For two weeks I scoured perilous brothels in two Lagos slums, Badia Ijora in Apapa Local Government Area and Ajegunle in Ajeromi Ifelodun Local Government Area, investigating how sex workers survive in these places. I found that many of the prostitutes living in these brothels have uniform tattoos. Beyond the physical abuse and emotional torment they go through, this permanent scar is a daily reminder that they are owned and who owns them.
Raida, 17, sat among four other scantily-dressed girls on a wooden bench in front of a shanty in Ijora Badia, Lagos, staring vacantly into the distance. The oldest of the girls could not have been more than 19 years old.
It was a few minutes past 11am. The date was July 16, 2017.
This seemed to be a resting time for Raida and the other girls. The trance-like appearance on their faces told me they must have imbibed a good dose of alcohol. I needed no soothsayer. Underneath the bench they sat was a bottle of a local alcoholic gin.
“I drink it to help me erase every memory of what the evening brings,” she told me much later when we became acquainted.
Raida (not her real name for security reasons) had a name delicately tattooed below her chest. Two of the girls who sat beside her had similar tattoos.
“I have another one on my back,” she would later tell me.
Few yards away, four chubby men in their late 30s and a lady were seen discussing over wrapped marijuana and six bottles of beer.
As I approached Raida, the other girls immediately advanced towards me. Disappointment showed on their faces when, with a disarming smile, I pointed at Raida who was seated, unmoved and apparently uninterested at first.
“Bros, you mean me?” she asked with a smile after a while as I drew closer.
As if something struck her, she paused, cast a quick look at the men and lady who sat smoking and drinking to her left, then beckoned in Pidgin English as she struggled to lead me to her room, “Oya, come na!”
As we walked into her room, she quietly asked me to sit on the bed. The wooden walls were decorated with old calendars and pages from colourful magazines. I sat. The mattress was really very thick and bumpy, which seemed odd considering that the room was meant to provide comfort and enjoyment for her customers. Stench of rotting food scraps emanating from the alley outside hung heavy in the air.
“Bros, what is wrong?” she asked in her soft voice when she sensed my discomfort. I lied that I was fine.
She began to undress, but I immediately interrupted the process.
“Please stop,” I pleaded. “I am not really here for this. Can we talk?”
“Bros, I don’t joke with my time,” she said, wincing at me. “Let’s get down to business. Another customer might come soon.”
“Why do I have the feeling that you do not really want to do this? Is it all about the money?” I asked.
I saw tears well in her eyes, but she tried to hide it.
“Are you a police officer?” she asked.
“No. I am a human being. I have always come around here and I have seen you several times sitting quietly and alone, unlike the other girls.”
In truth, while trying to survey the environment for this investigation, I had always noticed Raida sitting dejected, apart from the other girls – not once, not twice. I thought there was something about her.
“You are beautiful,” I teased her. She flashed a shy smile.
An uncomfortable silence followed. The invasion of a housefly which perched on the remnants on her used plates provided a needed distraction as she concentrated on chasing it out of the room, giving me time to think.
When she was done chasing the fly, I reached for my pocket and handed her N5,000 cash with a smile, then stood up and headed for the door.
She was surprised but appeared more relaxed now as she looked at the money in her hand.
“Ok, what are you here for if not for me?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, I will see you around,” I said, opening the door.
“Just like that?” she asked bemusedly. I guessed that was rhetorical.
“What’s your name, my friend?” I asked instead. “I am Dave.”
“I am called Raida,” she replied.
Tricked into slavery
Two days later, I returned, this time better prepared. Raida sighted me from afar and walked straight up to me.
“Bros, you are here again?” she asked in a friendly tone.
We exchanged pleasantries and I requested we go sit in a place and eat.
Mama Rukayat Food and Restaurant, a popular fast food joint in the area, was close by. As we sat down, she gave me a wink and a slow smile that rolled like honey off a tablespoon.
“We all try our luck each time a person passes,” she explained. “If he stops to look at me, maybe he is interested, but if not, maybe he is used to someone else.”
We placed our orders and they soon arrived.
“Tell me, how long have you been in Badia and where are you from?” I asked as I unwrapped my amala. I had ordered amala and ewedu, a local Yoruba delicacy.
She picked a piece of meat from her plate of jollof rice and plain beans soaked in tomato sauce, pushed it into her mouth and looked up. When she spoke, it was in a very relaxed tone.
“This is my second year. I came to Lagos in the company of two other girls sponsored by my friend’s husband,” she told me.
“We were promised a secured future. They said they would give us jobs as sales girls, but this is where we ended up. For two years this place has been my home. I didn’t see the sales job they promised, and I have never gone back home,” she said.
Her tear-filled voice was unnerving for me, so I changed the topic.
