He called everyone ‘dear’, ‘darling’, ‘sweetheart’- a syrupy affectation that often makes me want to retch. That was how he whizzed in on us that Friday in his usual rumbustious self, with his garish Panama cap drawn to his brows, a rumpled striped shirt, dirty at the collars and elbow; stretching out his clammy hands in a shake, “Congratulations my dear Congratulation sweetheart!” Each of us responded with both a shake and shy: Shaking off the sweat on his palm and shying from his overpowering bromhidrosis. We had been waiting for him. We were, a group of ten disillusioned girls seeking a better life somewhere unknown. He had congratulated us for being amongst the lucky ones who gained admission into a French university of which he claimed to be the liaison officer. And only yesterday, he told us we were travelling to France through Cotonou.
So while we awaited our dream-come-through trip, in the reception of the hotel, somewhere in Surulere, Lagos, I took a quick glance at few of the girls whose name I could recall. I wanted to know if any looked an inch a nerd like me who wanted to study Medicine: Somto looked more like a simpatico. Tall and leggy, light-skinned and soft-spoken, she carried her small bag excitedly beaming her sunny smile on us all. Uju, dark-skinned and stout, carried her bundle of clothes tied in one scarf on her left shoulder. She gave anyone a riposte the way irritable market women do. Her freckled face that looked like one which has defied dermabrasion was a great match for her freckled manners. Leaning on her was Chelsea, behind whose small, lacklustre eyes were fiery darts of desperation, while Beatrice carried her handbag in the same leisurely way her black leggings sat leisurely on her. In the rest, I saw nothing slightly bookish, but I choose to view the trip and the ‘said opportunity’ with rose-coloured spectacles. After six hours, the bus that we were told will take us to the airport, finally juddered towards us. It was a ropey old bus whose tires were as bald as its driver.
“Sweethearts!!! Sorry for the delay, sorry for the delay,” he chirped, rolling up his sleeves. “We will be going, … travelling through Cotonou Airport with Ethiopian Airways. The plane will make a stop at Addis Ababa….Addis….Addiss, Adiss Ababa….. and then arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport…..Charles de Gaulle…” he said with a feverish rapidity that made him stutter on his words.
“Make sure you don’t forget anything, anything…,” he added wiping his sweaty forehead with a white, oil-stained handkerchief.
“Proceed to the bus, the bus.” He jumped into the front seat.
I suppressed a small smile rising to the corners of my lips at the news. A million cells in my brain so exulted at the thought of being in an airplane for the first time that I had no nerve left to wonder why we should be travelling through Cotonou, and not through the ever busy Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos.
We sprung in, chatty, struggling over who will sit by the window side in the 14-seater Toyota Hiace bus. Finally, we moved. By the time we got to Badagry expressway; a road that led to Seme Border and then Cotonou, it was 7pm. The bus suddenly started to cough. And then the gear grunted, the exhaust belched until the tires stopped in their tracks.
“Hello darlings and sweethearts, come down, come down,” Cadmus ordered. Meanwhile, the bald driver began chuntering, stretching his heavily veined open hands towards heaven as though making an open supplication to a deity.
The girls continued their gist; buying suya (barbequed meat) meat from a nearby Aboki along the way. Somto asked a very odd question if I wanted to eat something.
“No,” I said. That’s like putting the cart before the horse, I thought. My mind was on not missing our flight. I wanted this dream to just materialize. I wanted to land in Europe.
I kept watching as the man carried a tools’ bag from where he pulled out three, four and six inches spanner, pliers, wires. And as though he were familiar with the frequent breakdowns, he threw his length under the car, assumed a recumbent position, sucked the engine oil with his mouth, spilt it and the next thing the car juddered to life again. The girls whooped in victory.
After one hour thirty minutes again, we had a flat tire. We rushed down, trying to assist, looking for stones around the nearby bush to shock the other three wheels. He jacked up the car, removed the bald one and replaced it with another traction-less tire. As we went along in our snail fashion, we were stopped by the Nigeria Customs officers.
“All of you come down,” the officer whose tribal marks, appeared like whiskers, ordered.
I overheard them accusing Cadmus of trafficking us to another country.
“No, sir. These are students. They are students,” he said looking behind him roguishly.
After some time, he gave one of them money, while the officer, in turn, gave him a white paper.
