Bini Girl, Italy for Better Life: Revisiting Human Smuggling

Benin girl with leopard

It doesn’t matter what you say, it doesn’t matter how you say it. When I look at your face, I know. I know the years have not been kind to you.

I remember the rejoicing that followed your impending departure all those years ago. Poverty is cruel. Greed is crueller. It makes a man sell his daughter into prostitution and celebrate. The merriment that heralds your return surpasses the one that followed your father’s trek to Western Union in the beginning.

Siwo, siwo.        Siwo!

Wokhin?           Ọyemwen nor.

Urhuẹse, Baba o!

Urhuẹse Ijesu mwen!

Urhuẹse, urhuẹse,

Urhuẹse, Baba o!

Their celebration is valid for at one time, they did not expect your return. When the news of your neighbour’s daughter’s death reached iye a few years after you left, she clutched iye Osaretin’s blouse as though by so doing, the fear in her eyes would be transferred to iye Osaretin’s heart and not lodge itself in her own.

Osa sinmwin ovbimwen, ghẹ giẹ wu,” your mother cried.

It was your roommate who told us you had travelled on business. What business could keep you silent for two years they questioned, as if they did not know? As if the money they expected you to send to build your father a house in Upper Sakponba, would be earned in one place. As if they had not heard that competition was fierce. As if baba had not visited the shrine and iye gone for mass, three times a day, when news about Benin girls disappearing in Italy first broke out.

When they finally heard your voice, although iye’s relief was tangible, it did not override her scolding.

“Enough! Come home. Come back. I want to see you again before I die.”

But you could not. You were mortgaged up to the hair on your pubic regions and she knew it.

People said your mum became crazy after that. She carried on like a full-clothed mad woman, lips moving, sounds trapped. But when I stood close to her, I heard her praying for all of us, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” I chorused, amen, in my mind so I would not startle her out of her self-imposed dementia.

Seven years later, having fulfilled your obligations to all, you are free. I do not imagine the bed sheets were pretty pink or the mattresses soft. I cannot believe you are the same—your mind had to have taken a blow many times over.

I do not want your money. I am not proud. But I cannot receive money that you earned while losing your dignity. It would be a bigger crime than the one I committed when they sold you.

I was nineteen then, an object of shame, an ungrateful daughter, because I preferred to study, finish school, get a job, and then support my family. Your mother helped with my school fees. I know you didn’t know. Now you know why I stayed away from my home and why I was always in yours. To my family, I was a corpse, not much to look at, and I stank to Heaven.

That was why I was surprised iye acquiesced to your leaving to do work. That day, I opened my mouth, but her eyes said, “No, hold your peace.” Blackmail is not always explicit and my desire to escape from Benin through education was so strong. My silence was my crime.

And now you say, “It was my choice!” stamping your foot as if truth can enter the cement floor where we are standing.

What does a sixteen year old know about choice? How can you make a choice if there are no options —at least options that you know about? How could you make a choice when I who knew, who could show you how to say no or run away, kept quiet. And when you mingled the blood that flowed from the tiny incision on your hand with theirs, and drank from the calabash, your lack of choice was sealed.

I am glad that you are back. I never stopped chorusing amen to iye’s inaudible prayer, even after I moved to Lagos. I passed by your house in GRA on my way into town. Your younger brother, Lucky, insisted on showing it to me, pride filled his voice, filled the car, he did not hear me when I said, I had seen enough. So, I shook him as he inched the car nearer the gate. Bewilderment covered his face until he remembered I am a corpse, I stink to Heaven, and corpses don’t applaud.

Please don’t leave the money on the table, don’t insult me that way. If your money can erase your past, I would take it. Smile for everyone else. Let the gap in your front teeth show how strong you are. But now we are alone, forgive me and cry with me because in the thick of the night, I hear your tender cries, as I always did, even when distance separated us.


