual, only this time, angrily!
Mama Itohan ran out to embrace her friend but that wasn’t welcomed. Ivie took her by the wrapper, "where is my money?" "Ahn ahn" Mama Itohan managed to let out in confusion wondering what was happening. Ivie was enraged but Mama Itohan could not understand why. The neighbours heard the shouting and people started to gather. "Wetin dey happen?" they asked. "She dey owe me money" Ivie replied. Mama Itohan just looked on at this point. It suddenly hit her, "where Itohan dey" she asked. And that was when it became a heated argument.
Ivie was caught off guard and everyone seemed to turn on her asking for Itohan. She remained firm that her money had to be paid for taking the girl abroad. She maintained that all the girls she had taken away were doing well and building houses back home with the money they saved for their parents. She asked them what they thought the girls did for a living. Ivie found a way to make it clear to Mama Itohan that her daughter ran away the very day she was supposed to be taught how to pull the ropes. Mama Itohan was distraught, wondering where her daughter could be, but was silently proud that her girl still had her values intact!
I had heard so many stories about human trafficking in Nigeria. Edo state has always been identified as the hub of this human trafficking.
I visited Benin city (the capital of Edo state) two years ago but very briefly, it was a weekend trip as I attended a friend's wedding. I went on a Friday, attended the wedding on Saturday and was out of the city early on Sunday morning. I may have seen a few places but I was in the company of friends so I didn't really see or interact with the indigenous people.
This time I went looking and ready to interact with everybody I would come in contact with. I went to villages, different towns and had to meet different people, I had to get an impression about this human trafficking. The impression I got in general was that the traffickers were protected, people were unwilling to release information. There was a general sense of hostility, suspicion and a conspiracy of silence. You could be part of the authorities and nobody wanted to be implicated.
I had heard stories of ladies who were taken from rural areas and promised a better life outside Nigeria but ended up being forced into a ring of prostitution. I watched a documentary once in Paris focusing on girls trafficked from Edo state, Nigeria. The ring got busted! It was shameful to see and of course, a few friends called to ask if I was watching. I walked past some of them a few times and after hearing them speak, I could tell where they were from!
There are ladies in situations similar to Itohan but the question to ask would be how they would integrate themselves back into normal lives if/when they finally find a way out. How would they even find a way out in the first place?
The National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) works tirelessly to prevent human trafficking but also has a series of activities that help to rehabilitate and reintegrate victims back into society.
The Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) is another organisation that provides counselling and rehabilitation.
NAPTIP and WOTCLEF have facts, figures and amazing evidence of cases of human trafficking and how they have managed to intervene.
I recently found out, that among the many things the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Red Cross (RC) do, they deal with such cases. Where family contact has been lost due to human trafficking, the one seeking to re-establish contact would need to find the nearest ICRC/RC office and send a message or initiate a request for the family to be contacted or found. As long as precise information is given, the case would be treated and when successful, both parties would be put back in touch.
It saddens me that people are able to profit from such wicked acts. In any case, this is my little contribution to enlighten anyone who may be interested in this subject. Should you know anyone whose family member may have been trafficked, they can reach out to these organisations.
Mama Itohan = Itohan's mother
Ahn ahn = an exclamation. In this case, expressing shock
Some sentences are in pidgin. If you do not understand pidgin, please find a Nigerian around you and ask. Or feel free to write me :-)