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.
At 20, Amaka Chinye was already saddled with responsibility. Both of her parents had died. Having finished high school, she opened a small boutique in a run-down shopping center to support her younger brothers.
Strong and energetic, Chinye struggled to feed her small family.
Then an acquaintance offered her a way out.
Two years later, Chinye said she never considered refusing the offer, but it turned out to be the worst mistake of her life.
"I was coping then suddenly somebody came and said, 'I will take you to London. I will take you to America — all over the world — and when you get there you will not be doing this kind of job.”
"So I was like, 'Ah! I want to go to Europe,'" she continued, smiling as she recalled her high hopes. "So I said, 'Okay, let's go!"
Chinye sold all the items in her shop and told her brothers that she would send money home as soon as possible.
Like many women trafficked to Europe, she was taken to a juju priest — known locally as the "herbalist" — to seal the deal with local magic. During the ceremony, she vowed she would obey her boss in Europe and pay back her travel expenses with the money she would make at her new job.
The 'spell' called for her death if she failed to fulfill her oath. Chinye wasn't worried.
"I said, 'Ah! Since you've assured me of a job I'm going to do there, there's no problem. I'm going to pay,'" she said. "All my life I've been dreaming, how can I help my younger siblings? How can I help them? I don't want them to suffer, because I love them so much."
A dangerous journey
It wasn't long after Chinye left home that something seemed wrong about the journey. She joined nearly 30 young women loaded onto an open-backed truck, headed toward the vast Sahara Desert. Chinye wondered: Why weren't they taking a plane to Europe? And didn’t she need a passport?
When they reached Libya, she learned the real extent of the danger. The country was at war. The truck sped through the desert to avoid gunfire and bandits known to rob and rape Nigerian women on their way to Tripoli.
"The bad people in Libya were all in that desert hanging out everywhere," Chinye said, no longer smiling. "They were shooting."
Their supplies of food and water dwindled. Two young women died from heat and exhaustion.
"The sun — it’s as if the air is fire," Chinye explained. She raised her arms and waved them slightly, imitating the sun beating down and trying to find the words to describe the horrors of the desert. "You see how it's going to look like then, when God will come. The sun was so hot."
Eventually, the driver was killed when a stray bullet hit his chest. But by then, it was too late to turn around and go home. They were out of food and almost out of water. Chinye and the other girls knew they were likely to die on their way to Europe, but if they turned around and tried cross the desert again — without supplies or money — they had no chance of surviving.
"You can't say, 'I want to go back.' The only hope you have is to go further," she said, appearing relieved as she described reconnecting with the network of people charged with trafficking the women to Europe. "There is no way. You'll die there."
For the next few months, Chinye was passed from person to person — individuals linking the recruiter she met at home to her Nigerian “madam” in France.
In Tripoli, she and other women hid inside for months while men fetched them food and other necessities. Chinye was told she had to hide because Libyan rebels were wary of black people, believing them all to be potential supporters of Muammar Gaddafi's army.
When passage to Italy was finally arranged they boarded boats that Chinye said looked like balloons. Forty-two people on her boat survived, but another boat of immigrants headed for Italy on the same day capsized, killing everyone on board.
"I was very scared but I didn't have a choice because I don’t have any money on me," she said. "We have to go with them. We were very, very lucky."
In Italy, Chinye met a lawyer who knew her name. He had been sent from France to bring her to her new "home" — an apartment in Paris that housed the madam, her husband and between one and three "girls" at any given time.
She was welcomed to the house with skimpy clothing and high heels. "Hit the streets," her madam told her. She owed more than $80,000 for her passage to Europe, and the only available job was prostitution.
A few weeks later, the madam threw a party for two other young Nigerian women who had apparently paid down their travel debt and were going home. The message was clear: If Chinye worked hard, she could be a success.
"She introduced those two girls to me," Chinye said, proceeding to draw out her words as she imitated the madam's voice. "'You can see, these are my girls. They just finished paying me. Do you know how much they have in their accounts? Do you know they have a house in Nigeria?”
For a month, Chinye worked the streets as many as 20 hours a day, but she never made enough money to send anything back to her brothers in Nigeria. The madam forced her to pay for food, housing and work clothes, and demanded $500 a week towards her debt. It was not long before she realized that at the rate she was going, she would always be accruing debt faster than she could pay it off.
The madam counted on all her "girls" to keep quiet and make money.
They had all sworn an oath with a juju priest, and believed they could die if they disobeyed or refused to pay. She didn't know that Chinye was different.
Chinye befriended an older Frenchman, who convinced her to go to the cops.
At the police station, she explained how she had been tricked into coming to France without a passport and forced into prostitution. She was detained and interviewed. She told them everything.
Both the madam and her husband were arrested, but for Chinye the nightmare wasn’t over. She was in France illegally, and she was about to be deported, penniless. Impressed by her bravery, employees at the detention center gave her about $800 to help her return home after landing in Nigeria.
"They said, 'Take this money. You are a very brave girl. You are a very good girl. I like the way you came to us,'" she said. "Some of them just gave me fifty euros — just like that. So that's how I came back."
