Book Review: ‘On Black Sisters Street’ by Chika Unigwe

Book Review: ‘On Black Sisters Street’ by Chika Unigwe






Every person has a back story no matter their station in life. They most probably have or had big dreams, too. Sometimes, it’s easy to judge people for what they do without pausing to think of the conditions that may have led them there. In her book, On Black Sisters Street, award-winning writer, Chika Unigwe tells the story of black women working as commercial sex workers in Belgium.

Four women with four different stories from four different corners of life live together in an apartment in Antwerp, Belgium. An apartment with a living room where everything is red including the walls and the air smells of incense and the stories of these women. Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce have left their African homes and migrated to Europe with big dreams getting rich and bettering their lots. So every night, they stand in their booths in Antwerp’s Red Light District, striking seductive poses to attract men and twirling their fingers to bid them come. After work, they go back to their shared space — the apartment with the red living room and tiny bedrooms.

These women have three things in common: their tragic past lives, their dreams, and Dele, the man who helped them get into Belgium and to whom they pay 500 euros every month. It is not until one of them dies that the women begin to unclip their tongues and tell their stories to one another; telling their past and baptizing themselves into their new future of sisterhood.

A painful past filled with troubles is what these women share in common.
Sisi is the most visible of the characters. With her back story as the the only child of middle class Nigerian parents who think that getting a university degree would deliver them from the pits of poverty. They are massively disappointed when Sisi does not get a job after graduating for years.

Joyce is the dark-skinned petite woman who lost her family to the Janjaweed soldiers in Sudan and is brought to Nigeria by Polycarp, a Nigerian soldier who professes love to her. It’s a huge shock when he tells her he can’t marry her as they had earlier planned and offers to get her to Europe.

Efe who lost her mum at a tender age and is left to a father who has decided to remarry the booze after his wife’s death. The responsibility of taking care of her siblings fall to Efe and she falls into the hands of Titus, the human hair dealer who is old enough to be her father. He gets her pregnant and of course, rejects the baby. Efe is, in fact, thrown out of his house by his wife.

But it is Ama who spoke most to me.
Her mannerisms, her obvious aggression and tough exterior belies a scared little girl who has been dealt wicked blows by life. Sexually abused at the age of eight by the man she calls father, she is even more broken by her mother’s action. Sister Rose turns a blind eye to her ordeal and accuses Ama of trying to ruin her marriage and sending her off to Lagos. When Ama gets the opportunity to work in Belgium, she takes it even if Mama Eko whom she lives with, is skeptical.

On Black Sisters Street was published in 2009 and was written by Chika Unigwe, a Nigerian-born Flemish author, who currently lives in the United States. In 2012, it won the Nigeria Prize for Literature, Africa’s largest literary prize worth one hundred thousand dollars.

Reading the book, one is bombarded by the past, present and future all at once — in a pleasant way. Although the main focus of the text is the lives of black women who find themselves in Europe as commercial sex workers, other themes like rape, paedophilia, death, terrorism, poverty and a host of other themes abound the text. Unigwe does a marvelous job in portraying these things in such language that makes the reader a part of the story. You share the sorrows of the characters, weep for them, and for those rare times when they find fragments of joy, you laugh with them.

For me, the most resonating theme from the text is dreams. The text explores the fragility of dreams; how easy they are to build up, and how easily they do not come true. When Ama angrily says to Joyce, “You might not have asked for this, but this is what you got. That’s life. We don’t always get what we bloody order.” It is the concept of failed dreams that Unigwe is trying to paint to us.

You can get a copy of the book here.

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