1.             Any resemblance of the characters to persons living or dead is coincidental. This is a work of fiction.

2.             According to the Photographer’s Statement on,

“The term trafficking of persons is restricted to instances where people are deceived, threatened, or coerced into situations of exploitation, including prostitution. This contrasts with human smuggling, in which a migrant purchases services to circumvent immigration restrictions, but is not a victim of deception or exploitation.”

View Pablo Patrizi’s documentary photography on the issue here.

3.            For more information, watch AlJazeera’s twenty-five-minute documentary, People & Power-The Nigerian Connection II . While I do not endorse the video in its entirety, it touches on some of the relevant issues.

4.            Read, The Girls from Benin City, The New Slave Trade from Nigeria to the Streets of Italy, a book from an insider about human trafficking/smuggling.

© Timi Yeseibo 2013

Photo credit: Girl with Leopard, plaque from Nigeria, Court of Benin, Edo people, c. 1600, bronze or brass, De Young Museum by Wmpearl (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.’Girl_with_Leopard’%2C_plaque_from_Nigeria%2C_Court_of_Benin%2C_c._1600.JPG


Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

My Best Friend and I


I sit down to listen as she talks. Expounding, avoiding the point, a rigmarole that I could tapdance to. Her words come out this way and then that way, like a rolling boulder, gathering sympathy on the way to… to… to a grand destination! She is a conductor who hopes to finish on a high note and with a flourish.

I bury my tired sighs in empathy-filled coos—ah, eh, oh, ewo, nawa, kpele, and if her pause is long enough, I fill it with phrases—you don’t say! It’s a lie! What in the world? My inflections are on point.

I had come home from my eight-hour stint in front of a glass-box. Hands flying over the keyboard, I have made others rich, but it is an honest day’s job. I would have loved to zone out for thirty minutes, but she was already waiting. Although dinner is late, it would be taboo to multitask. Opening cupboards, lifting pots, chopping onions, and letting the tomato sauce simmer while she talks would steal from her moment. Her troubles occupy centre-stage.

Her narrative is a complex equation. It is like her, she is a woman after all. My forty-hour work week is spent making complex things simple. I sift through her words eliminating redundancies, shortening super-long sentences, and knocking out nominalisations. I simplify the equation, I solve the problem, I know the answer, but I listen for another ten minutes. I know the folly of being the child that interrupts the teacher’s question to shout out the answer.

I know she is done, talking that is, because she sighs and leans back in her chair, inviting me to pick the microphone. I know the danger of ignoring reflective listening, so I say the things she has already said in my crisp, brief manner, and then I dangle an option here and another there. After she nods a couple of times, I drop the life-line. I itemise the solution. Her eyes light up as if she is a child who was offered a second round of candy. But like a sugar high, her joy does not last long.

“Who will help me do it?”

“I will.”

Her delight is my reward.

I rise to embrace routine, the mindless things I do when I return home from work. Kicking my shoes off, sifting through mail, I hum a tune, a song from the radio that I didn’t know I knew.

“It is getting late, are you not going to do it?”

Preoccupied, I almost miss her question. I toss my answer carelessly as though sprinkling salt in stew.

“I will do it.”

I open the fridge and stare. It is a game I sometimes play, what will I eat for dinner?

“I thought you said you’d help me.”

“I will.”

My movements are slow. Something is brewing in the air. I lose focus. I forget why I am in the kitchen. I remember and bring out some minced meat.

“When are you going?”

“I’m not sure. But don’t worry, I will sort it out.”

There is a moment, when we are angry, or afraid, or hurt, that rational thinking peeks through the adrenaline rush, a small window of opportunity that lasts maybe thirty seconds. Sometimes I think its sole purpose is to fill us with regret later as we shake our heads, “If only—.”

“If they close before you get there, it will be your fault, and you will have to pay with your money.”

I marvel. I do not respond. Is this why her ex-husband left her—the nagging and the threats? It is a cruel thing for me to think. That is not why he left her, but it is what she has become, beneath the nagging, beneath her threat, she is clingy, fearful, unsure, and unable to trust.

