New Nigerian ‘transatlantic’ novel and sex trade narrative in Bisi Ojediran’s A Daughter for Sale – Part 2
A Daughter for Sale possesses all the major elements of detective fiction,—“The greater powers of observation and superior mind of the detective” and “the startling and unexpected denouement, in which the detective reveals how the identity of the culprit was ascertained” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Online).
Ojediran (now known as Bisi Daniels) presents Peter Abel’s profile as fitting for this assignment, as the best investigative journalist in the land with every required attribute—impeccable intelligence, sharp instincts, admirable fighting and shooting abilities, a fiercely articulate mind capable of high levels of strategic thinking, a mastery of the principles of advanced disguise, a very likeable personality and a strong moral fibre. And no doubt, the novel succeeds in illuminating the subject of a major transatlantic predicament by featuring a super-protagonist with an incredible omniscient mandate. Ojediran simply moves the narrative by effectively ‘moving’ Peter Abel.
First of all, Ojediran convinces us of Peter Abel’s emotional constitution which is positively disposed to the assignment at hand. He is not only passionate about being the best in his job, and helping his newspaper, Zodaic, become the leading name in the business, he is also acutely aware and sensitive to his role as both the watchdog and the conscience of his society.
He has genuine intentions about the restoration of respect for human rights in his country. Thus, although he has found reasonable material success in his profession, his motivation for the pursuit of professional excellence transcends the banal. Not only does Abel consider himself as having the emotional duty of avenging the death of his friend, Tunde at the hands of the trafficking syndicate, and saving young and defenceless Alice for her helpless mother, he is also aware of his responsibility to the larger Nigerian society.
On learning more about the transnational sex trade and his country’s inglorious contributions to it through the internet, he resolves that this is one war he has to fight. Ojediran’s narrator tells us at the height of Abel’s reflections: “But somebody had to speak for these girls. And Abel was determined to be that somebody” (33). The more he found out about Nigeria’s role in international prostitution, the more his resolve to do something about it tightens.
He became absorbed in the story of a Nigerian woman who had been found murdered in Turin, Italy. She had entered the country on a fake visa and was working there as a prostitute. Nobody attended her burial or contacted the police about the case. No family member came to visit her grave. The killer got off with a light sentence, because nobody objected when the authorities allowed him to plead guilty to some lesser charge. Disposable people, Abel thought as the phone range. (49)
When he eventually makes his case to be supported in his proposal to investigate the transatlantic menace to his boss at Zodiac, the substance of his logic illustrates the extent of his conviction.
Through Abel’s spirited argument, Ojediran perhaps performs two of the cardinal responsibilities of the artist—sensitization and conscientization. Abel, in other words, could as well be talking to the individual member of the audience as he sermonizes about the need for everyone else to adopt his standpoint on what he describes as “this slave trade” (174). One of the means through which Abel intends to “bring down” the sex trafficking syndicate, after all, is to construct a story, a journalistic narrative which would “leave a strong emotional impression” on the reader. In Abel’s calculation, “a single human story” would definitely be more effective than the story of “the thousands of women trafficked abroad,” which “would only be a string of statistics. Just numbers.” (184-185).
Of course, Ojediran (Daniels) does not seek to treat sex trafficking as another vice that dropped out of the skies. Neither does he want to explain away his country’s deep participation in it as a mere existential coincidence.
All through A Daughter for Sale, the impression of a socio-political and economic backdrop to the malaise is unmistakable. If crime, even organised crime, is a feature of almost every society on the face of the earth, then its prevalence level would definitely depend on the quality of life within the given community of human beings.
The major motivation for Alice’s entry into prostitution is her family’s economic condition. We are told that her family lives in “grinding poverty” (100). Having lost all hope of economic rehabilitation from a more decent source, Alice’s father, a sexual pervert of curious dimensions himself, decides that his fifteen year-old daughter’s beauty is a talent that can be exploited for the family good. This appears the only way he could see Alice through school, since he otherwise struggles immensely to buy the books required for class reading. He thus orchestrates Alice’s induction into prostitution by encouraging her to respond positively to passes made at her by male admirers. He would, with time, readily endorse her trip abroad as a sex slave.
Elsewhere in the novel, general references are made to the connection between the sex trade and the parlous economic situation of Nigeria which serves as a veritable catalyst for peace-time mass migration. At the height of his pursuit of the trafficking ring, Abel’s response to the dangerous complexity of the geography of the human trade is thought-provoking: “If Africa had more responsible leadership; if people had been less greedy…” (205). A Liberian trafficking agent he meets on another leg of the hunt in Bomako, Mali, further drives home the point for Abel: “Nigeria helped us during our civil war. Odd how most of the migrants here are from Nigeria. And over sixty percent of the prostitutes in Italy are Nigerians. Your country must really find out the underlying causes of this migration and do something.” (209)
Although he does not wander directly into this argument, that he sees the sex trade as another form of slavery provokes a further implication that even though Nigeria seems to have taken it too far, the nation has necessarily exhibited the postcolonial vulnerability of former colonies. For one, the seed of materialist vampiredom that characterised previous transatlantic contacts is one notable legacy indigenous African leadership took away from the West. The socio-economic and political failure of post-colonial Africa, Nigeria inclusive, as the likes of Walter Rodney would argue, is an outcome of the master-servant relationships of yore. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, describing what he calls “The transition of imperialism from the colonial to the neo-colonial stage,” refers to independent Africa as “a new company, a company of African profiteers firmly deriving their character, power and inspiration from their guardianship of imperialist interests.”
