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


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