Black sisters' street refers to Zwartezusterstraat, a street in the red light district of Brussels famous for its African prostitutes. Unigwe's story starts with three young women learning the news that the fourth woman they share a house with, Sisi, has been brutally murdered. Although they have kept their distance from each other in the past, this news brings the three women together and they start to share their stories. Efe had an affair with a married man as she thought this would lead to money and opportunity. Abandoned after the birth of her son, she agrees to meet Dele, who offers her a new opportunity in Europe, a chance to provide for her son. Ama is repeatedly raped by her step-father and seeking escape at any cost. And Joyce is a Sudanese woman caught up in the war who thinks she has found happiness with a Nigerian man, only to have it snatched away by his prejudiced family. All three are stateless and at the mercy of the madam and their debt to Dele, the man who arranged their transport to Belgium. They dream of a life free again, but as Sisi learned, dreaming can come at a high price.
On Black Sisters' Street is a heavy-hitting book. The stories of all four women contain suffering in lots of different forms and happiness is something only rarely snatched at between periods of hardship. Although the women come across as smart and resourceful, circumstance has made them desperate enough to make a choice that hopefully most of us will never have to face - the choice to become an illegal sex worker. And for three of the women it is exactly that - a choice. Joyce is the only one who arrives in Belgium not knowing what is expected of her. I really respected Unigwe for showing that prostitution can be something gone into with eyes wide open, rather than telling the 'easier' story of women smuggled to Europe ignorant of what their fate would be. It made for a far more nuanced and subtle book.
Despite the sections dealing with life in Europe, On Black Sisters' Street is mainly a condemnation of the corruption and problems facing Nigeria. Money, or the lack of it, is a powerful motivator for all the women, especially Sisi, who has a good degree but can't get a job as she doesn't know anyone who can pull the levers of power for her. Facing a life of living without, she decides prostitution is a better bet than poverty. Efe and Ama decide the same. And in some ways, it does turn out to be a good bet - some of the women manage to repay their debts to Dele and go on to live a life that would have been impossible without prostitution. Again, the inclusion of this by Unigwe makes for a more complicated book. I'm glad she showed the shades of grey in the issues covered in the story.
Although there is much suffering in the story, Unigwe's writing keeps On Black Sisters' Street from being too depressing overall. The characters are realists and there's always an undercurrent of hope that life will get better. It must have been a hard balance to achieve and I'm impressed with Unigwe for managing it. Overall, On Black Sisters' Street is a well written and sensitive examination of heavy issues and I would highly recommend it.
First Published: 2009
Edition Read: Vintage UK, 2010
Score: 4.5 out of 5