September Edition with Esther was humbling. Preliminary chit-chat revolved round her passion for Personal branding and this is how she summarized it: “Personal Branding is about being able to walk into this room, own the space even if you’re shy. It is being able to step out of yourself and being able to achieve your full potential. You don’t have to be fashionable.
Then we went into her job as a Human Trafficking Activist…
Esther Ekanem has worked extensively in broadcast and media relations in Nigeria and the UK for over 15 years. She has produced and directed numerous TV programmes such as a documentary series on the South African apartheid, documentary profiles on notable personalities for Reminiscent TV, an Asian/African-Caribbean network. She has worked for notable international NGOs in the UK including Support For Africa (SFA) and Disability in Camden (DISC).
Esther has over the years been commissioned by the ECOWAS Commission to produce documentaries on the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in West Africa, human trafficking in West Africa, insight into ECOWAS Commission and a 10th anniversary documentary for the ECOWAS court of Justice.
Her long held relationship with the ECOWAS Commission and her extensive travel within the region has given her invaluable access and knowledge on a host of issues affecting the West African region. The high quality and professional standards of her documentaries led to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP), to award her the contract of producing a UNODC funded documentary on human trafficking with special emphasis on young Nigerian girls trafficked abroad as sex slaves. With this production, Ms. Ekanem exceeded expectations and produced a 3 part series, to help create a better platform for the victims and families to tell their stories and for the officials to present current trends and situations to educate the public and potential victims. For Esther, you are only as good as the causes you are committed to.
Tell us about your work?
I’ve always had a thing about the rights of children but it started with animals back in London since I was 5yrs. Sometimes my mum would say “come back the way you went” people would think it has to do with virginity but in my house it meant- don’t come back with any stray cat, stray dog, stray person… because back then in London that’s normally what it meant when a parent made that statement. From being worried about children exposed to sexual abuse or physical abuse, being part of NSPCC (Society for Protection from Cruelty to Children) and always donating money, I think I’ve always had that nurturing thing about me. Then one day my aunty said “Esther all this education you’ve got to go home and do something for your people… especially your state. You know the things that are happening to the girls”. (“Trafficking” was a new word to me I didn’t know what it meant I thought it had to do with drugs.) “you know you can speak, use your mouth to help”, she said. So when I got into Nigeria I started to look a bit into it while I was working, though not fully. The story that kind of stuck with me was when in Lagos, I learnt two 5yr old girls were in a car and they were driven across the border to Benin Republic and there was a big out cry about it. They were found but then it was not so much that they were being taken for “spare parts” or witchcraft but the fact that they were stolen to be introduced into forced labour in another country.
This “house girl/boy” thing, I can’t accept when a 6yr old child has been working from sun up to sun down and you are still there lying around and this child is running around doing all these things and you don’t see anything wrong in beating them. I saw an aunty of mine do this. I came on holiday to Nigeria from London then, we were at the airport on our way to Calabar and my aunty came with huge head tie and there was a little girl holding her baby, she was nodding off and my aunty slapped her screaming “don’t drop my baby!”. I knew then this child was the last to sleep and the first to wake up and from that moment that was a no-no. I haven’t spoken to her since that day and I have no idea where she is. I feel there is so much pressure and cruelty on these people and the funny thing is Americans are struggling to find their identity, anything to assert their blackness, even Jamaicans! We have it and we are throwing it away. I find it hard to believe how we can willingly enslave ourselves after fighting colonialism, yet we are all doing it and we all turn a blind eye.
Every time you buy groundnut from a little girl on the street, you are doing it!
Are you saying we shouldn’t buy stuff like that from children selling on the road?
You shouldn’t buy from any child! When you do, basically what you are saying is, that’s how it should be. You see, selling groundnut is not a natural environment for a child because a child should not be on the street. It is not helping them at all
But I was going to say is buying from them not a form of support towards the child’s welfare? How do we flip that?
