BENIN CITY, Nigeria—A day before they were to begin their long journey to Italy, 17-year-old Tokumbo, as we’ll call her, and two other girls about her age were taken by their smugglers to a juju priest for the usual oath-swearing ritual most girls trafficked to Europe undertake. The purpose: to ensure that they keep to their promises of loyalty to their traffickers.
Tokumbo thought it was going to be an easy process—perhaps she would have to say just a few words promising that she will not betray her benefactor and would face the consequences if she did. But to her surprise, on getting to the shrine, the priest asked her to take off her clothes and underwear, and lie on her back on the table in front of him.
“He covered my face with a red cloth and held my left breast tight with one hand,” she told The Daily Beast. “I then felt something pinch me close to my nipple as if he used a needle on me.”
When the red cloth was taken out of Tokumbo’s eyes, she saw a bandage pasted close to her nipple. The priests had created marks around her areola where he extracted fluid in a manner that looked like he was conducting a biopsy on her breast. He then cut her pubic hair and made her swear to an oath of allegiance to her “madam.” She was also made to drink a little of the liquor she was asked to bring to the shrine as “communion.”
“Everything happened so fast,” she said. “One moment I was in the shrine. The next moment I was out.”
After Tokumbo completed the ritual, she stepped out of the shrine and the second girl was called in. The process was the same for her and the third victim. All three girls had sworn on the pain of sickness that they will not go against the promises they made to their traffickers to repay money and not to denounce them to the police.
The ceremony was carried out in Benin City in Nigeria’s southern region where many traffickers perform oath-taking rituals to trap women into a life of sex slavery in Europe.
Each year, thousands of Nigerian women—including those fooled into believing they’ll be given good jobs once they get to their destination—are trafficked into Europe where they are told that they must work as prostitutes until they pay off debts which in some cases are as high as $50,000.
The journey to Europe itself is difficult and dangerous. In many cases, the women travel nearly 3,000 miles across the Sahel in pickup trucks, in minivans, and on motorcycles to get to Libya’s Mediterranean coast and this usually takes months to complete. There have been cases where migrants are beaten, raped, and forced into hard labor by criminal networks in North Africa.
Last year, more than 11,000 Nigerian women crossed the Mediterranean to Italy, of whom 80 percent will go on to live a life of forced prostitution, according to a report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The victims are mostly from Edo state where Benin City is located, but in recent times, there have been reports of young women trafficked from other parts of Nigeria, including the troubled northeast region where Boko Haram operates.
In some cases, they are told to bring their underwear stained with menstrual blood which they hand to the priest who also cuts their pubic hair and toenails and makes them swear over the blood of an animal, usually a chicken, that they would never betray their supposed benefactor. The ritual gives the priests power to punish those women who fail to keep to their oath wherever they are in the world.
With this in mind, victims prefer to remain in sex slavery rather than violate the terms of the oath. Such was the case with Tokumbo who tried hard to remain loyal, with the oath she took always fresh on her mind.
A woman I met at the Abuja office of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) gave me a clue about how to contact Tokumbo after I asked for a way of reaching women who had been deported to Nigeria from Italy. It was difficult to reach her as she had no mobile phone, but I followed the description the woman gave. Eventually, after spending hours looking for Tokumbo’s compound and asking many questions on the way, a young boy who knew the name helped me locate her.
The young lady, who was deported after close to two years in Italy, said she was strongly warned by the priest of the consequences of defying the oath.
“He pulled out his bag and brought out photos of dead people,” said Tokumbo who now lives in Warri, an oil-rich town about 100 kilometers away from Benin City. “He [the priest] said they died because they disobeyed.”
To find out more about this ritual, I traveled to Benin City, at the heart of an ancient African kingdom where more that 80 percent of women trafficked to Italy come from. The city is home to a significant number of voodoo shrines or temples located mostly in densely populated squatter areas, and so, finding a priest may not be much of a problem if you ask the right questions.
Some of these temples aren’t too far away from the metropolis. The way a number of these places are designed could make anyone confuse them for churches. The neatly arranged pews in these temples and the use of crucifixes, olive oil, and candles are similar to Christian places of worship. But in practice, these places operate based on traditional beliefs.
I was able to locate a couple of these temples with the help of Taiwo, a taxi driver who hails from neighbouring Lagos state but has lived most of his life in Benin City.
Taiwo knows a lot about voodoo practices in Benin City. He once lived in a compound where his landlord was a juju priest. He, too, had sought help in the past from a priest when he suspected his wife was having an affair with another man. Taiwo made sure she swore to an oath that she will suffer pain if she ever had sex with anyone else apart from him. Months after, the woman ran out of their home and no one has heard from her since. The taxi driver thinks his wife may have cheated on him and she is being punished by the deity she swore to. Such is the way voodoo priests and their deities are revered in Benin City.