However, one picture that Ojediran paints clearly and elaborately is the connection between the international sex trade and globalization. He, of course, through the vast connectivities Peter Abel’s multi-transatlantic investigative adventures throw up, acknowledges the role of the global agenda in the emergence and establishment of such negative, alternative economies as sex trafficking. As in everything else, globalization’s powers to “localize the international and internationalize the local” have meant the explosion of sex into a major international commodity.
The long chain of participants in this network is constituted by people of various nations across continents. Even powerful international politicians are among the vast transnational, transatlantic clientele. Alice’s last patron in the business is a United States Senator from Kentucky. Just as in every other activity of global significance, the one unifying object is commodified in terms that serve all stakeholders irrespective of nativity.
It is in this vein too that sex trafficking’s formidable character as an agency of globalization has been built up. For Devin Brewer, “The condensing of the world can be attributed to the process of globalization. It is in large part due to globalization that human trafficking has become such a lucrative and thus, fast-growing criminal activity.” But Brewer is quick to point out the flipside of it: “It must be acknowledged that forms of slavery and human trafficking are not just outcomes of globalization; they are part of the globalization process itself that involves a functional integration of dispersed economic activities.”
In the light of Brewer’s thesis above, the spaces of representation of the major players in the international prostitution sector is ‘global’; in other words, they constitute a kind of global citizenry which plays by its own common rules of engagement, or codes of conduct.
Brewer’s interpretation of how the sex trade economy runs a global procedure is authentic and interesting. Citing Kevin Bales, he gives the example of “the woman recruited in Thailand, and subsequently trafficked to other states as a sex-slave who generates money that is in turn recycled into the Thailand brothel economy” (46).
As clearly illustrated in A Daughter For Sale, this is very much the case in the Nigerian/African version. Alice’s father’s permutation about benefiting financially from the trafficking of his daughter as a sex slave turns true. Although the largesse does not last for long, proceeds from his daughter’s exploits as an international prostitute begins to find its way into the Nigerian economy, through him and through the other stakeholders.
One reason, therefore for which the syndicate remains indomitable and vicious is this colossal economy it has built. It is decisive in eliminating whatever or whoever it considers an obstacle to the realisation of its massive economic goals. That is why Tunde Picketts, the Zodiac investigative journalist; Dupe, Alice’s friend and fellow prostitute; and, of course, Marcy, the Washington D.C.-based sex trader, are killed. While Picketts died for doing a story for the Zodiac on the trafficking ring, Dupe and Marcy are murdered in cold blood for giving Abel information.
Irrespective of the suggestions of equal opportunities and reciprocity which ordinarily characterize the global village rhetoric, there are indications that Ojediran still thinks that the odds of this transatlantic relationship are fully stacked against the African. For him, the transatlantic sex trade provides an opportunity for the perpetuation of an age-old exploitation.
Ojediran’s contentions speak to physical, financial and psychological deprivations attendant to slavery and colonialism. Of course, that these girls are subjected to indescribable acts of bestiality and even murdered, amounts to subjugation of near-equal magnitude as the previous fates of the African. Part of what galvanizes Peter Abel’s antagonistic interests in what he thinks is a ‘modern-day slavery’ is the story of the Nigerian woman who is murdered in Italy. Even when the killer is found, he gets away with only a light sentence, “because nobody objected when the authorities allowed him to plead guilty to some lesser charge.” To Abel the impression here is that the African woman prostitute working in Europe or America is a “disposable person” (48-49).
Moreover, selling sex remains tantamount to relinquishing human dignity, and if what Africa does now is to ‘export’ sex, just as it did physical energy to work on plantations century’s back, then we have a similar kind of dehumanization in our hands. For instance, when Abel meets Alice in a London brothel/massage parlour, just a few weeks after she is smuggled out of Nigeria by the trafficking gang, there is hardly any humanity left in her. She had become a zombie of sorts, and hardly remembers anything, not even Abel’s identity.
Abel could hardly believe that this was the same girl. Tears stung his eyes. Somehow after all the miles and all the pain, it was heartbreaking to see what had become of her. He wondered if there was anything human inside this shell left to save. What would her mother think when she saw her?