Yes we’ve got poverty. I lived in Jos for over 10 yrs and there was a little boy called “Christopher”. Anytime I go to the market, Christopher will be one of those boys who would want to carry your things. Christopher is so cute and I would ask him what he is doing here and he would say he is meant to go to school but there’s no money. “Where’s your mother?” He said she is in the market selling vegetables. I said “ok Christopher, when i come back next time, I want to see your mother”. I met his mother and asked how much it costs to be at school? She said the normal “God bless you, it is hard” but I asked, “how much is it? Let me give you the money. Christopher should be in school”. The thing is, not everyone is like me. Someone could’ve taken Christopher, put him in their boot and he is gone. That is what you are exposing this child to because of the “it is hard at home” mentality. Yet, it will even be harder when he is gone. You have the ones who send them out because when they are sent out to school outside their community, there is work implied “eh whatever they say you should do? Do it!” “If they say sleep with him, do it. You are the breadwinner now” and then there’s pressure on the child and they have no one else to speak to. Some parents are still doing it.
I traveled to Sierra Leone to do a documentary for ECOWAS on human trafficking when I got there; I interviewed child soldiers and child prostitutes. The girl I interviewed was quite old for that area, she was 12yrs old. She was in Freetown and one of our guys knew her so he told us where to go. I saw this girl walking around at 1am in the morning and we followed her to a compound where she was and we found out her cousin had put her out on the street. I had arranged money to give the cousin, I always have money for the girls so that even if I can’t release you I could give you days off on your own, buy what you want and you don’t have to account for it. And we took her and kept her cousin aside and took her for interview. They have a different pidgin English there so I got this other prostitute and translator to ask her, “how is this life? How do you find it?” and I thought she would be able to remember some of the experiences or account for experiences before but she couldn’t. All she was able to say is “this life is strange for me”. You can’t film their faces, you film from the back. For me as a producer, I wanted her to say more but later by hindsight I realized she didn’t have the vocabulary, she didn’t have the words to describe. All she could say was “it is strange for me’’.
We took a 10hr drive out of Freetown to the diamond minefield and we interviewed a father who must have had 15+ children and they take the kids to the mines to work, we filmed him at night. In the process, our crew met girls that were like 8yrs old. The majority of the owners of the diamond mine stores are old men, Lebanese. We met a young boy, named Ibrahim who woke up early in the morning to mine and he never smiled. There wasn’t anyone who he could talk to. When you see these things, it is hard but you can’t help them if you’re weak and slobbering all over the place because the idea behind doing this is to use the platform you have to speak on their behalf. So from doing documentaries, I found they took me a year at a time, and in one year, how far does that documentary go? So, I walked away from the Production Company and I’m now doing it full time.
My last experience with NAPTIP in Benin was the one that just tipped it. NAPTIP had arranged for me to interview victims and mothers looking for their daughters. I had about 7 interviews and a convicted trafficker. We sat outside in a compound, interviewing them. For them, it is very hard to talk because they don’t know me, they don’t trust me, so even though NAPTIP had arranged these interviews I hadn’t had the time to build the trust. In the process of now talking the victim has to relive their experience for them to be able to recount it. As much as you know you are trying to help them but every time they try to relive the experience I had to tell them to stop recording because I couldn’t take it anymore. You listened to mothers who say they haven’t seen their daughters in 6 yrs and they say it’s the boyfriend’s mother who took her and they admit it proudly, “yes we took her”. You listen to a victim who’ve had to have reconstructive surgery, you have to listen to them tell you they had to have at least 20 customers per day, you have to listen to them tell you the journey they took, some of these almost two years to get there. You find one tells you she is on the journey and she finds out she’s already pregnant, she has her baby in the back of a moving ambulance. You find you are traveling across the desert and there’s no food or water. You find people are fighting with you for your urine because women produce more urine than men, they sell their urine for $50, first, the camels must drink, then you drink from the same place the camel drank. You find they don’t have money on the way, so the prostitution has to start from there because they need to pay for things. You are fed on drugs, you are kept high. They are a lot of bodies left across the desert so their passport identifies them so you go back home and say you saw so so and so.
When you arrive you meet a madam, she is nice to you then suddenly she says she can’t keep feeding you, when you land you are told you owe 60,000 Euros. Of course they hear 60,000 and think it’s ok because they don’t know the naira to euro equivalent.
