The immediate motivation for writing this essay is an old video which I re-watched recently from ‘A Night of a Thousand Laughs’ in which Comedian Basket Mouth referred to Edo girls as being interested only in the ‘International League’ with their corporate headquarters in Italy. He had lampooned Calabar and Yoruba ladies drawing from popular, street mythologies and ended with Benin girls’ penchant for prostitution in foreign lands. Of course the alliterative ‘doh sir doh ma doh papa doh uncle’ was amusing and the audience did not fail the performer. They broke into wild laughter – you see ashawo no be work!
It was a serious joke about an entire ethnic group, an ethnic group which has one of the oldest and strongest, respectable and very traditional monarchies in Nigeria, an ethnic group that confronted the imperial Britain in the twilight of its reign over the entire world. Often when a joke is at one’s expense it is not considered funny by the target. One of the attractions of comedy is that it pokes fun at serious issues in a lighthearted manner. Beneath the joke, the fun, and the laughter a message is passed on. One of the reactions is to change the existing conditions which stirred the barbs in the first place. On the positive side, I do remember that the First Lady during Governor Lucky Igbinedion years in Government House Benin initiated a project to repatriate girls from Italy. I don’t have any record that the Comrade Adams Oshiomhole administration continued with the project. So what went wrong? What has gone wrong?
What went wrong between 1897 when Oba Ovonranwen Nogbaisi boldly confronted European exploitation and 2017 that his future subjects have volunteered themselves as tools of pleasure in the hands of European sexual predators? What has compelled mothers and daughters to connive in the debauchery that is prostitution in faraway Italy and other European capitals? What has, what can the Edo State government do to clear this stigma from the once proud Edo people? What role has the Nigerian government in restoration? Why is Italy a preferred destination? These may be academic questions because as we ‘speak’ the dubiously profitable trade is going on between Benin and Italy!
In some major Italian cities and across Europe there are hundreds if not thousands of ladies of African ancestry who practice the night trade, subtly referred to as ‘commercial sex workers’. I am reliably informed that they are all over South Africa these days, working hard with their sexual organs in order to repatriate funds back home. It is a nice way of saying that they are doing ‘ashawo’ work! As an aside I remember Osita Osadebe’s 1970s hit song ‘Ashawo no be work’, a song which it made it clear that ‘ashawo na management! But our current ladies see it as ‘work’. A variant of it is euphemisms such as ‘runs girls’ or ‘call girls’, ‘pleasure ladies’, ‘pay as you go ladies.’
Sadly, a high percentage of them are from Nigeria, with the highest concentration coming from Edo State. All kinds of reasons have been adduced for the upsurge in the number of ladies who have ventured into this dubious trade. The major reason so far advanced is an economic hardship or lack of access to economic advancement opportunities. To be sure the prostitution network is a vicious and powerful one, with connections from major cities in Europe, Asia and America. It involves trickery and deception, inducement, fetish objects, intimidation, manipulation, abduction, exploitation, and sexual exploitation. It is a million dollar enterprise that makes the string pullers rich. But it is often done in the dark, just as the patrons and traffickers remain in the dark. The only people who never really get rich are the victims of sex trafficking, though some manage to break free and remit monies home to buy property or sell cars.
The madams who come soliciting for girls to work in Europe or wherever are not women of virtue. They are essentially businesswomen. The new dimension which the Edo experience has shown is that some mothers are in the know. They are privy to sending their daughters to make money and send back home in order to lift the family out of poverty. It is true that some gullible ones leave Nigeria without the correct knowledge about life in Europe. But judging by the level of information in the public space, the percentage of those who believe that decent jobs await them in Italy must be negligible.
The route to Europe is not a pleasant one. From when they take off from Nigerian borders by road through the desert till they get to North Africa and cross over to Italy there are different hazards. Some get killed by robbers. Some are stranded in North African cities, used as slaves. I got communication from a friend who lives in Mauritania that some Nigerian girls are a source of constant embarrassment to everyone. They are kept in chains by masters of the game.
In the prostitution chain human life means nothing, that is, it is easily expendable. The objective is profit. The cigar-smoking baron or the voluptuous Madame in a mansion in say Paris, London, Lagos, Benin, Brussels or Milan, does not do the dirty work. The foot soldiers who do not know the big bosses directly do the dirty job. The security men who give protection are also part of the chain. Invariably there is money for everyone. Everyone is happy but humanity is further debased and values destroyed.
In interrogating this subject of what Edo girls are doing in Italy I would like to reference Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession in which the playwright argues that it is difficult to preach morality to persons who are disenfranchised institutionally. Certainly, the Bini ladies (along with their compatriots from other ethnic groups), must enjoy high patronage in Italy. Benin City in the 70s was a place to be in. Sporting activities, entertainment, and career jobs were available. It was the same in Nigeria generally. The term or the practice of ‘ashawo’ was taboo. But suddenly values were upturned.
Added to this, was the declining economic fortunes of Edo State and the rest of the country. Some powerful Madame emerged in Edo State and promoted the narrative of ‘making it abroad’. As they repatriated funds and opened car shops and hotels, it became fashionable to send girls abroad to learn the trade and get into the big league.
The Edo State government working with NANTIP should enter into a restoration projection. Some of the ladies are trapped in Italy and some other countries and cannot return. Special centres should be created for the returnees and the Edo State government should quickly respond by creating jobs for the youth.
Most of the ladies are indebted to the Madame who trafficked them. Repayment is a forever thing. It is the second stage of enslavement. It is a continuation of the exploitation which Europe perfected to build their cities and infrastructure. This time, however, our girls appear to benefit from the trade at the risk of losing their health and lives. Our governments at different levels should embark on a programme that would prick the dead conscience of our people. The message should be ‘Ashawo no be work!