Editor's note: "Juju sex slaves" is a three part series on the trafficking of Nigerian women. Read Part 1: Nigerian juju magic forces women into prostitution; Part 2: Juju trafficking: one Nigerian woman's prostitution ordeal.
BENIN CITY, Nigeria — After enduring five years of sexual servitude in Italy, Patience Ken was deported and unceremoniously dumped back in Nigeria. Penniless, she sold her cell phone to pay for the journey from Nigeria’s financial capital, Lagos, to her village in Edo State.
She had been lured to Europe with the promise of a good job. It was a horrific ordeal. And when she arrived back home, her family was not happy to see her.
“They felt bad,” she said. “A lot of them say, ‘Now you are here. To feed you is very hard.’”
Patience, 8 months pregnant with her second child, gazed beyond the dusty parking lot near where she spoke to GlobalPost, recalling those first days back in her village.
Life was better now, she said. Her current baby’s father is her partner, not a customer.
For victims of sex trafficking here in Edo State, sometimes returning is as difficult as the journey.
But the dream of a job — any job — continues to lure women far from home and trick them into working as prostitutes.
Most residents of Edo State, like Patience, live in farming villages and travel for hours every few days to sell their goods. Wealth in Edo State can be found in the capital, Benin City, behind gated compounds — a different world from the raucous markets, crumbling homes and bumpy roads that make up most of the city.
Locals say that for most people, the only way to get ahead is to leave Nigeria.
Everyone in Benin City seems to know at least one woman who has financed a house through her work in abroad. Locals say those women may be envied for their money, but they are also ostracized for what is assumed to be an illicit past.
Many trafficked women, however, come back broke and shamed, said Solomon Okoduwa, the president of the Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Immigration, Development and Re-integration, an aid organization set up to help returnees.
“They repatriate such persons back to Nigeria without a dime,” he told GlobalPost in his one-room headquarters in a shabby commercial complex. “What do you expect to happen to this society?”
While a handful of organizations, including both the state and federal governments, are aware of the problems returnees face, there is little help to be had. Okoduwa’s organization offers training in agriculture and entrepreneurial skills. Hundreds of returnees have trained this year, he said, but upon completion of the programs students often can’t find jobs or don’t have the resources to go into business.
The state government claims to offer soft loans and grants to returnees who have completed similar government trainings, but Okoduwa said he has never seen any evidence of the funding. Likewise, none of the women who spoke to GlobalPost had heard they could get help from the government.
For some, lack of resources is the least of their problems.
Many believe they could be killed by a juju spell if they were deported before they paid the traffickers for their passage to Europe.
To allay these fears, traditional priests, or herbalists, are recruited to cast new spells, according to Florence Igbinigie, a former commissioner for Women’s Affairs in Edo State. Other girls go to churches to free themselves of the juju.
“Some of them they go back to the herbalist who did the previous oath to undo it,” she said. “Some of them, they go to Christian homes, to religious bodies to pray and cast out the demons and they are free.”
Still others, she added, go back to Europe after being deported, because they believe they will be killed if they don’t pay up.
When 24-year-old Precious Uyinmwen was deported from Spain back to her clay house in Edo State, she had nothing but the clothes on her back. She had sworn to pay the traffickers $45,000 but was swiftly deported and never paid the bill.
Uyinmwen said she didn’t attempt to counter the spell because she was tricked. She wasn’t told she was vowing to be a prostitute. When asked if she believes she is in danger, she turned defensive.
“They didn’t fulfill their part of the oath,” she said quietly, sitting on a wooden bench outside her home. She looked as if she hadn’t smiled in many years. “So it’s not my fault.”
As long as young people are desperate enough to risk their lives and freedom for the hope of an income, women and girls will be vulnerable to traffickers, said Okoduwa, the aid worker.
In Abumwenre village, a few hours outside the state capital, Benin City, two young women demonstrated the point.
Naomi Benjamin, a 23-year-old returnee, told a small crowd of her ordeal.
“We spent 19 days in the desert,” she said. “There is no food, no water. We were hungry. It was only God that was protecting us.”
When she finally got to Italy she found out that she had been tricked into sexual servitude. She tried to run away and spent more than two years in jail before she was deported.
While Benjamin spoke, 18-year-old Joy Eriamentor listened intently. She empathized with Benjamin’s horrific ordeal, and could see that vowing to pay back facilitators upon arrival is not a safe way to travel.
“It makes me afraid to travel,” Eriamentor said. “If you swear and then you refuse to pay, maybe something will happen.”
Officials say teaching young women about the dangers of trafficking is the only way to stop it. Benjamin’s story, however, didn’t alter Joy’s dreams of leaving Nigeria. She said she wants to study science, but that she’ll never get ahead if she stays in Abumwenre, where children almost never go to college.
“We do not have any help here,” she said. “Nothing, no work. Because my family is too poor, that is why I want to go.”
Read part one in this series: Nigerian juju turns women into sex slaves
Read part two in this series: Sex slaves: One woman’s trafficking ordeal
Editor's note: The author published an abbreviated version of this story at Voice of America.