Now they have to pay for what they give you to wear. You have to wear French knickers, push-up bra in all kinds of weather. From all the different cartels in the world, Nigeria is the worst because they control them with “juju”, the brutal force. The amount they ask the girls to pay back is the highest in the world. If you say you don’t want to do, they say no problem, and they bring at least 3 guys to beat you and gang rape you. Of course by then that gets you back on the streets. At most you get at least 4 hrs sleep. You are on an abandoned road, you just see a girl sitting on a chair by the roadside, and that’s where she sleeps, either in the bush or maybe on a mattress by the roadside if they are lucky. They have their buckets once they are done they go behind the bush, clean up and start again. They constantly have to give them alcohol and drugs to keep them pumped up for the night. If you don’t bring the money you need to bring back, Madam will beat you. Plus there’s constant pressure from home “Mama dey die o, send money” and if you don’t do it they will threaten you, kill your family. They tell me they get gang raped at least 3-4 times a week. They are used to it. Even when you are on your period, they’ve taught them the art, push a cotton wool up there, it gets pushed so far up that it starts to get rotten inside them. If you are pregnant you deliver by yourself, there’s no hospital, they give you a day or 2. Moreso, there are men who like pregnant woman. There’s no value to the life of these girls.
In all of the content you have amassed going to these places, do you use it to protect them?
Fortunately for us we have an agency that has been mandated to protect the vulnerable in our society against trafficking, be they young girls, children in forced labour, women exposed to domestic violence or baby factory, all of those situations where a human being is being exploited. The keyword is exploited. When you have people like that it gives us a platform to rub shoulders with them to actually get the laws in place, make the changes needed to protect these vulnerable people at local, national and international level
What kind of changes?
Well the definite changes all have to do with law. If there’s no demand, there’d be no supply. If they were no men who were ready to engage with prostitutes, there would be no market for these girls. The sex industry is growing. It is an organized “transnational” network that makes about $32 billion a year. That’s a lot of money to give up. What we do is put out these messages to desensitize the vulnerable communities. A lot of it they say had to do with poverty, but how many of us came from wealthy homes? A lot of people grew up in villages, went to university and from there they made their way. If you didn’t go to school, you found a way to make a living. You have those in rural areas who grow crops. The most important thing is, let me be able to feed my family, so I don’t see how the human form should become a human commodity to sell.
The women you come in contact with, is there a common thread of why and how they got there? Just to know what the source of the problem is
Everybody wants to improve their situation, the girl who was selling CDs in a store in Benin she was from Imo states. They said in Lagos if you are ready to work let’s go there, so it is wanting to improve your situation, whether it is poverty or a sense of responsibility to their family. Some of them are picked from Secondary School. Our tradition is such that we’ve always had this communal thing, ie the extended family where we are responsible for each other. It worked for us but now it’s been taken to a level where it’s been abused, forced, even at the cost of your own blood. Quite a few of them now know it is prostitution but they have a romantic notion of prostitution, it is a nice cushy life, 5mins he is done gives you dollars and you are walking around in nice clothes and house. That’s the knowledge they have of prostitution. None of them know it is going to be barbaric.
At the end of the day, what’s your level of fulfillment in all of these? Is there anything tangible you can touch on? In terms of how many people have been affected by this?
For me I’ve always operated as a producer of documentaries I go there and meet the victims and the families and I help them to tell their stories through these documentaries. For the past year now I have taken it to a different level, I’ve gone there, spoken to them and asked them how can we help you do what you do? Right now, the global economy being what it is, the funding these NGOs get are either being slashed or withdrawn. In June, I had to rush back to Italy because one of the NGOs there was under threat of closure. They had a shelter and if the shelter closes, they were going to have women and children, former victims with nothing to do going back into the streets. So what can we do? Probably put together fundraisers. We’ve looked at it globally to ascertain what the NGOs are doing wrong that is not helping the cause. I just keep looking at the figure of $32 billion and even if I have an NGO and someone is supporting me with $10,000., what can $10,000 do in comparison to $32 billion. If we all focus on issues related to human trafficking, put our resources together and see how we can come up with strategies that can help each other, it might help. If you are in Spain, you can give me in Italy information on how to deal with training, rehabilitation, we can adopt that and share our experiences and it would cost us less. That way, we wouldn’t be making expensive mistakes. I am trying to see how to get these NGOs with very good funding to think with one mind, just looking at that $32 billion is enough to jolt one because this is organized crime. They found a lucrative business and these girls are expendable. There are pedophiles out there.
