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A Tangled Web

My two months in West Africa--Nigeria, Niger, and Ghana--were spent researching for my next Emma Djan novel, LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ (LSIL). The first draft had already been written and was with my editor during those two months. With perfect timing, she was ready with the first edit not long after my return. The following partial quote is ascribed to Ernest Hemingway:

"Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing … I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times….The first draft of anything is shit."

Museum and former home of Ernest Hemingway, where presumably he wrote his shit first drafts (Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm)
Museum and former home of Ernest Hemingway, where presumably he wrote some of his shit first drafts (Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm)

The italics in the above quote are mine, because it's true. Even this blog is not in its original form. I would echo Hemingway to say, "The first drafts of my novels are a mess." The time sequences are all jacked up, some of the characters are dull or shallow, the ending doesn't make any sense, and so on. Sometimes I look at the editor's markup on my pages (e.g. "this makes no sense," "cut this," "what does this mean?") and gloomily think, "I can't even write," and go to bed depressed.

That being said (cut this--overused expression). Sorry, I'll try that again. Despite the initial stab to the heart on receiving the first edit, a writer plods on, determined to get it right.

In LSIL, human and sex trafficking form the backdrop against which a mysterious murder takes place. The novel has an international flavor involving Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, and Europe, but there is another stream of trafficking within a relatively restricted area between Nigeria and Ghana that I call "local."

Sex work in international migration

Sex work in this setting is invariably coerced and often begins by exploiting the desperation of poverty-stricken girls and young women who see no future for themselves in their home countries. Someone tells them that if they can get to Europe, e.g. Italy, they can own successful businesses that will make more than enough money for them and the family back home. The reality is far different from the fable.

Sub-Saharan routes of migration (Shutterstock map modified by Kwei Quartey)
Sub-Saharan routes of migration (Shutterstock map modified by Kwei Quartey)

Nigeria contributes more migrants to Europe and Ghana than most other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, regardless of the route. Benin City supplies a disproportionate number of these migrants.

For most West African migrants seeking to escape to Europe, the initial destination is Agadez, although that has begun to change because EU has worked with the Nigerien government to implement a 2015 anti-smuggling law designed to limit irregular migration through Niger, and that has forced previously open migration underground and increased migrants’ vulnerability to forced labor or sex trafficking by criminal networks. There is no longer open loading up of trucks with migrants in Agadez heading for Libya. Because of the 2015 law, it is all highly secret now, with some migrants remaining in Agadez in ghettos for prolonged periods as they try to raise money for the rest of the journey to Libya. For many women, that means sex work (men will find employment meager and hard to gain). The sex workers I met in Agadez were all from Nigeria.

If a migrant survives the journey across the Sahara to Libya, the main danger there becomes capture and detainment in detention centers, where violence and sexual abuse prevail.

Sex work in local migration

Nigerian sex workers who don't try to get to Europe may attempt to go to Ghana instead. Why? The money is better. I'm no social economist, but it may be significant that Ghana's GDP per capita growth rate is greater than Nigeria's by far, despite Nigeria having seemingly inexhaustible amounts of petroleum. Identical to international migration to Libya and beyond, Nigerian women form a significant proportion of sex workers in Ghana. The means of transportation from Nigeria to Ghana may involve speedboats off the coast in order to avoid the tiresome hassle of crossing three borders.

Just as in Europe, the "madam" system works in a similar way in Ghana. The madam, often an ex-sex worker herself, bears the cost of bringing girls from Nigeria on the pretext that they'll be working in custodial jobs. Once the girls arrive, they discover they owe money to the madam, who saddles them with a debt multiple times the cost of smuggling them in from Nigeria. This forces them into indentured servitude. By these means, madams can make a staggering amount of money--enough to buy at least a mansion and a couple of expensive vehicles. Although violence toward the sex workers under her command is often the purview of men, madams have been known to stab or beat their workers for misbehavior or failure to pay their monthly dues.

Multiple "hotels" in Accra are simply in the sex business. While a number of euphemistic names like, "guesthouse" or "movie-house" are used to name these places, the result is the same. The sex workers use the hotel as their base and don't venture out very far. They, too, use phones, but mostly for setting up sessions at the guesthouse and not so much for online apps. Below is a picture of one such rather grubby guesthouse in Accra, which I won't name at the moment, although I do reference it in LSIL. The madam just happened to pull up in an expensive vehicle just as I was videoing Ninja-style.

Alligator guesthouse in Accra used as a brothel
Guesthouse in Lapaz, Accra. The murky conditions are well-suited to the cause. The madam's shiny SUV is on the left. (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Voluntary sex work

Voluntary sex work is without threat of violence, even though there may be dire circumstances pressuring a woman to go into it. Here, I'm talking about upper-class sex workers catering to well-off clients who can afford to pay up to $1000 a night for sexual services. In Accra, examples include attractive University of Ghana and Wisconsin International University College female students (again, often Nigerians) who use sophisticated phone apps and even social media sites like Instagram and Twitter to enhance their online visibility. Not under any coercion, these voluntary sex workers can stop whenever they wish or for whatever reason. As an aside, one of my sources tells me that up to forty percent of female students at the University of Ghana engage in sex with their professors in return for good grades. That seems like an awfully high percentage, and I can't independently confirm it. Nevertheless, it may still involve coercion as well, i.e. a lecturer's threat to fail a female student in his class unless she has sex with him.

Accra's upscale neighborhood of Cantonments, the location of several embassies including the French and American, is a source of high-paying clients for sex workers who hang around the Cantonments roundabout, which is conveniently dim at night and close to a number of posh hotels or luxury townhouses/apartments within driving or even walking distance. In this case, the hotel is not necessarily taking part in the trade, and claims no responsibility. Nonetheless, they can make money off sex workers indirectly, because hotel occupants may pay for expensive suites where they can hold sex parties.

Luxury apartments in Cantonments, Accra
Want to spend a million bucks? Live here in Cantonments (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Luxury townhouses and apartments near Cantonments Circle, Accra (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Luxury townhouses and apartments near Cantonments Circle, Accra (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

The tangled web

This is indeed a tangled web of lies, deceit, broken dreams, and violence, but there is little political will to change it. Parliamentarians in the Ghana government, for example, are some of the biggest clients of sex workers, and one member of parliament actually owns a guesthouse. Lust for money and sex in its myriad forms are driving and maintaining the system.

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