Written July 23, 2007
We entered into a large second-story room, painted blue and white to resemble clouds and the heavens. Three older Nigerian women were each singing their own songs of praise in tune to a Nigerian man half singing, half reading from a very worn bible. “We” would include myself, two Tampep social workers, and yet another very troubled, young Nigerian girl, just recently escaped from the world of trafficking and sexual exploitation. To protect her identity, I will call her Anna. The social workers decided to bring Anna to this Nigerian pastor in Torino because they could not get her to open up, to realistically face the choices the available to her.
Like all foreign trafficking victims in Italy, Anna had to decide whether to denounce her trafficker and stay in Italy, or to return back to Nigeria (should the victim stay in Italy without denouncing he/she would not have documents, and therefore, no chance of obtaining legal and/or stable work). Anna claimed to be suffering from juju (voodoo), and therefore, refused either option to denounce her trafficker, or to return to Nigeria for fear of the repercussions dictated by the juju.
Juju is a spiritual ceremony most of the trafficked Nigerian girls in Italy undergo before coming to Italy. A native doctor, religious figure, or other authority might take some of the girl’s pubic hair, finger nails, or some other symbolic object and perform a ceremony “sealing” her duty to her trafficker, her obligation to work and to pay off her debt for the travel to Europe. The spiritual forces of juju then bond her to this task or promise. Should she default on the promise, her life and/or those of her family members could be seriously threatened. Whether the girl believes the power of juju or the trafficker’s gang (using juju as an excuse) will be the force threatening lives, does not really matter.
After multiple frustrating visits to a psychologist, Anna expressed interest in seeing a Nigerian priest who had dealt with cases of juju before. Without stopping their worship, the four Nigerians greeted us with handshakes and brought Anna to the front. Tampep had previously explained the situation to the pastor. At first, they continued praying and singing as before. After a awhile, the pastor made note that we were all there that day to help Anna help herself open up to God and repent her sins. While the pastor and the other women of the community guided Anna into kneeling or standing positions, bellowed out prayers of redemption, and begged her to confess, to allow God to enter her heart, myself and the other Tampep workers sat back and watched dismayed as Anna continued to be unresponsive to the priest’s efforts. Even though she herself had suggested talking to a priest, that afternoon Anna avoided eye contact with the pastor, pushed away his “healing” hands, and generally appeared bored with the entire ceremony.
It appeared that in this girl’s case, one religion could not “exorcise” the fears implanted by another spiritual force. Apparently there have been successful stories of “releasing” people from the mental control of juju with Christian ceremonies like this one, given that many Nigerians practice Christianity, but also revere or passively believe in the more local, traditional religions as well.
I felt sympathetic. After all, if you had lived through a situation of extreme sexual exploitation and faced the challenge of stigma either by staying in Italy or by returning to Nigeria, wouldn’t you be hard to talk to and reason with as well? I asked the Tampep social workers about this and they told me that of course its hard to talk to these girls, to make them open up to you, to make them understand the hard choices they have to make. Apparently, however, Anna has been the most difficult, closed girl they have tried to help.
I thought it was interesting also that Tampep knew someone in the local Nigerian community ready to help them in this case – a priest who performs exorcisms. I know Tampep has also worked with other Nigerian churches in Torino to promote some of its projects in Nigeria. I have been talking with some of my co-workers at Tampep and they would like to increase their involvement with the local Nigerian diaspora. They know, however, to create more trustworthy contacts, it takes time to build a relationship of trust. Already this summer, Tampep hosted the Nigerian Association of Torino and diplomats from the Nigerian consulate in Rome in its offices to help the Nigerian community in Torino, including trafficking victims, renew some of their Nigerian documents so they did not all have to travel to Rome. What I have noticed while working with the general Nigerian diaspora in Italy is that Tampep usually has to be very careful in its use of the words trafficking and prostitution. These are two phenomena that hold huge stigma. So while it seems like we can talk about helping out “our girls” in “cases of difficulty,” it does not really seem like trafficking and migrant sex work are topics we can out-right address yet among the co-nationals of the victims in Italy. To read a similar experience the other AP fellow Leslie had in Italy this summer, read her blog “Delicate Issues.”
Posted By Michelle Lanspa
Posted Feb 6th, 2009