An orphan who was tricked into leaving her village in northern Nigeria in 1998, Joy Ubi-Ubi fashions the turning-point from freedom to slavery as the moment when she drank blood during a voodoo ritual. Afterwards, once Joy was in Europe, her captors said this ritual meant the “juju” would kill her if she tried to escape. As Joy explains, she was thereby “forced to do the work” of a prostitute. She was enslaved for three years in the deprived Bijlmer district of Amsterdam—home to many West African immigrants. But the narrative also includes a parallel turning-point from slavery to freedom: the moment when Joy was asked to drink something again: a liquid that would make her bleed, and miscarry. This time, she refused to take the drink. Not wanting to abort her pregnancy, she made the decision to escape, then was helped by a West African Pentecostal minister who operates mission houses in Amsterdam.
This use of native West African voodoo is a common feature of the slave experience for Nigerian women held in Western Europe (of whom there are around 10,000). The women and girls undergo an initiation ritual before leaving their country: for Joy this included the marking of her face and hands, and laying hands on a “juju” (statue), as well as drinking blood. They are often made to swear to the gods that they will work hard for their employers, and will never mention their real names, run away, or contact the police. Captors threaten the women with punishment by the gods for any disobedience, and warn that any attempt to escape will awaken a curse on their families. Once in Europe they are drugged, then resold. Held in brothels, they have sex with customers but are not paid: Joy notes that all money changed hands before the clients reached her room. Any pregnancies are aborted.
I was born in 1972, in Nigeria. In my family we were six, four brothers and two sisters. I didn’t go to school. I was working with my brother on the farm. I lost my parents when I was very small. When I was about five or six, I lost my mother, then my father at age ten. They were sick. My brothers and sisters were smaller than me: one brother was nine, another six, another four, and the youngest was two. Sometimes my aunt would come, and at harvest time, friends would sometimes come to help us on the farm. Sometimes neighbors would give us work or food.
When I was 26, I was taking care of the children, and a man came to me in the village and said he wanted to help me. He said it would help me to take care of the little ones if I would go to Europe. I didn’t know him, I hadn’t seen him before in the village, but he said he knew me. He said he had a lot of work in Europe on a farm, with tomatoes and fruit. He had a wife and children there, and he said that maybe I can assist his wife with the children. I said: “ok, why not.” He said he would be back in three days time to take my picture, to get an international passport for me. Then he came back, took my picture, and said he would be back in a week. When he returned he showed me the passport, and said he had to take me somewhere.
We went very far—before, I had only been to the next village or to the market. When we got there I met some men. They had white clothing, and a very big place. There was a woman there too, a priestess. They went outside to talk—I don’t know what they discussed—and then they asked me to pull off my shoes, and they brought blood for me to drink. They asked me to drink it for my own good, and said that it wasn’t going to kill me. I drank it, and they marked my body and my hand. Then they gave me a sheep’s eye and said I had to eat it. I said: “What do you want me to eat this for? I can’t eat it.” They said that anybody who was going to Europe had to do this. I didn’t want to eat it, but I was desperate. They gave me water to swallow it, and when I was finished, they asked me to put my hand on the juju.
After we finished, they bought me clothes and shoes. Then they took away in a car, then straight into a ship. In the ship they asked me to hide. They had a cabin and they made me go underneath the bed. One white man took my passport from me and guarded the door. They were all speaking English. All I was thinking was that I found people who were going to help me. We got to Rotterdam, and two boys from Nigeria met us there and asked me to come with them. I followed them, and we arrived at a place. They said I had to stay there and rest. I didn’t see the man anymore. They gave me food to eat, and after three days they said I had to go with them to Amsterdam, to work. They took me there, to the Red Light District and said: “You are one of them, you can also work like them.” I said: “what kind of job is this?” They said: “prostitution.”
They said it took a lot of money to bring me to Europe and that this was what I would do to pay back the money. I thought they were joking, but they were very very serious. One man, Johnson, said that if I went to the police, or if the police arrested me, they would deport me to Nigeria, and then he would come to Nigeria by himself to kill me. He said that I have to change my name, and that he was going to give me a new passport, British—not a real passport. He said I have to have it in case the police came.
They said to me that because of everything I drank before coming, and because I had put my hand on the juju, if I went to anybody or tried to run away, the juju would kill me. So I was forced to do the work. They said I had to get $60,000. I didn’t see the money—when I saw the customers they had already paid. The money was already collected. They used to give me a drink, and they were putting some drugs in it. Even my food had the drug in it. They didn’t allow me to talk me to anybody, and they had guns. I did talk to some customers, and they said I had to go to the police, but I was afraid.
The two boys used to sleep with me a lot, and they used no protection. The first time I was pregnant was in 2000. Johnson asked me to abort. I didn’t know how to do it, but he gave me something to drink. And when I drank it, I miscarried. Then in February 2001, I was pregnant again. He said I had to do what I did before, but I said: “no, I don’t want to do that anymore.” It was very painful. He said that if I didn’t take the drink he would use a knife to cut my stomach. He was very serious. He said if I didn’t want to drink what he gave me before, he would force me to do it.
I said: “ok.” I pretended like I’m going to work, and I made up my mind not to drink what he gave me. They dropped me to work, and I knew that they were around the area, watching me. I met a customer and I explained it to him. He said I had to go to the police. But I was afraid at that time—I thought that maybe if I went to the police they will lock me up. I followed the man as if I was following him to a house, and took the metro.
Narrative as told to E. Benjamin Skinner, February 16, 2006, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.