Three Saviours – One Woman’s Story of Being Trafficked


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She sits near the wall as I walk into the room. She’s agreed to speak with me in the hope of highlighting the reality that so many women experience; the reality of her own life, and the journey that has brought her so many miles from her home.

Her husband, who set up this meeting, has asked me to use the name Chibundo*. It’s not her real name, but I can tell that it has meaning for them.

Chibundo was born, and grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. When she was just three years old, her father died, leaving her mother with two children to raise, and no job.  Somehow, with the help of her uncle, her father’s brother, they managed to eek out a living on the streets of the city.

She smiles wistfully as she speaks of her uncle. “He was my first saviour,” she states, going on to explain that he instilled in her a deep appreciation of reading.  He would read to her before bed every evening, not children’s stories, they were far too poor to afford books of any sort, but from scraps of newspapers and magazines that he picked out of the trash.  He would try to find stories that incorporated pictures for her to look at, and so began her journey towards education.

From these early, broken beginnings, she became convinced that education was the way out of her circumstance.

She pauses in the telling and I sit with her in silence. I know the words are difficult, her husband has told me some of her story.   When she resumes, her breath comes in a rush and it is clear to me that she is steeling herself.

“When I turned eleven, my uncle became sick.  He was coughing for some time, but it was now clear that it was serious. He was unable to work and so it was once again left to my mother to try and feed us.” By this stage, Chibundo’s fourteen year old brother had joined a street gang, a group of young boys, who banded together and robbed unsuspecting people in the streets of the city.  Her brother tried to bring in what money he could from his criminal activities, but it wasn’t enough.  Chibundo realised that she would have to do something to contribute towards the family’s living expenses and she left home to look for work.

I look at her, as she pauses again, and try to imagine her as an eleven year old child.  She is a tiny woman, and she seems to grow smaller with each word she speaks, as though folding in on herself. I see in her face the shadow of the waif child she must have been and my heart catches in my throat at the image.

“I found a job as a housekeeper in one of the wealthy areas of Lagos.” She swallows, “it did not go as I thought it would.”

At first it seemed that this would be the answer to her family’s problems, she would live in Ikoyi with the family that had employed her, and send her wages home to her mother. But it wasn’t long before the man of the house began making inappropriate advances towards her. He would come into her room in the mornings while she was getting dressed and insist on watching her. When he tried to touch her, Chibundo threatened to tell his wife, but he just laughed.

After a few days, she did speak to his wife, but instead of confronting her husband, the woman accused Chibundo of seeking out her husband’s attention before beating her severely and locking her in a back room without food or water.

“I do not know how long I was there, it seems such a long time ago, but one of the children in the house opened the door and I ran.  I was trying to get back to my mother’s shack, but I was weak from hunger and I kept falling. It was then that a man picked me up, he lifted me from the ground and put me in the back of a car.  I remember that I fell asleep. Every time I would try to open my eyes, the sound of the engine would make me sleep again.”

She stops here and looks at me.  ”Do you think I was drugged?” she asks, “I wonder about this sometimes.”  She doesn’t expect an answer from me, but I find myself wondering too.

The next few weeks, or possibly months, remain a blur to Chibundo. She remembers being in a dark room, she remembers voices and crying and sunlight shining through wooden slats. She remembers eating out of a tin bowl with her hands, but not who brought the food.  She remembers children coming and going and the way she says this prompts me to remind her that she was a child too. Her eyes look at me in confusion for a moment before she nods, “Yes, I suppose, but I never saw myself as a child.”

“You were only eleven,” I say, and her eyes fill with tears. She blinks them back before they fall. I blink back my own tears as she continues to speak.

“I was sold,” she says, “but I did not really know that until many years later.”  All trace of tears is gone now, and her voice is unemotive, almost robotic.  “The man who owned me, I think he bought me as a companion for his son, but as I have said, I did not know I was sold until much later.”

After the darkness and the tin bowl and the voices and the crying, she was taken, bound at the wrists, to the door of a large house. There was a conversation between the man who was with her and the man who opened the door, but Chibundo did not understand the words. The language was foreign to her.  She would later realise that they were speaking English, but that it was accented and not familiar.

She was shown to a small room with a mattress on the floor where she was given clean clothing and a basin in which to bathe.

For the next several years she spent her days with a young boy, a few years younger than her. “He was my second saviour,” she says. “He received private lessons and insisted that I join him. I am always grateful to him for my education.”

Each night she was led to the bed of the man of the house.

“After a few years, he tired of me.  I think I became too old,” she says matter-of-factly. I search her eyes and see the lie in her tone.

She was passed around to different men after that, and moved from place to place in the back of a small truck, and sometimes by boat. She believes that she was held in several different countries. She remembers hearing many different languages and dialects, but the days ran into one another, the only difference being the men who administered the beatings and sometimes the torture.

“I think I was about 24 years old when I found my freedom.  There was an old woman, or perhaps she only seemed old to me, who would come to clean at the house where I was then being kept. There were nine of us and we were only there a few weeks.” 

The ‘old’ woman came to clean one day and when she left, she forgot the key in the door. Four of the young women, including Chibundo, decided to try and escape. They locked the door from the inside and hid the key. After all the men had left for the night, they made their escape.

The first few years of freedom were really difficult, but Chibundo was determined to make a life for herself. When she escaped, she had no idea where she was or how, or even if, she wanted to go back home.  It turns out that she was in Italy. The weather was warm and she, together with one of the women she’d escaped with, managed to feed themselves by stealing food from a local market. They slept on the streets and sold themselves to tourists to make money.

“It is what you do, you know, as a woman.  What else did I have?”  She smiles, but there is no bitterness, only a deep sadness.

She met a young man from England and convinced him to let her travel back to England with him. “I knew that travelling alone would not be safe. My English was good because of the education I received at the first house, and I knew about England from reading. I thought it was my best chance, so I asked him if I could travel with him.” Of course there was a price.

She spent the next several years in London, clawing her way from the streets and eventually finding work in a hotel.  It was there that she met her husband, he was working as a junior chef in the hotel.  Andrew (not his real name) belonged to a local charismatic church and through the church they were eventually able to trace Chibundo’s family back in Lagos.

“My mother and my uncle are dead,” she says sadly, her voice barely a whisper. When I ask about her brother she shakes her head, “He is still with the gangs. He works for the same kind of people who took me.” She says this with resignation.

Chibundo and Andrew have now settled in Ireland and are slowly building a life. They attend a local church in Cork and hold strongly to their faith. “Andrew is my third saviour,” Chibundo says, “he brought me back to God.”

There is tragedy in Chibundo’s story, and it is certainly written in her eyes and in the physical and emotional scars she carries, but there is also triumph, and hope.

She tells her story with such raw honestly and when I ask about her future plans she says that she hopes to study further some day so that she can help others in her situation.

 *The name Chibundo means, “God is my shelter”

 

Michelle Robertson
26 November 2018