On black sisters’ street

Millions come to Europe from around the world in hopes of fulfilling their dreams for a better education or better jobs. A new book by Afro-Belgian writer Chika Unigwe chronicles the lives of those whose dreams of worldly success in Europe end as red-light district nightmares.

’On Black Sisters’ Street’, the latest novel by Chika Unigwe, an Afro-Belgian writer of Nigerian origin, is modern day story about the sex slave trade and women trafficking in Europe. It is a bleak tale of broken promises, hopelessness, cruelty, murder and all the other vices and injustices visited upon immigrant women preyed upon by pimps and human traffickers.
The book chronicles the lives of Ama, Efe, Joyce and Sisi: four strong-willed Nigerian women determined to face the challenges of their cruel fate as prostitutes in the Belgian city of Antwerp. ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ is set in the Antwerp’s red light district and the rundown house the women share on the Zwartezusterstraat (Black Sister Street), a fictitious street.

While the women depicted in Unigwe’s novel live European lives of misery and squalor, the author herself is by any reckoning an immigrant success story. Born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria, the sixth of seven siblings, she attended boarding school in the capital, Abuja, before eventually relocating to Europe. She has an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), and holds a PhD degree from the University of Leiden, having completed a thesis entitled ‘In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting’ in 2004. Unigwe now lives with her husband and four children in Turnhout, Belgium, where she also previously served as an elected municipal councilor.

What inspired you to write ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’?
“Curiosity was the major driving force which drew me to this topic. I was curious about the lives of the many Nigerian prostitutes living Antwerp. Hearing about and actually being confronted with the issue of the many Nigerian prostitutes was challenging in itself. Writing the book challenged everything I knew growing up in a Catholic Christian home back in Nigeria. Meeting them made me realize that for some people shame is actually a luxury, and how easy it is for human beings to judge others from our own comfort zones.”

What challenges did you encountered while writing this book?
“Meeting and talking to these women was a challenge. Many of the women felt that as a black woman in Europe I could not have been a writer, but rather must be something else. However the women were willing to speak to me, despite their initial skepticism. I was also challenged about the questions about the morality of their line of trade. The existence of the good or bad worlds and the grayness in between was a constant shadow.”

Did your PhD thesis, ‘In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting’, play a role in your decision to write about this issue?
“Yes. I’ve always been very drawn towards women writers and was curious about the powerful role of women and womanhood in Igbo culture, life and politics. I grew up listening to my mother and her people singing a lot, so I was curious about the influence of Igbo folklore and music in the culture and literature of traditional Igbo society.”

Do think your perspective would’ve benefited had you waited a while longer to publish your book, given the fact that immigration, human rights and trafficking, and gender inequality are now central issues in political debates around the world?
“No, not at all. I was more interested in telling a story than writing a current social commentary. The human story is timeless and there’s never a good or a bad time to tell it.”

It’s often said that African women are strong-willed. Are the women depicted in ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ a reflection of this paradigm?
“I think these women are not only strong-willed, they’re also very optimistic. It’s not easy to dream in the circumstances they find themselves in; however, they manage to do just that.”

Has living in Belgium all these years made you feel more like a Belgian, or do you still feel like a Nigerian, an expatriate?
“I feel very Nigerian, first and foremost, before anything else. This is because Nigeria is where I spent the better part of my life and is the one place where my identity is never questioned. But in Nigeria I do not have to prove that I’m Nigerian. Like many European countries, Belgium has a relatively young history with issues of immigration and newcomers of another color. However, I’ve become fully integrated in Belgium, even though sometimes one is confronted with situations whereby people are not sure if you are Belgian enough.” 

What are the major challenges that you’ve faced in your writing career?
“My greatest challenge has to be managing writing with the other things I do. I’ve had to learn to manage my time better, to write when everyone else is sleeping. My second greatest challenge is being disciplined about writing. This includes writing even when I don’t feel like it. The only way to become a better writer is by writing – and reading. Read the authors you admire, read the ones who write well, and write, write, write.”

What do you see as the biggest problem facing other young writers in the world today?
“The market for English books is very competitive, and for instance in England, publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts except through an agent. One of the biggest problems facing young writers of African origin is the dearth of African literary agents or publishers.” 

You’ve enjoyed great success and wide acclaim for this book. Did you feel this will raise expectations for your next work?
“No, not at all. I think every writer is only as good as their last book and every writer hopes to write a book better than their last.”

What’s ahead for you as a writer?
“More books, hopefully. Although I do live in fear of a writer’s block that’d put an end to it all.” 

‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ by Chika Unigwe, can be ordered from amazon.co.uk. Her first novel, ‘De Feniks’ (The Phoenix), was published in Dutch by Meulenhoff/Manteau in September 2005; it is the first book of fiction written by a Flemish author of African origin.


Erik Ravenstijn (25), a student at TU Delft’s Faculty of Civil Engineering, is the youngest Dutchman ever to climb to the top of Mount Everest. Ravenstijn accomplished the feat on May 20th, as part of an international team of climbers. His climb to Everest’s peak took five days. In a blog post on May 15th, Ravenstijn wrote: “The waiting is over, the climb commences.” It was Ravenstijn’s first attempt to the reach the peak of the world’s tallest mountain.  

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