Book Review: On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe


Madam believes in the power of incense to keep spirits away, and not just the spirits that belonged to humans. None of the other women believe in the efficacy of her incense but Madam is not one to be contradicted. 

Three days ago, Ama reminds them, Madam had walked around with her incense stick, purging the flat. Madam said the evil spirit of jealousy lived in their house and the incense was supposed to exorcise it.

‘You are sisters. You are all the family you have here and yet you cannot live in peace.’

She was talking to the four women. yet her speech had been directed mainly to Sisi and Ama. The two had been in a fight over who was supposed to clean the communal bathroom. There had been a raucous party the night before and bottles had been left upturned and drinks spilled on the leather chairs. Even though Sisi had been on the roster to do the cleaning she had refused to take responsibility and fists flew. It took Madam’s intervention to tear the girls away from each other. Now Ama’s voice is soft. ‘If I had known she was going to die I’d never have fought with her, I swear.’  


Title: On Black Sisters’ Street

Author: Chika Unigwe

Genre: Fiction 

The book starts with a bang quote from Brian Chikwava author of ‘7th Street Alchemy,’

Armed with a vagina and the will to survive, she knew that destitution would never lay claim to her.’ 

On Black Sisters’ Street is a story set in Belgium’s diamond city, Antwerp, about four women who are close and at the same time, so distant.

Brought together by the same will to survive, these four women leave their homeland for Belgium, where they are forced to work as prostitutes so they can offset the money they owe to Dele, the man who met their travel’s expenses.

The story focuses more of Sisi, a University of Lagos graduate who’s the only child born to a civil servant father and a stay-at-home mother. Having earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management, Sisi is looked up to by her parents as their only way out from poverty upon getting a job after she graduates. As fate will have it, Sisi is unable to secure a job after years of constant application something she termed as ‘she’s not well connected to people who’ll contribute to her success.’ She’ll later meet Dele, who promises her a job in Belgium working under the supervision of Madam. Out of despair, Sisi agrees to take up the offer lying to her parents and her boyfriend Peter out-of the fear that they’ll stop her.

While in Belgium, she met Luc, who took her for who she was and convinced her out of the business. This move costs her her life for going against Dele and Madam who planned for her murder. A painful heart-wrenching death that made me shed a tear.

Efe, the oldest of the four, has been in the business for almost seven years. Her will to take up the opportunity came at a time that she was abandoned by Titus, her baby daddy. Efe lost her mother at a very tender age something that led their father to depression and unwillingness in meeting his responsibilities as a father to his children. With no education, Efe worked as a cleaner just so she can be able to meet her responsibilities as a mom to her son L.I and put food on the table for younger siblings. One of the places she worked as a cleaner was at Dele’s office and after a while, she agreed to take up Dele’s job offer in Belgium. At the back of her mind, Efe dreams of starting her own cartel of call girls just like Madam once she offsets Dele’s debt.

The other two girls, Ama and Alek, aka Joyce, had the most traumatising childhood. Ama, just like Sisi, was the only child born to an Assistant Pastor, Brother Cyril, who we later learn is her step father and a mother who’ll do anything to keep her marriage even if it means doing away with her only daughter. Brother Cyril started sneaking in Ama’s room when she was only eight years old and rape her quoting Bible verses while at it. Such uncouth behaviour!

Ama will later gain courage at the age of 21 years and speak out about her father’s sexual abuse to her mother. Instead of defending and standing with her daughter, Ama’s mother shuts her down and sends her to Lagos to live with her aunt, Mama Eko. It is during this confrontation that Ama learns Brother Cyril is not her real father. During her daily routines in the canteen, Dele presents his job offer to Ama who took a while to consider taking up the offer seeing she had nothing to lose because her childhood had already been tainted.

Joyce, the closest to Sisi had an eventful childhood following the war and clashes in Sudan. She witnessed the death of her parents and brother when the Janjaweed militia raided their house who later gang-raped her. She’ll later meet Polycarp who will be her connect to Dele when they settle in Nigeria. Unlike the others who knew exactly what awaited them in Belgium, Alek was promised a nanny job which will later be laughed off by Madam upon her arrival in Belgium. With no other alternative, Alek takes up the offer reluctantly which she hopes to come out of eventually and start a school.

Reading through this book, one led to question the ladies actions but it later boils down to, what other alternative was there for them. These are victims of circumstances, ladies who are out there to work it out and be independent. Meet their expenses, cater for their families. Ladies who had eventful, heart wrenching, tormenting childhood when growing up.

Even though it’s fictional and all that, trust you me this is the reality out there. The sex workers who are always lined up waiting for clients have a reason as to why they do what they do. One or the other, these women have a reason and a story to tell as why they work as prostitutes. The stories maybe similar or something close to what Chika present us with in this book.

On Black Sisters’ Street, made me reflect a lot on the subject of prostitution, rape and poverty. The societal vices that people engage in to make a living, to survive in this adverse world. On the flip side, there’s some humour one laughs to when reading the book though the underlying subject is the atrocities depicted in the lives of the four ladies.

Chika Unigwe delivered a text which she extensively researched on, so basically this is a fictional story borrowed from real life events.

Have you read the book? Did you know that Zwartezusterstraat is the Dutch name of ‘On Black Sisters’Street?’ Well, I also didn’t know until the book club meeting discussion we had last weekend, organized by Text Book Centre bookshop.

This is a must read so please slot it in in your TBR’s






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