“I said I will do it.”

She is still speaking, making simple things complex.

I will not be bullied with words and won over with guilt. I will not succumb to pity and say yes to desperation.

She is still speaking, making simple things complex.

I stand in front of her, catching her eye. There are many things there—fear, anger, anxiety—things that I did not put there.

“I said I will take care of it. Leave it to me.”

I head for my room, dinner forgotten. When I open the door, the wind rushes in through the window to embrace me. Its force would separate me from the door if I let go of the handle, slamming it. And she’ll think I am angry, but I am not. I only want to regain my sanity and remember why she is my best friend and why I care so much. So I hold the handle and let the door click gently in place.

© Timi Yeseibo 2013

Photo credit: ©Alexandre Vanier/

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Policing Ourselves: Imagine That!

policing ourselves

Three years ago, I read in a national daily that the sergeants-at-arms of the national and state assemblies were to be trained in crisis management and parliamentary combat control. They were to complete rudimentary physical drills and simulations that are adapted to tempestuous law-making chambers where members freely jab each other and often aim at the symbol of authority, the mace, to disrupt proceedings. I had a good laugh then even though it was a factual report written devoid of humour.

Beyond the hilarity, I wondered why we need to be policed all the time, why voluntary compliance is so lacking. We have thrown self-discipline out the window and need the brutal arms of uniformed men to coerce compliance out of us like malu congo, yama yama congo—a derogatory chant that I cried out as a girl. It was aimed at cows being driven with a stick by a herdsman intent on the cows doing his bidding. LASTMA, for example, has borne the ugly brunt of many-a-jokes, but its existence means the joke is on us.

There is a clarion call for visionary leaders, honest leaders, and accountable leaders. Bad leadership gets the blame for the ills that plague our communities. However, the present crop of leadership is drawn from the current population so, what you have is what you get. Like the computer, garbage in, garbage out. Or was it from watching violent American movies that those legislators learnt how to engage the opposition with punches?

One view of leadership postulates that leadership is ultimately about getting people to contribute to making something great happen. Rallying supporters to violently disrupt proceedings in the House of Assembly while stirring them up with we-no-go-gree-style chants is not what this view of leadership advocates.

Leadership also involves self-discipline. We would do well to imbibe the words of the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu, “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”

The other day, I waited in the crowded hall of a bank to pay in a cheque and there were only two bank tellers at the counter.

Their supervisor sat in a glass-walled office, oblivious to the impatient crowd. Where was initiative? She could have risen from her throne to work out a way to dispel the crowd. But, why should she? It was the same scenario day after day, and the bank was not losing customers on account of it.

A gentleman and I bemoaned our fate. We prayed that the “system” would not “go down” before it was our turn to be served.

He said, “I could have been at the front of the queue. A friend offered me a space in front of him and the man behind him did not mind.”

“Why didn’t you take the offer, you could have been out of here by now?”

“I didn’t want to cause confusion, like that man.”

He drew my attention to a man with swagger.

“Excuse me,” Mr Swagger said to the man on the queue who was next in line to be served, “I just want to ask a question.”

Distrust shone through the other man’s eyes. Suspicion made him move slowly, but he made room for Mr Swagger to stand in front of him. Then wham bam before you could say leadership, cheque and money exchanged hands. Mr Swagger tucked his bundle in his pocket and sauntered casually out of the hall, toothpick in mouth, as if he had just finished eating bush meat. He had taken us for a ride. Tomorrow when he becomes local government champion, I mean chairman, he will take us for a longer ride and maybe outsmart the opposition with his fists.

Barack Obama inspired millions when he said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” In other words, good leadership begins with me and leading others starts today not when I get to Aso Rock.