We’ve been planning an end of year activity, which is dedicated to helping a social cause…
Oh, Let me add then…When Al Jazeera, CNN want to talk about the situation in Europe they talk to a girl named Isoke; she wrote a book and now counsels others. She lives in Italy. The book was called “The girls from Benin City”. It was written in Italian, translated to Finnish and now being translated to English. She gave it to me, I read it and I said we need to have it here and in London. She has given me permission not to do a book launch that will cost much but to reproduce this book as cheaply as possible and I want to do a sort of town hall thing in Edo state; because everywhere you go it is Edo they talk about. I just want the state government in Edo to take ownership of this and say “we are doing something in Edo” we are catching our girls young, put these copies where they sell recharge cards and produce 10,000 copies or as many copies of this book as cheaply as possible, let them take this book and read because the traffickers come home. They come home in December with their stories of wealth.
Last year December I was on my way to do a documentary I was on my way to Zambia, Kenya and Ghana. I was on Air Kenya from Lagos to go to Zambia and God just does these things and I sat next to a girl being trafficked, she didn’t know she was being trafficked, but I saw her in the airport with a guy, I just thought she’s going to school. I got on the aircraft and she was right next to me, she was shaky, overdressed, looked too young. So I asked “first time you are flying?” and she said “yes ma”. Now, it is December, first week, who would travel December first week to Hong Kong? And it is your first trip. I asked “going on holidays?” She said she is going to school. (in December?) I asked “did you find the school?” She said her uncle did. I asked her what kind of studies and she said mass communications. So I said “lucky day, I am the best”. Then you do what traffickers do, you try to gain their trust. The man who took her as they do sat slightly away but he kept walking up and down the aisle checking what she was saying. I told her everything so she started getting nervous, I gave her money and told her, “once you get out of Nairobi, get your connecting flight, run, find a hotel and email me… I am coming back in two days”. There is nothing I didn’t say to this girl.
This was in December last year and now, only recently, she wants to come home. I speak to her. Luckily she has a phone now. When I was coming back from that particular trip, I saw the guy and I flipped. I was calling everyone, Immigration too. They had to get involved. I went to the Immigration office trying to explain that that man is a trafficker. The Immigration office asked me “what should we do?” I started crying! They asked why I’m crying and I said “because you people don’t understand what happens to these girls and you are asking me what you should do?” They went to meet the man, came back with a torn sheet of paper and they asked him what’s his business he said he sells mobile phones and he just came to get his parts but we have his details which was written on a piece of paper which is lost today. I recorded it on my phone because that’s the best I could do. Agencies are constrained to certain processes but I am not! I can join NGOs together. So while you are doing this, I am lobbying now… This book needs to be produced in time for December and it has accounts of various victims of what happened to them. If I could get the book out to them, I could reduce the number of girls that will be recruited.
In Nigeria what challenges have you faced in regards to Nigerian citizens themselves, the Nigerian government and the law, especially with the Yerima situation…
I feel that government isn’t doing anything. I feel everyone just wants to live like an Ostrich with their heads buried but what they fail to realize is, one of the things that makes Nigeria, Nigeria, is our population and the fact that we can beat our chests and say we are the most populous African nation. But that population, no matter how fast you reproduce is dwindling. Dwindling in the sense that war is fought by the healthy and the fit whether men or women and in that war, if all that is wiped out, that’s our productive resources. After that, it is just the elderly and there’s no more development and no more growth. So, even if we are looking at it from a selfish point of view, they are shooting themselves because we are sitting back and letting our most versatile be sold out and killed. We have the ones they call economic migrant. They are not going in the sense of being trafficked, they are going outside to improve their economic situation.
I feel the government should do far more because human trafficking is a crime against humanity. The fact that one of your own is in another country’s jail being beaten, you should jump up in horror, but we don’t do that. We place no value on human (citizen’s) life. They hear they take people abroad and when you want to bring them back they say “where do we keep them? We have too many.” Have you heard of a surplus of human beings? That’s the attitude and one day we wake up and find they are no longer there.
What keeps you going?
If I can save one life, it is worth it. When I think I can’t keep going, I think of those 5yr olds in forced sexual labour and the drive to continue comes. I provide a platform for them to tell their stories. Even in NAPTIP, how many can they deal with? Because they are overwhelmed even with their own personal problems! They don’t have the resources, but someone has to remember them.
If you were to chart a different course, what other life would you be leading?
I love photography. I love organizing photo shoots especially for women. I love what it brings out.
You are a mobile journal. Thank you so much.
Frances Nkechi (centre) was our only September Lady in attendance!
SPECIAL THANK-YOU TO MRS. KAI ORGA for sponsoring the September Bulletin!
At Friendraiser community, everyone is like a long lost friend.