In the footsteps of powerful women, with Chika Unigwe

The first novel by Nigerian Chika Unigwe to be published in French, Fata Morgana, tells the story of the paths rich in drama and dreams of four African prostitutes stranded on the sidewalks of Western Europe. Victims of the tragic circumstances of life, but also of the chaos that prevails in their countries, try to regain control of their lives with the courage of despair. A gripping and powerful novel.

Immigration, the marginalization of women, the slow operation of newly independent countries are some of the serious social and political phenomena facing our postcolonial world. These questions are at the heart of Fata Morgana, the second novel of Chika Unigwe. They are embodied mainly by the four female protagonists in this quasi-Balzac social opus. Through the epic and choral story of their unusual paths that led from suburbs to African capitals to European megacities, the novel tells the passions and trials of our time.

The heroines of Chika Unigwe are Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce. Four young African women prostituting themselves in Antwerp’s red-light district, under vigilant gaze and without empathy from their “Madame”. They recently landed from Lagos and all passed through the expert hands of Fat Dele, a sex trader from Lagos who earned his fortune by supplying Western European brothels with “fresh African meat”.

“I send girls to Europe every month. Antwerp. Milan. Madrid. My girls die there. Every month four girls. Sometimes five or more,” Dele boasts of convincing one of the potential candidates for immigration to the European continent, overflowing with luxury and wealth. Price: 30,000 euros, refunded in monthly installments of 500 euros. But watch out for shortcomings, warns the trafficker. “No try to cross me o. Do not dare to try to walk past me. No one doubles Senghor Dele.

Neither the unreasonable offer nor the threat from the “big man” succeeded in deterring the four main characters in Fata Morgana. The chaos that prevails on their continent leaves them little more than to go and sell their bodies in distant Europe.

powerful womenBorn in Enugu, Nigeria, in 1974, author Chika Unigwe now divides her life between her homeland and the United States. She lived for fifteen years in Belgium where she had followed her engineer, originally from this country. Belgium is also the place where Fata Morgan’s action is camp.

Author of four novels and a collection of short stories, Chika Unigwe is part of a highly selected club with the most prominent and promising African writers of its generation. “I have always wanted to write,” the Nigerian likes to repeat, who has attracted attention by placing his work in the wake of the great female novelists in his country, especially Flora Nwapa. The author of Fata Morgana remembers going to primary school with the daughter of this pioneering writer of Nigerian letters.

“In the 1970s and 80s, everyone in Nigeria knew Flora Nwapa and I wanted to be like her too, says the author. A career as a writer seemed cooler to me than becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher.” Later, she will dedicate a doctoral dissertation to the work of Flora Nwapa and other women writers from her country. “My doctoral dissertation was about ‘Ibo women’s writing as a restoration’, says the novelist. I tried to show that Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and other novelists who appeared in their wake present women very differently compared to male writers. In my corpus was Efuru, Flora Napa’s first novel, published in 1962, four years after the publication of Le Monde s’affonde by Chinua Achebe. For the first time, it is a woman with character who is at the front of the stage in a work of Nigerian fiction. Efuru is central to the novel because she gives her name to the plot. Efuru is independent, Efuru is rich. As a writer myself, I am drawn to powerful women.. ”

Like Efuru, the four main characters in Fata Morgana are also powerful women. The author became interested in the problem of prostitution after discovering during his stay in Belgium that the African prostitutes working on the sidewalks in Western Europe were mainly of Nigerian origin. His novel is the result of a long-term study conducted over five years in Europe’s red light district. What she discovered when she chatted with the young African prostitutes who show up in glass windows in red light districts, paraded in sexy and alluring lingerie to attract the client, changed forever the view she had long had on prostitution.

“Almost 100% of the Nigerian prostitutes I was able to examine with confirmed to me, she recalls, that they did this job to meet the needs of their loved ones. These women were the main breadwinners in their families, a role that until now had assigned to men. But in the documentaries that can be seen about prostitutes, they are portrayed mainly as driven by the lure of easy gain. For me, the women I met were driven by a deep sense of family responsibility, which was a revelation to me. I also discovered that some of these women had graduated from college but failed to find suitable jobs.These discoveries shocked me because none of this corresponds to the stereotypes conveyed about prostitutes. ”

“Beautiful Jick”Fata Morgana tells the story of a women’s association about four African women who share an apartment in Antwerp’s red-light district. Joyce, Ama, Efe and Sisi come from very different backgrounds, but their paths are similar. They are marked by the tremors of life that explode brutally in your face when you live in countries where community and collective passions prevent civil peace from settling.

This is the case with Joyce, originally from Sudan. Raped as a teenager by the Janjawid militia, she saw her attackers kill their parents before her eyes, her brother being brutalized, her village burned down. Her unfortunate journey took her first to Lagos, then to Antwerp, with a stopover on the way to the Senghor Dele hut.

Ama, the other prostitute, is a rebel. Raped by her stepfather since she was 8 years old, she grew up in the middle of the luxury and lust of the Nigerian bourgeoisie before running away from home in her desperate attempt to take control of her life.

Efe’s story is no less moving. She came from a poor slum in Lagos and believed for a long time in the promises of her fat and seductive lover, before she found a mother at the age of 16. She will take the road to Antwerp in order to ensure a dignified life for her son as well as for her brothers and sisters whose survival depends on the money that comes each month from distant Belgium. They praise Belgium as what they call “Belle Jik”, which they believe in their naivety is “close to London. It’s next door.”

A wind of imaginationThe novel begins with Sisi disappearing, found dead on a wild dump in Antwerp, her head crushed. She had wanted to leave the brothel too soon without having paid her because of her pimp. The story of Sisi, a graduate of the University of Lagos and a victim of corruption and nepotism plaguing Nigeria, is emblematic of the development of emerging, newly independent countries. This course is also emblematic of migrating women, victims of Europe’s mirages and brilliantly staged by Chika Unigwe in her novels.

The fact remains that Sisi, Ama, Efe and other Joyces who populate Fata Morgana’s pages are frantic fighters who stubbornly fight to conquer their sexual, material and imaginative freedom. They are true feminists, as Chika Unigwe claims: “Yes, they are feminists. They know it is because they are women that society has let them down. Prostitution was the only way for them to get out of poverty. I do not know if is there in the book or not.One of my interlocutors explained to me that she knew she would have to work for several years to earn enough money to get protection and that she would then get married.She will find the man she needs and she will pay him the dowry that the groom pays to his future in-laws.In a patriarchal society like ours, can you be more feminist than this woman who plans to afford a man?

There is something Balzacian about this realistic novel about the dramas of migration, told with a decidedly modernist feel, as evidenced by Chika Unigwe’s polyphonic narrative. The end of the story, imbued with a hint of magical realism, blows a wind of fantasy through these pages where hope and despair meet.

Fata Morgana, by Chika Unigwe. Translated from the English by Marguerite Capelle. Globe Editions, 300 pages, 23 euros.

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