After her miraculous escape near Cotonou, Tobore meets Beninese Journalist, Reece who was on hand to help her recover from the shock of close shave with death.
I get out of my car and look among the people at the bus stop for someone resembling Tobore’s photo. But the short, skinny creature in jeans with the head scarf recognises me first. “It's Reece?” The girl looks lost and terrified. I embrace her and help her into my car. As soon as she sits down she bursts into tears. She takes her scarf off and reveals a practically bald head with only a few tufts of hair. “Reece, they cut me, they cut my hair”, she repeats. For the rest of the day, and the days thereafter, she keeps crying, with an empty look in her eyes that drives me mad with worry. What kind of a journalistic assignment has this been?
The doctor, whom we visit to get treatment for her bruises, as well as some pain killers, calmants and sleeping tablets, takes me aside after seeing Tobore. “Please take good care of her. This girl has seen the devil. She is in shock and needs time to recover.” As her colleagues in Nigeria and Evelyn in Amsterdam help plan for Tobore’s return to Nigeria, I note down what I know about human traffic in my town, Cotonou, for the purposes of this story.
It is no secret that daily, girls from other countries enter my town to either work here in the red light district of Jonquet, or to be trafficked onward to other places. Most do this voluntarily as prostitution is legal in Benin. A Ghanaian girl, Gift, has told me she relies on sex work to feed and educate her two children back in Ghana. Her pimp apparently gets her good customers. ‘Tourists, businessmen, the hotels phone us to service them.’ Nigerian Adesio, in her thirties, says she was lucky to become the girlfriend of a trafficker who set her up in a nice apartment and helped her find VIP clients. “But he started to beat me up after a year and then I decided to run, change my identity and begin again as an independent. Another lover helped me to do that.”
At Benin’s University premises, ‘Club U’ helps local girls to put themselves through school. “If you look good, male students involved in the business will approach you on campus and offer you a job”, law student Ingrid (19) tells us. “I am an orphan. I work here three years now and it pays for my food and shelter as well as my studies. We have good clients: celebrities, parliamentarians and executives.”
Though many girls complain of lack of access to health care, abuse by lovers and pimps and harassment by police –who often take them in under a pretext and force them to have sex with them for free; the worst ones even take the earnings they have on them-, I have not yet encountered any woman held as a slave, unable to escape.
After listening to Tobore, however, I can’t help wondering what way out there is in Cotonou for a girl who, even if she set out to travel willingly, has come to realise that she has made a mistake. Are there criminals in my town who hold women against their will? If so, what are the authorities here doing to help them? Where can a girl run to?
The fight stops at the border
I interview the police commissioner, but he tells me there is no such thing as forced human traffic. “These girls are all here voluntarily. We don’t need a rescue programme.” A contact at the Nigerian embassy is of the same view: ‘they’ are here out of their own volition and the embassy has never been presented with a request for help. I wait for an hour at the Ghanaian embassy without finding anyone willing to comment.
So, whilst millions of US$ are budgeted by the authorities in our next door country, Nigeria, to stop human traffic, much of which goes to Benin, there is no such effort in Benin at all. This raises the question how serious the Nigerian authorities are. Being the bigger and richer neighbour they could easily demand action from the Benin government. But apparently, unlike the human traffic itself, the Nigerian fight against human traffic stops at the Nigerian border.
After a few days of rest, medical care, good food and shopping for new outfits, a phone and a wig, Tobore has recovered sufficiently to make the trip back to her home country. Dressed as a market woman, with flowering blue boubou, matching blue scarf and comfortable market slippers, my friends and I wave her back through the Seme border.
I can only hope the story was worth it.
3. Interview With Tobore Ovuorie