When 33 strip dancers were arrested in Lagos recently and their half-nude pictures splashed on the pages of an evening newspaper, not a few people condemned the dancers and the operators of the night club in which they operated.
But many people seemed to have failed to reckon that the business could not have thriven without patronage from members of the public, or that many of the dancers were forced into the trade by circumstances.
For instance 17-year-old Agatha found herself in prostitution as a result of circumstances beyond her control and she is now full of regrets for the unseemly experience. ‘‘My father had three wives and my mum had three daughters for him. I am the last of the three girls,‘‘ said the Enugu State born girl. ‘‘I lived with my maternal grandmother. Sometime in March last year, I was on my way to my father‘s house when I was accosted by a lady from my village. She asked me why I wasn‘t in school.‘‘
The lady, called Mama Ify, lived a distance away from Agatha‘s father. Believing that Mama Ify was genuinely concerned about her welfare, Agatha explained that she had to stop going to school for lack of funds. ‘‘I didn‘t go back to school after my JSS III exams because my father had no money. When I said so, she told me she had a sister in Ibadan who sold provisions, and the sister was in need of a sales girl.‘‘
Agatha was overjoyed at the opportunity to escape her life of poverty. After all, there was nothing left for her back at the village except a life of penury and obscurity. ‘‘I couldn‘t tell my father anything. I knew he would object to my leaving the village, more so when I had to go with someone he didn‘t know. I just made up my mind that I would leave without telling them.‘‘
On the morning of March 25, 2009, left for Ibadan. ‘‘My grandmother was at home on that day. She asked me where I was going with my clothes, and I told her I was leaving without any plan to come back. She pleaded with me to stay back but I refused.‘‘ Agatha went to meet her new found benefactor at home, anxious to begin a new life. ‘‘Mama Ify told me to go down to the expressway and wait for her there. She said she would join me after a few minutes.‘‘
The motive, of course, was that Agatha‘s disappearance would never be traced to her. But if Agatha noticed the implication, she certainly wasn‘t cautious. Leaving the village was uppermost in her mind. ‘‘We boarded a bus to Enugu Park. From there, we took another bus to Onitsha. It was at Onitsha that we took a luxury bus to Ijebu Ode.‘‘
All through the journey, Agatha harboured no fear. For some reason, she implicitly trusted Mama Ify‘s intentions. ‘‘I asked Mama Ify for her number just in case her sister misbehaved and I wanted to return to my village. She obliged me and confided that her daughter was ill and badly in need of a surgical operation. She said she was actually going to get some money from her sister and decided to get her a sales girl in return.
“When we got to Ijebu Ode, Mama Ify called her sister to tell her that we were around. They arranged to meet us. We took another bus and stopped under a bridge.‘‘
It was at that location that Mama ify‘s sister came to meet them in company with a man in his forties. Agatha‘s new guardian was introduced as Madam Best. She was to learn later that her male companion was called Akin, Madam Best‘s boyfriend. Almost as soon as introductions were over, Mama Ify excused herself, claiming she had to travel back to the village immediately, because her sick daughter needed her. ‘‘She assured me I was in safe hands and to call her if anything went wrong,‘‘ Agatha said.
Agatha parted ways with Mama Ify unaware that the money supposedly borrowed from Madam Best was in fact payment for slave labour. ‘‘I took a bike with my new boss while Mama Ify boarded a bus back to Enugu. At a point, we stopped, took a bus and alighted at one filling station in Ibadan. I couldn‘t really say exactly where we were because that was my first time of travelling to Ibadan,” she said.
The trio walked a short distance to a hotel that was being renovated. The hotel was in a bushy area. It was quite isolated. ‘‘Madam Best and her male companion asked me what I wanted for lunch. I told them I wasn‘t hungry. They later went away to get a room.‘‘
Minutes later, Agatha was ushered into what would be her new home. ‘‘They called me into a room and said I would live there. I was so surprised. I asked Madam Best if she herself lived in the hotel.‘‘
It was at that point that Agatha learnt the ugly truth. ‘‘She (Madam Best) asked me if Mama Ify didn‘t tell me what I would be doing in Ibadan. I told her she said I would work as a sales girl in Madam Best‘s provision store. It was then Madam Best told me I was in Ibadan to work as a prostitute.‘‘
Terrified, Agatha broke down in tears and pleaded with her captors to call Mama Ify on the phone. Her request was declined and instead, she was told to repay the money that was used in transporting her from Enugu to Ibadan. ‘‘When I kept crying, Akin threatened to kill me with a knife. I was locked up for three days. I was given neither food nor drink. Madam best said if I so much wanted to eat, I should sell my body and feed myself.‘‘ On March 28, 2009, desperate for food, the terrified teenager gave in to her captors‘ demand. Even at that, she had to be beaten with a shoe into final submission. ‘‘I had to sleep with about six or seven men every day. I was never paid anything. All the men paid the money to Madam Best. I was only fed thrice daily.‘‘ With the increasing scourge of HIV sweeping across society, one wonders if Agatha had not contacted any STD. Fortunately, she was able to allay fears on that matter. “All the men that slept with me used protection.” Agatha continued in her despised profession for about a month and a half. She couldn‘t leave her room, so she remained a prisoner there. None of her male patrons ever saw in her the reluctant and terrified child yearning for freedom. She was simply a thing of entertainment.