Fourteen other young Nigerian girls were deported from France that day, she recalls. Some, having not fulfilled the oath and in fear of death, would eventually return to Europe.
Back in Nigeria, Chinye began to rebuild her life. She learned that for most trafficked women, the ordeal didn’t end upon arriving back in Nigeria. She tried to re-open her business but lacked the capital to restock it. With only a few items to sell, she now carries clothes in a plastic bag and hawks them on the street.
When asked if she is afraid the juju spell will one day kill her, Chinye said she no longer worries.
"They said I'm going to die if I did not pay," she said. "But I've been waiting for death and death did not come. I know it will not come. I am very much stronger than juju."
After enduring five years of sexual servitude in Italy, Patience Ken was deported and unceremoniously dumped back in Nigeria. Penniless, she sold her cell phone to pay for the journey from Nigeria's financial capital, Lagos, to her village in Edo State.
She had been lured to Europe with the promise of a good job. It was a horrific ordeal. And when she arrived back home, her family was not happy to see her.
"They felt bad," she said. "A lot of them say, 'Now you are here. To feed you is very hard.”
Patience, 8 months pregnant with her second child, gazed beyond the dusty parking lot near where she spoke to GlobalPost, recalling those first days back in her village.
Life was better now, she said. Her current baby’s father is her partner, not a customer.
For victims of sex trafficking here in Edo State, sometimes returning is as difficult as the journey.
But the dream of a job — any job — continues to lure women far from home and trick them into working as prostitutes.
Most residents of Edo State, like Patience, live in farming villages and travel for hours every few days to sell their goods. Wealth in Edo State can be found in the capital, Benin City, behind gated compounds — a different world from the raucous markets, crumbling homes and bumpy roads that make up most of the city.
Locals say that for most people, the only way to get ahead is to leave Nigeria.
Everyone in Benin City seems to know at least one woman who has financed a house through her work in abroad. Locals say those women may be envied for their money, but they are also ostracized for what is assumed to be an illicit past.
Many trafficked women, however, come back broke and shamed, said Solomon Okoduwa, the president of the Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Immigration, Development and Re-integration, an aid organization set up to help returnees.
"They repatriate such persons back to Nigeria without a dime," he narrates in his one-room headquarters in a shabby commercial complex. "What do you expect to happen to this society?"
While a handful of organizations, including both the state and federal governments, are aware of the problems returnees face, there is little help to be had. Okoduwa's organization offers training in agriculture and entrepreneurial skills. Hundreds of returnees have trained this year, he said, but upon completion of the programs students often can’t find jobs or don’t have the resources to go into business.
The state government claims to offer soft loans and grants to returnees who have completed similar government trainings, but Okoduwa said he has never seen any evidence of the funding. Likewise, none of the women had heard they could get help from the government.
For some, lack of resources is the least of their problems.
Many believe they could be killed by a juju spell if they were deported before they paid the traffickers for their passage to Europe.
To allay these fears, traditional priests, or herbalists, are recruited to cast new spells, according to Florence Igbinigie, a former commissioner for Women's Affairs in Edo State. Other girls go to churches to free themselves of the juju.
"Some of them they go back to the herbalist who did the previous oath to undo it," she said. "Some of them, they go to Christian homes, to religious bodies to pray and cast out the demons and they are free."
Still others, she added, go back to Europe after being deported, because they believe they will be killed if they don’t pay up.
When 24-year-old Precious Uyinmwen was deported from Spain back to her clay house in Edo State, she had nothing but the clothes on her back. She had sworn to pay the traffickers $45,000 but was swiftly deported and never paid the bill.
Uyinmwen said she didn’t attempt to counter the spell because she was tricked. She wasn't told she was vowing to be a prostitute. When asked if she believes she is in danger, she turned defensive.
"They didn't fulfill their part of the oath," she said quietly, sitting on a wooden bench outside her home. She looked as if she hadn't smiled in many years. "So it’s not my fault."
As long as young people are desperate enough to risk their lives and freedom for the hope of an income, women and girls will be vulnerable to traffickers, said Okoduwa, the aid worker.
In Abumwenre village, a few hours outside the state capital, Benin City, two young women demonstrated the point.
Naomi Benjamin, a 23-year-old returnee, told a small crowd of her ordeal.
"We spent 19 days in the desert," she said. "There is no food, no water. We were hungry. It was only God that was protecting us."
When she finally got to Italy she found out that she had been tricked into sexual servitude. She tried to run away and spent more than two years in jail before she was deported.
While Benjamin spoke, 18-year-old Joy Eriamentor listened intently. She empathized with Benjamin's horrific ordeal, and could see that vowing to pay back facilitators upon arrival is not a safe way to travel.
"It makes me afraid to travel," Eriamentor said. "If you swear and then you refuse to pay, maybe something will happen."
Officials say teaching young women about the dangers of trafficking is the only way to stop it. Benjamin's story, however, didn't alter Joy's dreams of leaving Nigeria. She said she wants to study science, but that she'll never get ahead if she stays in Abumwenre, where children almost never go to college.
"We do not have any help here," she said. "Nothing, no work. Because my family is too poor, that is why I want to go."