“Your tattoo is beautiful, how can I get one?” I asked.
She paused and looked at me in surprise, then said, “It is not your kind of tattoo; you look too decent to have one.”
When I insisted that I wanted one, she pointed at a nearby shop where someone could help me with a tattoo if I really wanted one.
Not an ordinary tattoo
Raida was not the only one with a tattoo. The last time I had noticed that the other girls who sat with her each had a similar tattoo as hers, but I had also seen another group of girls with another kind of tattoo.
Even as we sat eating, a group of half-nude girls walked past; each of them had scorpion signs and bags of money inked on different parts of her body – above the groin, down the arm, on the neck, etc. So, I put the question to Raida.
At first, she tried to cover up, saying the tattoos were bonds of friendship. Later, however, she opened up.
“Here we work for our madam and oga [master]. Each of us has who she works for and our tattoo is a sign of who we work for. It is a mark of loyalty,” she told me.
“All our proceeds go to them first. The more you work, that is, the more men you sleep with, the more money you will have for yourself after the day’s job,” Raida said.
According to her, no girl within her age bracket in any brothel around can escape the mark.
My independent check on several brothels in Agegunle and Badia proved Raida right. Most of the girls I saw had different distinct tattoos on their skins, especially the younger girls.
Two of the men I had sighted two days earlier drew close to where we sat at the restaurant. It was a tough moment for her as she struggled to hide the tears welling in her eyes. She greeted the intruders in the Yoruba language and they replied with a wave of the hand before going to take their seats at the far end of the restaurant.
“Sometimes if we go against what we are asked to do, we get whipped, punched, and sometimes forced to sleep naked,” she said after a long pause. Her voice was a suppressed whisper.
No way out
Pointing to her right arm where there was a fresh scar, Raida told me it was from a razor cut she got for attempting to run away.
“I wanted to go home. I still want to go home. The day I tried leaving, I was accosted, beaten and scarred as a reminder not to attempt it again,” she said, looking at me with teary eyes.
Like Raida, these inked girls, mostly aged 14-20, were brought in from different localities; they are now enslaved to a greedy world, with their tattoo as a mark of their slavery.
“You know, there are a lot of girls into what we do trying to survive. Some of us are mothers, abandoned wives, and mostly from the village. Some girls even willingly get registered with a pimp to get better deal while some of us were forced or deceived into it,” she said.
“It hurts me whenever I turn my back to look at the mirror and see the mark. I am tired of this life and I want to go back home and live the life I wished for myself,” she said. It was more of a plea.
She said she sorely missed home.
“I have not seen my parents since we came down to Lagos. If I attempt to leave again, I don’t know what will happen to me.”
Raida told me about another girl, Saidat, who had been at the brothel for over three years.
“When you see her, you will recognize her. She has a tattoo, Omo Oba,” she said.
Omo Oba seemed to be a popular tattoo. I had seen not fewer than 14 girls wearing it.
Ijora Badia police station is just a two-minute walk away from Raida. I asked her why she can’t go to the police to report.
“You mean the same policemen we…?” she left the words hanging, then added, “Just forget it.”
It was a heavy one. I tried to make sense of what she left unsaid. Did she imply that the police in the area were complicit?
Adewale Okewole, a senior consultant psychiatrist, Child and Adolescent unit at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta, Ogun State, said that today’s pimps are using the old Egyptian technique as a way to manipulate the girls to work for them.
He explained that those distinct marks on the backs, chests or shoulders of the girls serve a number of purposes, one of which is that it marks victims as property of the pimps, sending a message to other pimps to stay away.
“It helps them advertise to ‘buyers’ looking for specific types of girls, especially young ones. And perhaps most importantly, it sends a powerful message to the victim herself: I own you, and I own you forever,” said Okewole.
Boom for the boss
But while Raida and the other girls lament, business is booming for the brothel owners in Badia. A sign of this is that the old shanty brothels are fast giving way to modern buildings.
As I sat speaking with Raida, a young woman who could have been in her early 20s, her face full of makeup, walked into a room just across the railway line where we sat. She was with a man.
Shortly after the man left, a middle-aged man walked to the same lady’s door, knocked, and quickly disappeared inside.
Exactly half an hour later, the man left. The young lady quickly headed to a bleached lady who looked forty-something and handed her the cash.
“Is that the practice? Why would you girls work and give the proceeds of your sweat to another?” I asked, feigning surprise. I had always known.
“It is normal here,” Raida said. “My boss pays for my room, he owns me and I work for him. No one dares challenge him as the outcome is better imagined than experienced. He always reminds us that we must work harder.”
Perhaps not all the enslaved girls have Radia’s kind of resolve to leave, but will those of them who want a better life ever get the chance to live freely again?