Author: Ifeanyi Ajaegbo
Publisher: Picador Africa
Publishing Date: 2012
Number of pages: 199
Modern day slavery. Not the old time version where human beings were grabbed on African coasts and sent to pick cotton or to farm sugar in the New World. This new slavery is a different animal. Anyone who have been watching CNN in the last few years, in spite of the awful Christiane Amanpour and Piers Morgan, will have seen that their Freedom project to combat modern day slavery. In this version which is underground, people are kidnapped and then have to work as slaves doing some of the worst work one can think of. Think sex and grunt work that would make even Patsie from 12 Years A Slave collapse in a day.
I hadn’t thought much about this horrible practice until I encountered Sarah House the Picador Africa debut of Nigerian writer Ifeanyi Ajaegbo. The book tells the tale of Nita, a young girl from a village on the banks on the River Opodo who is kidnapped by her boyfriend Slim who has promised a wonderful life when she leaves. What she finds couldn’t be further from this amazing life as she wakes up in a small room with several other young girls wondering where her beloved is. It eventually emerges that she is supposed to work for Slim in the flesh trade with the young women she awoke to find as her companions.
She goes through a few distressing events as part of her initiation in her new life including rape by one of Slims goons to make her less “uncomfortable with strangers.” On her first official day of “working” she is shuttled to Sarah House, an exclusive brothel and sold to a new owner who simply goes by the name Madam. Madam buys both her and her friend-in-the-trade Tega.
This house is an interesting one. Not only is it a brothel but it also has an orphanage where young children are given an opportunity at a new life. Nita falls in love with a five year old child in the orphanage called Damka and takes her under her wing. Eventually she is approached by police to break the prostitution and slavery ring and she has reservations as she is starting to grow in this prostitution food chain. This is because she has gotten the favour of Chief, a powerful politician. Some unfortunate events however occur to force her hand.
This is a very important story. It shows that the trade in flesh sometimes isn’t the way we imagine. When we are driving down certain streets or strip clubs many of us see these scantily clad women and we snub our noses at them. Some of these women are not there of their own volition as they were taken from their homes and forced down this route. The bleak lives these scantily clad women have to endure every day is depicted quite well by the writer.
Also sad is that this horrible treatment of our fellow women is not what you hear about in the news; people being kidnapped and taken to foreign climes in the west or (middle) East. This is brutality being meted out on Africans to their own kind. I know that cruelty doesn’t have a colour but sometimes I naively hope that we would treat each other more humanely.
This book is not without its flaws. The character development could have been much better. The main protagonist in the book Nita suddenly appears on the scene fully formed and we have to empathise with her. Without any previous history, it is very difficult to contrast her new situation. I really feel that this one character should have been fleshed out to help the story along. Some of the other characters are a bit too similar. The strongmen in the book are all huge behemoths without too much in the way of brains. Fatty (Slim’s enforcer) and Stone (Madam’s enforcer) are interchangeable big dudes which shouldn’t be this way with a book.
Port Harcourt based Ajaegbo can write which is probably why he was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story 2005 Competition Africa region. However with this book it’s more like they would say when an average singer would sing in Christian Union (CU)/Young Christian Society (YCS) back in high school/college; listen to the message, not the technique of the person delivering it.