Benin, Nigeria — Having grown up in this hardscrabble corner of Nigeria, Naomi Benjamin seized the opportunity when a man offered her a lucrative job as a nanny in Europe. She thought the job would finally make her rich, or at least not desperately poor.
Years later, seated amid bleating goats outside a row of clay homes, she smiles meekly as she recounts how her optimism drove her to agree to undergo a juju spell, guaranteeing that she would repay the debt she would incur traveling there.
As part of the spell, she offered pieces of fingernail and hair.
"I swore that if I refused to pay, the oath will kill me," said Benjamin, now 23.
She would soon break the oath.
It took 19 days to get to Europe, crossing the Sahara in the back of a truck with very little food or water. On her first night in Italy, she was placed under the control of a madam and ordered to sleep with a man. When she refused, the madam beat her. Benjamin ran out of the house. She was soon lost in a strange city where she knew no one and didn’t speak the language.
Eventually, the police found her. She spent two years in jail before being deported.
In fleeing her madam, Benjamin is the exception. Magic spells have great power over Nigerians — compelling them to do things they would never otherwise consider.
According to Nigerian authorities, across Europe tens of thousands of Nigerian women are bonded to sexual servitude — not with chains, but via juju, an ancient form of West African magic.
The women typically travel to Europe willingly, after being promised lucrative jobs. But as a precondition to their sponsor, each woman swears an oath administered by a traditional priest, vowing to repay a large sum for their passage, or face death.
In an interview under the searing equatorial sun, in a neat dirt yard where goats bleated in the shade, Benjamin seemed self-assured despite having only a few years education. But her poise faltered as she thought about the juju spell.
"It wasn't my fault," she repeated several times. Her eyes shifted around the yard, as if afraid the spell would jump out at her.
"She said that when I get there I will take care of a baby," Benjamin continued. "I didn’t know when I get to Italy I was supposed to do prostitution."
Most Nigerian women bonded to prostitution in Europe are, like Benjamin, from here in poverty-stricken Edo State, home to only 4 million of Nigeria’s 160 million plus population.
Sex trafficking in Edo was openly big business in the 90s, before current anti-trafficking laws were passed in 2000, said Grace Osakue, the head the aid organization Girls Power Initiative.
The business still operates but in secret, entrenched in the local economy, according to Beatrice Jedy-Agba, the executive secretary for Nigeria’s national anti-trafficking agency, known as NAPTIP.
"It is big enough to be a source of concern to both the Nigerian government and the international community," Jedy-Agba narrates in her Abuja office. "We have also interacted with the Edo State government and they are also concerned and indeed alarmed at the sheer magnitude of citizens involved in this trade."
Anti-trafficking laws are currently being revised, she added, to stiffen penalties and criminalize the juju oaths that prevent victims from running away. Aid organizations and the government said they are also conducting awareness programs, trying to teach young people about the dangers of illegal immigration.
Awareness campaigns do work, but often traffickers just move on to rural areas that have not been reached by aid organizations, Osakue added.
Like Benjamin, the victims tend to be desperately poor and under-uneducated, she added. Local traffickers, often acquainted with their families, convince them they will be safe and will easily pay down their debts.
"Most of the children you find in Europe who are victims of trafficking did not go to school beyond five or six years," she says in a garden outside an Edo church.
The women who make it back are typically angry and embarrassed about being tricked into leaving their homes. They almost never retaliate. Several women said they were told they would have a good job in Europe and were forced into prostitution. When asked if they knew the person who recruited them, a few nodded shyly. None would say anything else on the matter, fearing reprisals or unwanted attention to the ordeal.
Despite being duped, the women are often treated as criminals, as Benjamin was. Even after managing to escape horrific ordeals, they are often considered a financial hardship back in Nigeria, which lacks services needed to help them.
Most, it seems, have little choice but to try to forget the trauma they have suffered.