Alice had grown impatient. “So, are you going to undress? Time is wasting.” It was strange. When Abel had rescued her that night in Lagos, she had been so full of life, so seductive. Now she was offering a body devoid of a soul. Who would want to make love to such a creature? Did the men who came here really not notice? Didn’t they care? (209-270)
Although Alice had also been a prostitute in Nigeria, where, as Abel recollects, “she had been so full of life, so seductive,” the transatlantic transition from Lagos to London proves so devastating. There was exploitation in Lagos, no doubt, for prostitution is all about the sapping of physical and spiritual energies.
But this is nothing compared to the international sex market where the stakes are definitely higher, and where the pangs of translocation and dislocation are greater. And for a young girl of fifteen like Alice who finds herself in a very dangerous profession many miles away from home, physical and psychological severance is not the only kind of dislocation open to her victim; there is even more crucially, maturative dislocation, where the development of the girl into a reasonable adult, capable of contributing her quota to national, continental and global development, is ruptured forever.
In a narrative of the nature of Ojediran’s, it will be difficult to miss out a reference to the culture of dependence established for Africa by its powerful transatlantic counterparts. The suggestion that there is no end yet in sight to Africa’s leaning on the West and the Americas in socio-economic and political terms reiterates the reality that in spite of the end to slavery and the attainment of political independence, Africa continues to depend for its sustenance on its ‘masters.’
For instance, while expressing the illogicality of the application of the term ‘postcolonial’ to Africa, Tejumola Olaniyan highlights, “The continent’s world-historical debt peonage to its former colonizers, its chokehold by foreign-owned multinational corporations, and its invasion by ever more irresistible weapons of Euro-American cultural imperialism.”
Biodun Jeyifo, while describing the same phenomenon, talks about a distinction between “The colonization of the body, of physical energies and capacities” and “The colonization of the psyche in newer forms of late capitalist merchandizing and advertising of products whereby what appears to be our deepest needs, our deepest desires are not really ours anymore, but obey the logic of the penetration of market forces into virtually every sphere of life.”
Reduced to the continental socio-economics of the control of the mechanisms of production, the Euro-American tendency still looms large over the African’s hopes of survival. This is the major reason for the rampant, golden-fleece motivated migrations. The African labourer (sex labourers inclusive) yearns for the European work environment, and dreams of the substantial prosperity associated with it, because the myth of the Euro-American paradise still exercises a stranglehold on the African (survival) consciousness.
It is the same reason why African women, even those originally not in the trade in their African bases, could opt, or be lured into international prostitution. Alice’s father in A Daughter for Sale exemplifies this mentality. Having failed to score any worthwhile points of financial stability for himself, his hopes now lie in what Europe and America have to offer to Alice as a sex slave.
The novel does not just raise very important critical questions about contemporary transatlantic transactions and interactions involving the African, it also answers them with admirable aplomb. A narrative of many recommendations, A Daughter for Sale speaks without compromise and ambivalence about the causes, character and context of sex trafficking.
It is somewhat incredible that a novel constructed in the near romance/thriller mode can summon such forceful moral effrontery, and conjure such vividness of life. A Daughter for Sale projects the almost super-human qualities of Peter Abel, the investigative journalist, not just to fascinate the audience’s sense of adventure, but to convince it to take one hard long look at an already bad situation with every propensity to get worse.
According to Eustace Palmer, “the Romance… concentrates on the individual, tending towards the idealization or glorification of the hero.” For Palmer also, the Romance writer takes a daydream away from reality and indulges in phantasy, and his hero usually lives in a world of dreams and illusions.”
At face value, therefore, these profiles fundamentally fit what Ojediran does with Peter Abel. But on deeper critical appreciation, it becomes clear that the romance element provides the audacious, authoritative omniscient posture to tackle a transatlantic emergency of the calibre of sex slavery.
When most other novels on the subject merely tend to draw attention to a modern day evil, and leave us only empathizing with the victims, and the hopelessness of our world, Ojediran mobilizes us to action. Peter Abel’s super-heroic capabilities project us right into the heart of the trade, where he does what is rarely done—retrieve a trafficked girl from the jaws and the claws of a dare-devil syndicate.
If Peter Abel needs largely unbelievable endowments to conquer his fictional universe, Ojediran seems to be contending, the real life battle against sex slavery can still be won through greater commitment to national and continental economic repositioning, more intensive orientation, more strategic intelligence, greater cooperation between transnational and transatlantic stakeholders, better quality leadership, etc.
As a thriller, A Daughter for Sale is most effective. It possesses enough technical solidity to provide a rich dose of literary entertainment—thanks mainly to its racy, action-packed plot and the unmistakable thriller elements of surprise and suspense. This, alongside its quality of realism or the inspired manipulation of what Palmer refers to as “moral or social design,” makes it one truly transatlantic, truly global, truly 21st century African novel. CONCLUDED
• Onyerionwu teaches in the Department of Languages and Communication, School of General Studies, Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, Abia State