In one of the temples Taiwo took me to, I found a number of young women sitting outside the building waiting for a priest to attend to them. Most came with complaints of illnesses attributed to witchcraft and were looking to take part in sacrifices that would cure them.
The women held small-sized plastic bags containing items the priest had asked them to bring along. In one of the transparent bags held by one of the young women, I could see a pack of white candles and a wine-shaped bottle that I suspected contained liquor.
Outside the temple were goats and chickens for the priest to sacrifice in a small slaughter room at the back of the building, which is shut until an animal is to be killed.
On the walls of the temple, close to the main entrance, are photographs of people who’ve been struck by the deity. Some of the victims are allegedly witches, wizards, adulterers, and those who violated their oath.
Inside the temple are neatly arranged plastic chairs where devotees sit and listen to the priest lecture them on a number of subjects including his practice, the role of the deity in the sacrifices he performs, and the kind of life his devotees are expected to live.
The girls who arrived for their sacrifices had to wait outside until the priest was present. It is only then that they can be ushered into the temple. Minutes after the last devotee arrived, the man they had all been waiting for showed up.
But the priest, referred to as “Baba” will only see those women who are not menstruating and, as such, one of the women was asked to return at a later date when she had completed her menstrual cycle.
Baba also doesn’t entertain reporters. He only agreed to speak to me after Taiwo had assured him in the Yoruba dialect that I was someone he could trust to report exactly what he would say to me and what I have seen in the temple. Both of them were born in Lagos state where the Yoruba language is widely spoken. After their little conversation, the priest relaxed and was willing to grant me an audience.
“These women need life, not more suffering,” Baba said of his decision not to listen to menstruating women. “Menstrual blood has a connection with sickness and death, and so, we only use it to place curses.”
Just as menstrual blood is of huge significance to juju priests and their deities, the fluid gotten from a woman’s breast is equally important, especially as it has to do with punishing erring women. Those in this position may be struck with a terrible gynecological disease and may not be able to conceive, he said.
Baba receives lots of patronage. Some of his devotees are educated women, some are from wealthy homes, and some have come from far away places like Accra in Ghana and Douala in Cameroon. They include practicing Christians and Muslims.
One married woman was among those who visited Baba on this day. Unlike Tokumbo, who was taken to a shrine to swear that she will be loyal to her trafficker, Ruth, as we’ll call the married woman, was in the temple to swear that she will not cheat on her husband who had approved of her trip to Italy for an internship program, or so she claimed.
Accompanied by her partner, she was the first of all the waiting women to be attended to. Baba took both of them to an inner room in the temple where he carried out an oath-taking ritual that involved leaving a mark on one of her breasts.
As the couple stepped out of the temple, Ruth had her left hand placed on her left breast as if she was trying to suppress pain or prevent the affected area from bleeding. Whatever it was, the woman had undergone a procedure that was clearly keeping her uncomfortable.
“Make sure you don’t forget what we’ve just done,” Baba said to the departing woman, reminding her of the oath she had taken. “Any mistake you make will be dangerous.”
The consequences of disobedience are always disastrous, according to the elderly priest. Should Ruth violate her oath and cheat on her husband, she will likely become barren. A number of women, Baba said, are unable to conceive because they failed to keep to their promises.
“The breast is the symbol of womanhood,” said Baba as he explained to me why he carried out the act on Ruth. “When you disobey, your womanhood goes.”
It’s very rare to hear reports about women involved in such ritual falling seriously ill or dying as a result of the oath they took, but Tokumbo, who got married months after she was deported to Nigeria by Italian authorities, said she was unable to conceive after a year of marriage.
“I had to visit another priest for cleansing,” said the girl, who spent two years working as a prostitute on the streets of Turin. “Thereafter, everything changed.”
Nearly four years after the ritual was done, Tokumbo says she feels a “biting sensation” which often keeps her uncomfortable. One of the other victims, she said, developed keloids around her nipple and now can’t breastfeed her child with the affected breast. For both girls—who have kept in touch with each other since their deportation—the effect of the procedure they underwent may live with them for a lifetime.
“Sometimes it feels like the area around my nipple is on fire,” said Tokumbo. “It happens more often these days.”
For many years, life hasn’t been easy for the young woman. Even before she was approached by her neighbor who introduced her to the woman who took her to Italy, Tokumbo had suffered many losses. She quit university in Maiduguri and returned with her parents to Benin City, their home town, following violence in the northeast Nigerian town by Boko Haram. Because she couldn’t find a job and was unable to support her poor parents as an only child, Tokumbo accepted the offer to travel to Europe.
“Things had gone really bad for my family,” she said. “We lost everything we had when our shop was burned down by Boko Haram.”
Like many women deported from Italy, Tokumbo returned to Nigeria empty-handed, and deeply regrets making the trip.
“I wish it never crossed my mind,” she said. “It is the worst experience of my life.”