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On Black Sisters' Street [Paperback]

Chika Unigwe
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Sep 2010

Four very different women have made their way from Africa to Brussels. They have come to claim for themselves the riches they believe Europe promises but when Sisi, the most enigmatic of the women, is murdered, their already fragile world is shattered.

Drawn together by tragedy, the remaining three women - Joyce, a great beauty whose life has been destroyed by war; Ama, whose dark moods manifest a past injustice; Efe, whose efforts to earn her keep are motivated by a particular zeal - slowly begin to share their stories. They are stories of terror, of displacement, of love, and of a sinister man called Dele.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (2 Sep 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099523949
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099523949
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 129,654 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"On Black Sisters' Street is ultimately a story of female strength and resilience... the book draws on a rich oral story telling tradition to illuminate the West from an under-represented perspective" (Aesthetica)

"This harrowing subject matter is handled deftly by Unigwe, with lyrical insight and splashes of dark humour, in a book that is both thought-provoking and eye-opening" (Doug Johnstone The List)

"Lively and engaging...Unigwe has a good ear for idiosyncratic language...On Black Sisters' Street is a pleasure to read: fast-paced, lucidly structured and colourful" (Zoe Norridge TLS)

"Gritty" (Adrian Turpin Financial Times)

"Exquisitely observed and heartbreaking" (Nicola Barr Guardian)


Not many novelists would wander around the seedy red-light district of Antwerp in a mini-skirt and thigh-high boots to carry out research. But this is what Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe did for her novel about the lives of African sex workers in the Belgian city. She also spent time persuading these women to share their stories.

Her diligence has paid off. On Black Sisters' Street is a probing and unsettling exploration of the many factors that lead African women into prostitution in Europe, and it pulls no punches about the sordid nature of the job. Four naive young women, Sisi, Joyce, Ama and Efe, fall under the money-making spell of pimp-daddy "Senghor Dele" in Lagos.

Rich, vulgar, ruthless, he specialises in exporting girls to work in Belgium for a modest fee of 30,000 euros. This they must pay back in monthly instalments over many years of turning tricks ten hours a day. They don't all know that this is what lies in store but, fake passports withheld, the consequences for those who try to escape are dire.

Sisi, around whom most of the novel's suspense revolves, is an ambitious graduate unable to find suitable work. Efe is a teenage mother struggling to raise her son with no support from his father. Ama has escaped an abusive childhood only to find her dream of escaping Nigeria crushed by a dead-end job. Joyce, without family, home or money, is abandoned by her boyfriend. The women's dreams come in different sizes, from financial support for struggling relatives back home to the allure of big houses, fancy cars, gold jewellery and expensive plait extensions.

Unigwe's vigorous prose is at its best when describing the utter humiliation Sisi feels when forced to dress like a hooker in "a gold-coloured nylon skirt" that rode up her legs when she walked and "showed her butt cheeks when she bent". So too with the degradation of her first encounter with a client in a toilet: "She baptised herself into it with tears, hot and livid, down her cheeks, salty in her mouth, feeling intense pain wherever he touched, like he was searing her with a razor blade that had just come off a fire".

Men in this novel are generally drunks, murderers, rapists, weak, cold-hearted, pathetic - although Unigwe avoids the fallacy of women as passive victims. Hers make choices, for which there are consequences. But their choices are restricted by circumstance and the Lagos they leave behind is a harsh place to survive, where "on any given day one was likely to find a corpse abandoned by the roadside".

She shows what the women become, too. Sisi, who felt she was living the dream on her first day in Belgium because she was eating jam, can "no longer bear to look at herself", while Efe's plan is to run her own brothel one day when she has paid of her debt. What Unigwe does brilliantly is to delve into the psychology of each woman, eliciting different levels of empathy.

This is an important and accomplished novel that leaves a strong aftertaste. Unigwe gives voice to those who are voiceless, fleshes out the stories of those who offer themselves as meat for sale, and bestows dignity on those who are stripped off it. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unputdownable 12 July 2009
Chika Unigwe who lives and writes from Turnhout in Belgium. Ms Unigwe is a very talented writer and this is her second novel. Her first one, De Feniks was published in Dutch/Flemish but is also available as 'The Phoenix' in English. Unfortunately, you have to walk through Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos to obtain a copy or simply ask your Nigerian friends or relatives to get it for you. Her second book though is available via Amazon.co.uk. I ordered and got mine and have not regretted buying it. Ms Unigwe writes about the lives some of our sisters live in Europe. Exactly. Prostituting or better still, being sex workers. She breathes life into their existence; as most of them are not registered as citizens at all. 'Persona non grata', that is their status. So that when they die of some act of violence, they end up being buried like paupers in a country which never embraced them.

Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce alongside with their Madam who doesn't walk but barrels through rooms and spaces are the inhabitants of the flat on Zwartezusterstraat, which is the Black Sisters' Street in Dutch. Madam is a modern day 'Slaventreiber', a female pimp who has lost the spirit of compassion towards other human beings, especially black women. She is an excellent business woman though. Excellent in the marketing and selling of human bodies, preferably black female bodies. Ms Unigwe excellently tells of the lives of these women before Belgium and we eventually find out that they all, alongside with many other women have a common 'pimp' in Lagos Nigeria. When we see men or women of extreme wealth in Lagos and we do not see them sweat for it or go to a 9-5 job daily, we should beware.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shines a light on a murky subject 13 Nov 2009
By Bobby Smith TOP 500 REVIEWER
Excellent book that pulls no punches. Most definitely a thought provoking read that gives a voice to African prostitutes - unlucky enough to be 'working' in the seedy bars and streets of Europe. The female characters stir empathy in the reader and make one feel sympathy at the plight of these victims of the sex-trade. One can only hope that the men who use them read this book and are made aware of the issues regarding the traffiking of people into Europe; to be used as sex-objects for the pleasure of men. I suspect, though, that they are the last people who would pick up this original and disturbing book. If you like this I also recommend another book about the Nigerian experience in Europe (England), although from a more positive angle: One Love Two Colours: The Unlikely Marriage of a Punk Rocker and His African Queen by Margaret Oshindele (my wife). This is the true story of how a Yoruba woman can marry an Englishman (me!)and make a success of a marriage.
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4.0 out of 5 stars loved it 15 July 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This was a fantastic book. I was drawn into the lives of these brave women and laughed when they laughed and cried when they cried. I didn't want the story to end and did not like how it ended. On the whole is worth reading
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5.0 out of 5 stars Memorable book 29 April 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A great book, very well written. It will really leave an impact on you and gives a different perspective to the lives of prostitutes, the lives they have had to lead and to where they may have come from. Touching on so many levels.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A tough read that you can't put down 26 Mar 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Unigwe captures stories of survival of women with multiple experiences of violence, objectification and oppression . It's not worthy but hard and authentic ...perfect
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great read 23 Feb 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Really interesting how all the characters come together through one character Dele, an greedy, manipulative man. Each of their stories are heart felt and extraordinary
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4.0 out of 5 stars 4 girls in debt 15 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
This is the story of 4 black African girls living together in Antwerp (Belgium). Each of them owe an enormous amount of money to Dele, a Nigerian in Lagos, who has facilitated their arrival in Europe. To pay him off they must sell their bodies to the sex-starved men of Antwerp.

When I began reading the book I was a little confused, but after re-reading the first few pages a couple of times, I was rapidly sucked into this charming novel. Gradually, we learn about the lives and ambitions of the 4 women, and how and why they have ended up as prostitutes in a Belgian city. It is not only a compelling tale that makes one want to move from one page to the next as soon as possible, but also a revealing series of insights about life in 'black' Africa. Although there are several sad strands running through the book, I was not left feeling depressed, but oddly uplifted.

Chika Uniwe, the Nigerian author of this novel is, like her compatriot Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a good story-teller. She is able to conjure up vivid images in the reader's mind despite being extremely economical with her language. She creates a brilliant picture in few words. I look forward to reading more books by Ms Unigwe.

Review by author of "SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ" a book about Yugoslavia before its civil wars.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 28 Oct 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book clearly depicts reality. It's engaging and mind blowing.. It will glue you to your sit till the last page.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars ... characters jumped alive off the page - only didn't like the rather...
gripping book - well writeen - characters jumped alive off the page - only didn't like the rather weak ending
Published 11 days ago by Ms. Y. Jonah
3.0 out of 5 stars Isn't the greatest...
Paper quality but the pages aren't falling apart between my fingers with each turn.

My first time trying this author so getting used to the writing style. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Ray
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
Great easy book to read really hard to put down.anyone who likes a good book that tells it as it is will enjoy.
Published 12 months ago by courtney-alice vis
2.0 out of 5 stars Under developed plot ...
It was a very disappointing read; I would describe it as the first episode in a 6 part series with one looking forward to the rest of the series where the characters and story line... Read more
Published 19 months ago by dupetox
4.0 out of 5 stars Sensitive and Subtle
Black sisters' street refers to Zwartezusterstraat, a street in the red light district of Brussels famous for its African prostitutes. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Sam
5.0 out of 5 stars A very well written contemporary novel
The author uses the device of a range of narrators whose stories all inter-weave. This could seem confusing but the threads are kept clear and distinct and the individual tragedies... Read more
Published 22 months ago by M. Marriott
5.0 out of 5 stars Some Bitter Home Truth
Reality of a hard situation facing "mostly" a particular part of Nigeria and however the amount of light on this issue it seem in-born and gradually manifesting itself in the... Read more
Published 22 months ago by MIMI LONDON
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