I was privileged to attend the premiere showing of Shane Vermooten’s documentary ‘Another Side of Life’ this past weekend. Privileged in the sense that I’ve been exposed to another aspect of reality. It was not an all out feel-good watch however, as the reality which was shared is that of the human trafficking industry, specifically along the slave trade routes running between Nigeria and Europe via Spain and Italy.
I can say with certainty though that it is a story with an definite element of hope attached to it – the degree to which that hope will realise is largely up to us, in the hands of the ‘free men’.
Africa is often considered as a single entity, a type of package deal, we hear people say “In Africa people often…”, and I guess us Africans often treat ‘Europe’ in a similar way. In reality though, Africa is a continent consisting of well over 50 countries, each different in culture, language and practise (to varying degrees of course).
As a South African, I learnt that Nigerians make up 25% of the African population with the emphasis on the fact that ‘25% of the African population does not live inside Nigeria’. No, as is the case with many other nations, there is a very active Nigerian diaspora. It is therefore that speakers at the premiere event frequently brought up the saying: “What happens in Nigeria affects all of Africa”.
Another Side of Life is said to be ‘a film about a film’ as it largely draws attention to another film called ‘Europe in my Heart‘ and the work of Anne Abok. Now Anne Abok was one of the ‘definite elements of hope’ I mentioned above and one of the speakers on the night. A woman who radiates passion, purpose and an undying will to fight the injustice of slavery – all with a broad smile on her face even though she is no way ignorant of the reality she is opposing. She is the co-founder of Media Village in Nigeria (founded 2005) and also a member of the College of Communication International Committee, a film producer, screen writer and editor.
Europe in my Heart tells the story of Charity, an African girl willing to do whatever it takes to make a life in Europe, and is a high quality educational tool used to inform the world, and especially potential victims of trafficking, of how women and children are lured by traffickers and what happens in ‘Europe’. I say ‘Europe’ seeing that the destination is often a neighbouring African state or where ever a willing slave buyer may be found – it is projected that only 5-10% of slaves ever make it to Europe. Abok have noticed that the showing of this film has typically resulted in a drop of 85-45% of people watching it still wanting to go to Europe once they become aware of the possible dangers. That once again highlights to what extent properly and consistently communicated awareness campaigns can help in preventing people from becoming victims of human trafficking. Education is key!
Vermooten himself further investigates the situation in Nigeria itself and the challenges Abok and her peers face in fighting this particular manifestation of evil. He takes the viewer to a place called Benin City, the centre of Nigeria’s rubber industry, major producer of palm oil and, of course, arguably Africa’s major producer of, or port from which, humans are to be shipped as slaves, mainly for the sex industry. Benin City has a legacy as a ‘slave city’ as it was part of the ‘Slave Coast’ where many West Africans were sold to slave traders during the 16th and 17th centuries. From the film and first hand accounts of these film makers we learn that today still, almost every person they came across while filming ‘had an affair, one way or the other, with human trafficking’, whether they talked to people along the road, their taxi driver or whoever, they were likely to have been a former victim themselves or currently have a family member or acquaintance ‘in Europe’. Conservative figures suggest 1 in 10 families have a member overseas (mostly in prostitution) but from Vermooten and the team’s personal experience it is much rather around 8 out of every 10 families.
But why is this? Why is Benin City what it is and how can things be different?
Abok mentions of how she received government opposition due to their fear that ‘foreign journalists might create a negative image of Nigeria’ (as a side note: coming from South Africa, we have a very negative image of Nigeria already, due to the prevalance of illegal activities conducted over here by many of their expats – my recent exposure to Abok and another speaker at the premiere changed my whole perspective however, which is the reason I would encourage Nigeria’s government to rather assist people doing the work she does).
Secondly, poverty is a major underlying problem as is the case all over the world where trafficking occurs. Surrounding villages even rejected the film crew due to the fact that human trafficking is one of their major sources of income. Victims of trafficking would even go to jail as illegal immigrants in other nations rather than return home, as prisons provide food for them. In Benin City human trafficking is an open secret and has literally become part of everyday life.
Thirdly, there is another sinister force at play which the broader Western culture does not understand or are simply ignorant of: African trafficking, for one, involves a very deliberate spiritual aspect. Animistic rituals and witchcraft (Juju-based practises) plays a critical role in African trafficking. This includes blood oaths, commitments and covenants which when not honoured leads to death, menstrual bleeding or other conditions. Rituals include hot concoctions containing body parts (nail clippings, pubic hair, etc.) and blood from trafficked victims which trafficker/’sponsor’ drink together with the victim to seal the oath or otherwise intercourse(rape) for the same purpose. The result is that women who are found and offered the opportunity to come home from Europe or other places reject the offer due to their fear of the curse that the breaking of an oath might bring over them or their families. Whether Westerners choose to believe the reality these people know very well, the fear is very real in these societies where the spiritual is held in high regard.
The big question asked next was ‘where is the church generally in all of this?’ seeing that the church has been known to have the tools which brings freedom from this fear and the reversal of curses. The sad reality is that large parts of the church form part of ‘prosperity’ movements and ‘fake pastors’ would start churches as profit generating organisations. This results in the fact that although churches make out a large part of the Nigerian population, very few of them are interested in getting their hands dirty in the areas where their help is desperately needed.
The challenge is massive but people like Anne Abok is making a difference and are bringing change – and I may highlight again, are the type of people Nigeria and other African nations ought to embrace if they truly care about their countries and their people.
The problem is not a simple one-dimensional one and neither is the solution. People often ask, and did so again at the film premiere, how they can play a role in fighting this issue seeing that not all of us have Liam Neeson’s skill set, necessary to take out whole trafficking syndicates. Because it is so multi-dimensional, it is good for people to realise that it is not simply about stopping traffickers themselves or going into brothels and rescuing slaves. As mentioned, preventative education can have a massive effect, taking on the demand side of the industry (issues such as pornography, issues surrounding the legalisation of prostitution, the sexualised themes in our media communication playing a role in the shaping of our society) is very important and the one thing I took from this film as well: job creation.
Poverty stands out as a major reason why people are lured into slavery and why they many times approach it in an irrational manner: they are discontent and desperate. For instance, I am currently reading a book titled Why Africa is Poor from which I learnt that approximately 10% of African wages go to women, although they work 10-15 hours more per week than men and that women own 1% of the overall African economy. So, if you’re a business owner in Nigeria for instance and can find ways to create local jobs, for women especially (considering possible cultural barriers in doing so of course), and pay a decent salary, you would be fighting human trafficking.
I would encourage every one who reads this to get hold of both these films, I couldn’t share every detail in here, especially the testimonies of victims and how they managed to re-enter society after being rescued from slavery was both heartbreaking and encouraging:
Another Side of Life, to expose yourself and others to this reality for starters, and Europe in my Heart to educate the vulnerable with.
Watch: Another Side of Life trailer
Another way of contributing to the cause is to host a film screening yourself in your town, at your school, university, church or wherever you are able to get a few people together. Both Shane Vermooten and Anne Abok are available to attend these screenings in person (around South Africa in particular) if arranged in advance, Shane could be contacted for this purpose at firstname.lastname@example.org
Anne does travel around Europe at times speaking to parliaments and at seminars educating local groups on how these African women could be assisted out of slavery, considering the unique challenges mentioned above – Shane could also be contacted with regards to her whereabouts and availability.
A ‘behind the scenes’ photo journey through Benin City by Sergio Ramazzotti.