“This is your pass,” I heard him tell him. Cadmus collected it and jumped onto the front seat again. As we continued to move, we encountered others, but Cadmus, waved the paper he had collected from the first man to him and they immediately passed our bus. That was how they kept passing our bus until we got to Seme Border at around 9:30pm.
At the border, Cadmus got out of the bus and chatted with the Immigration officers, Nigeria Police, the Nigeria Drug and Law Enforcement Agency, the National Agency Prohibition Against Trafficking in Person. Then they finally allowed us to pass.
By the time we crossed the border, I looked at my wrist watch and it was 9:45pm. My hope in the trip became shaky.
“Didn’t he say the flight was for 10pm? I asked Somto. Are we not going to miss our flight at this rate?” Her response further unnerved me. She didn’t show much excitement about going to Europe, I seemed to be the only one bitten by this bug.
We finally got to the Cotonou airport by 10:20pm.
We all got down after the tortuous journey and carried our rucksack on our weary backs.
“Sweethearts, please stay here. Let me check the flight,” Cadmus told us.
We waited in the car park for another 20 minutes.
I tried hard to hide my anxiety but without success. After some minutes, I saw his silhouette emerging through the dark alleys of the airport. I felt fresh fluids of adrenalin pump into my blood and I began to quake. I was struck with such a beating of the heart that I had to lean on the bus lest I fell.
“We missed the flight,” Cadmus said. His face was as expressionless as his voice was flat. I knew it. I should have seen it coming. I should have read the signs: All the jiggery-pokery of mechanical fault and border crossing.
That night Cadmus said he was taking us to a hotel to pass the night.
A brothel he must have meant to say, for it was a compound with two blocks of L-shaped bungalows each of ten rooms. The wall paint was fading: one part was green with algae and the other part black with grime. Cluttering the courtyard were buckets, a clothesline on which hung faded panties and brassieres, which were supposed to still be receiving sunshine in the night, cooking stoves, dirty linen, used condoms, plates, bottle tops and all sorts of kitchen waste.
Chelsea and Somto snored as soon as they landed on the shagged mattress, but the unrest in my soul wouldn’t let me sleep. I awoke the next morning still self-deluded that Cadmus will arrange us for the make-up flight to France.
And then suddenly I regained my senses. I began to recall that I never saw any plane ticket. I never set my eyes on the passport though I was taken to the passport office. My conviction that there was something fishy grew stronger. The embarrassing part was that I only didn’t smell the stench of the dead rat that had been in the air. The whole trip had looked suspicious. In my misery, I asked Uju and Somto if they knew what was really going on.
“So you no know say na here we dey come?’ Uju swung into her convenient sarcasm in local parlance.
“Hmmh… I don’t understand…. What are we doing here?” I asked with a squeezed brow.
“Sit down..make shoe wear you.”
“Talk to me… where is Mr. Cadmus?”
“He don finish him work…e don go back Naija. We no go Europe anything, na here be our bus stop, she said with a zinger that made my skin crawl.
I could feel blood literally draining from my face as I let my eyes close for a while. Could I have fallen into the hands of traffickers? My God! That was the day I could have understood what it meant to have a nervous breakdown from shock. How did I get here?
Abiose Adelaja is a novelist, investigative journalist and programme officer at TheCable Journalism Foundation.
Synopsis (After these eerie days)
She is ambitious but unschooled in street-wiseness. Seventeen-year-old Funto Colesworth did not know the trip to study her dream course, Medicine, in France, is one to nowhere until she finds herself in a brothel in Cotonou.
Rather than remain there to hawk sex which she is mandated to do, she escapes and joins another set of human traffickers to cross the ghoulish Sahara Desert with ten other trafficked girls. On surviving, she continues her flirtations with danger; gets into a close-shave with death in the Mediterranean Sea, where she is the only survivor amongst the girls. Arriving Italy breathless, Funto is introduced to Rome’s red-light district, where she subsequently meets a rich and snazzy footballer, Khalil.
Their whirlwind romance would have resulted in marriage and landed her a fortune, but her hopes went up in flames again when he is killed by his irascible, psychotic twin brother Hamil. Then she realises the more ruinous cost of naivety when Hamil implicates her, leading to her imprisonment in Germany. Thrown in gaol, and with no clemency in sight, Funto felt defeated until she meets a Ghanaian missionary, Duncan Melanby, whose romance with her leads to the fence-mending between father and daughter, after twelve eerie years.
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