June 13, 2013 headline in The Daily Mail: "Six arrested over voodoo prostitution ring in Nigeria after gang branded women with irons then forced them to sell sex."
It appears that Antonio Hill's novel The Summer of Dead Toys could not be more timely in its depiction of sex traffickers in Spain preying on young Nigerian girls. Young girls, virtually children, are lured with promises of proper jobs as nannies, au pairs, and maids to work for wealthy European families. They come from hardscrabble existences, both from cities and rural areas, where money and education are scarce. They come from places where the belief in voodoo is as devout as it is common. They participate in "voodoo ceremonies" in which they promise to repay their travel debt, and if they don't, they are told the oath they took will kill them. This is how the girls become trapped; not with chains or bars but with the misuse of voodoo.
But voodoo is not about threatening or torturing or killing. Voodoo originated in Benin, Nigeria's neighbor to the west, and Benin-based voodoo priest Dah Dangbénon asserts that it is the completely benign worship of nature as a force for good. The religion, he says, has been unjustly demonized by Westerners and Christianity and has been corrupted in places such as Hollywood. He says: "Voodoo is not about using magic spells to curse your enemies. If you choose to manipulate nature to harm your neighbour, it's not voodoo that harms your neighbour, it is you."
Actually, it seems that it's not voodoo that is to blame for the curses that are conjured in order to harm, kill or enslave people but Juju. According to africaw.com: "Juju comes from the traditional African religion popularly known as voodoo. Juju practitioners in the traditional African religion are extremists just like the terrorists in Islam although their modes of operation are quite different. The terrorists in Islam attack physically while in Juju the mode of operation is spiritually. Juju includes blood money and spiritual attacks."
Juju refers specifically to objects used in conjunction with spells or curses, and like any practice or belief it can be manipulated to create power over people. The misuse of juju creates a psychological fear - personal objects such as hair or fingernails are combined with a promise that has repercussions if not kept.
Indeed, published news features recount the horrors young girls endure at the hands of traffickers. The girls are virtually illiterate and from families struggling to put food on the table but who are fervent juju devotees, whose faith has been turned against them in solemn vows to repay exorbitant travel expenses. Earlier this year a woman that had finally escaped her captors described a ceremony in which she "swore that if I refused to pay, the oath [I took] will kill me." Because of the lies her captors told her, in addition to the years-long ordeal just to return even poorer than before, her faith is shaken. The avowed deadly reprisal lurks even yet.
In an effort to stem, and ultimately eliminate, this international problem, the National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) was formed in Nigeria in August 2003. According to its website, "The Agency which is the creation of the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act, 2003 is the Federal Government of Nigeria's response to addressing the scourge of trafficking in persons in Nigeria and its attendant human abuses in its entire ramification."
The agency has a huge task that encompasses everything from prevention of trafficking to international coordination of efforts to crack down on it. It also attempts to ensure that those who have been trafficked and enslaved are treated as victims and not criminals. Not an easy job as the traffickers do not bother with passports or other legal papers. If a young woman is arrested in a foreign country she is subject to that country's deportation laws and may languish in prison for years before being sent back to Nigeria.
Little wonder that Hill's Inspector Hector Salgado does not suffer human traffickers.
top photo: Voodoo altar with several fetishes in Abomey, Benin; bottom photo: An 1873 Victorian illustration of a "Ju-ju house" on the Bight of Benin showing fetishised skulls and bones.
This article was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the
May 2014 paperback release.
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