According to the report in the daily paper, after the police suppress a fracas in the Assembly, lawmakers always point out that the disgraceful event occurs not just in Nigeria alone. So, if I put my hand in the fire, will you too put your hand in the fire? We cannot continue to justify our bad behaviour on the bad behaviour of our neighbours. We are old enough to distinguish between good and bad.

Now, before you and I turn up our noses at the “fighters” for justice, we would do well to consider that the cloak of shame widens to engulf us all, whether living at home or abroad. And as long as we still need WAI, KAI, TimaRiv, LASTMA, and the likes, in addition to regular law enforcement, we will have bad leadership.

Ol boy eh, garbage in garbage out!

©Timi Yeseibo 2013

The original article, Policing Ourselves: Imagine That!, first appeared here on November 4, 2010. Nearly three years later, the contents remain relevant.


People illustrations by Microsoft

Design: ©Timi Yeseibo 2013


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I am Africa and No, You Cannot Touch My Hair

africa woman globe

“Can I touch your hair?”

How did we get to this point? How did this stranger get the nerve to ask this personal question?

You see, I am at the park, with a book I will not read because watching people is so much better. Behind my sunglasses, I can stare for as long as I want. No one will know, so no one will care.

When she arrived with her multi-coloured handbag, wearing a blue dress with little white daisy patterns, underneath a light green sport coat, a bright pink scarf around her neck, and navy tights in brown leather ankle boots, I thought of church on Sundays in Nigeria, the profusion of colours but without the gaiety.

She began looking at me not long after she sat on the bench opposite me, occasional stares, polite stares, with a small smile, the kind that invites conversation. I should have said something; maybe something about the weather, about how annoying it was that the sun chose to play peek-a-boo.  Instead, I averted my gaze. But I could not keep my eyes away because she has earrings all over her face—four earrings on her right ear, two on her left, two on her nose, and one on her lip.

If I did not look back perhaps, she might not have asked. I thought about one fallout of not being native Dutch as she kept staring, her curiosity shining through—being at the mercy of people’s assumptions about why you are here. I see it in their eyes, a self-indulgent kind look that presumes I know how lucky I am to be here, as if I had escaped starvation in Africa by the skin on my bones.

However, I could not dwell on the challenges of immigration. I could not analyse how racial prejudice swings back and forth from citizens to migrants like a bicycle that pedals forward and backward because that was when she walked towards me, looking at my cornrows in wonder as if they were listed in the Guinness Book of Records.

Maak ik uw haar aanraken?”

Ik spreek Engels.”

“Oh, is it your hair?  Please can I touch it? How long…”

I should be used to it. I am. I am not. I am … tired.

She continues to look. Looking is free.

Why have I never asked to touch the hair of any Caucasian woman including those who are my friends? I have a theory. I had many Barbie dolls growing up. I brushed and brushed the rubbery silkiness of their blond hair; twisted it, plaited it, wrapped it, pony-tailed it, cut it, washed it, pulled it, until I was “un”fascinated by it.

“Hello, I’m Africa, and no you may not touch my hair! If you had played with African dolls when you were younger, you would not need to touch my hair.”

The words are at the tip of my tongue, but I do not vocalize them.

How can I? How dare I sound indignant when I remember that some people in Nigeria stare at foreigners as though they have never watched TV? Others ask to touch their skin and there are those who solicit funds with their sad, sad, stories, as if every oyinbo is World Bank, willing to give aid to Africa.

I exhale deeply. “Yes, you may.”

We can recoil from what we do not know, we can pretend we know, or we can seek to know. Maybe understanding will foster peace. Maybe understanding will dispel superstitions. Maybe understanding will reduce stereotypes. Maybe understanding will bring acceptance. What do I know? I close my eyes as she touches my cornrows, lightly, hesitantly, and then with firmer motions as her confidence grows.

my cornrows

© Timi Yeseibo 2013

Image credit: Woman holding Earth globe by Microsoft

Photo credit: my cornrows © Timi Yeseibo 2013


Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.