It wasn‘t until May 23, 2009 that respite finally came from the most unlikely person. ‘‘There was a boy called Saidi who played music at the hotel every Sunday. One day, he came in with his friend Wale, who demanded for me. When we were alone in my room, I started crying.‘‘
It was the 23-year-old man who eventually offered Agatha a ray of hope. ‘‘He asked me what the problem was and I told him everything. He was really sympathetic and promised to help. He left and came back with a trouser and a top.‘‘ The young man went further to speak with the hotel manager, Alashe. ‘‘Wale told Alashe that he would be spending the night with me.‘‘
Alashe threatened to harm Wale if Agatha should disappear overnight. Perhaps the unscrupulous businessman had smelt a rat. Recalling that eventful night, Agatha said, ‘‘We both couldn‘t sleep that night. I was very scared, even Wale was scared too. Later, I dozed off. At about 3am, Wale woke me up. He said he had to start going.‘‘
Luckily for both of them, no one stirred while they made good their escape. There was even no fence; just the eeriness of the surrounding bushes. ‘‘We ran until we came to a music studio close to the road and waited there till 5 am. We flagged down the first bike that came our way. The bike took us to Ekiti bus stop. From there, we took a bus to lloro, Ekiti State. It was around 12 mid day when we got there.‘‘
To avoid being tracked by Alashe, Wale took Agatha to his father‘s house instead of going straight to his brother‘s home where he normally lived. On their way, they stopped by a stream so Agatha could wash her clothes. ‘‘I had just finished with my washing when Wale‘s sister- in -law came to inform us that Saidi was with a friend at Wale‘s brother‘s house. Both men had come from Ibadan.‘‘ Understandably, Wale was scared to go back. And even when Agatha urged him to do so, he refused. While they were still debating the issue, Wale‘s brother sent another person to call them. ‘‘I told Wale that I wasn‘t scared. Since I was no more in that hotel, I knew I could confront whoever it was that had come for me. I was finally able to convince Wale that we should go back.‘‘
They discovered on their arrival that it was Akin that had been sent to bring back Agatha to Ibadan. ‘‘They quarreled for a while in Yoruba. I didn‘t understand a word of what they were saying. When they had reached an agreement, Akin told everyone that had gathered that I was his sister and Madam Best my mother. He told them Wale had taken me without permission from my mother.‘‘
Seeing her chance at freedom fleeing before her very eyes, Agatha wept profusely, denying Akin‘s claims. Unfortunately, instead of investigating the matter further, those gathered urged Agatha to go back home with Akin. ‘‘They were all telling me to go back to Ibadan and settle with Akin, that I could come back to lloro after I had done that.‘‘ All this while, Wale did not say a word. He had been sufficiently threatened by Akin.
At this point, Agatha made up her mind to frustrate Akin. ‘‘I decided I wasn‘t going to make it easy for him to ruin me. When we got to the bus stop, Akin negotiated the price while Wale looked on. When I saw Akin was distracted, I ran. Akin ran after me and caught me. He warned me not to attempt an escape.‘‘ No onlooker bothered to question Agatha on why she tried to run away from Akin. ‘‘Akin got another bus and started haggling afresh. When his eyes were not on me, I ran again. This time, I ran across the street straight into a provision store.‘‘
Agatha held on to the lady store keeper, begging her for help. ‘‘The woman was alarmed and by the time Akin ran into the store, she was terrified.” The lady fled her store with Agatha holding on to her for dear life. The struggle continued until the storekeeper‘s husband stopped them all. ‘‘When he started questioning us all, I burst into tears. Akin quickly intervened and gave his already prepared story of me being his sister. He said all this in Yoruba.‘‘ Fortunately for Agatha, the storekeeper‘s husband took more than a passing interest in the whole drama. ‘‘He asked me what the problem was and I told him everything. Luckily for me, he was also from Enugu State.‘‘
They were invited back into the store, presumably to settle the matter but unknown to them the police had been notified. ‘‘Two men came in some minutes later and asked us all to explain ourselves. When I finished my tale, they mentioned trafficking and held on to Akin. It was at that point I realised they were policemen.‘‘
They were all taken to Iloro police station. The police tried to mediate in the matter but the store keeper‘s husband was adamant that Akin and his accomplices be prosecuted. On June 1, 2009, they were moved to the state CID in Ekiti State. ‘‘We spent 10 days there. After our first week there, the police raided the hotel where I used to live. All the girls were taken away. Madam Best usually stayed at Queen‘s Rema Hotel but I couldn‘t direct the police there. I only knew the name. It was an Okada operator that directed us there. The police had to check each hotel on that street one after the other because I couldn‘t identify the particular one.‘‘
As it turned out, Madam Best was not around, so the hotel owner‘s wife was arrested. ‘‘We couldn‘t get the owner of the hotel. He was called Alhaji. The police told his boys that if Alhaji wanted his wife out of police custody, he should aid them in tracking down Madam Best. ‘‘ Madam Best was caught on the day she tried to flee the town to Benin, Edo state.
Head of the Lagos Zonal office of NAPTIP Godwin Morka said the matter was in court and efforts were being made to reunite Agatha with her family through the NAPTIP zonal office in the East. ‘‘It was the Ekiti state CID that brought Agatha to NAPTIP. She was very much traumatised when she was handed over to us. We had to put her through counselling and some medical treatments. http://www.punchng.com/Articl.aspx?theartic=Art201003133273373
“Parents have to be more careful and watchful of their children. Young girls can be so easily deceived and recruited into prostitution, especially when they are not highly enlightened.‘‘