Photos by Angela Catlin.
It is late on a Friday on the outskirts of Ouagadougou and as we enter the village of Samghandi our taxi’s headlights cast beams of light onto swarms of mosquitoes and figures standing at the roadside.
The car comes to a halt outside a neon-lit bar and Patrick Baudin alights to meet our contact. The men shake hands and Baudin summons us to follow him with a nod of his head.
“We should be quick,” he says as we walk into the venue.
Inside, there are mirrors on the walls and young girls dance and wait tables while being eyed by men drinking beer. We sit in a corner and some of the girls join us. They are all black and hail from either Nigeria or Burkina Faso, the latter nation the place we are in. Some of the girls have braided hair and nearly all wear miniskirts and tight tops; they could be young females out clubbing at the weekend in any British town or city.
But the girls look barely 14 or 15 years old and we know they are not here of their own free will. Victims of people traffickers, they are forced to sell their bodies for sex in this club’s filthy back-rooms. Incongruously, one of them cradles an infant in her arms.
“Where do you come from and how old are you?” Baudin asks her. “I am from Lagos (Nigeria). I am 22 years old,” she replies. Despite wearing black eye-liner and garish red lipstick, the girl looks barely 18. The others lie about their ages, too, including a slim girl to my left wearing a turquoise top who claims she is 22.
She leans forward as if to speak, but checks herself and stops. She seems nervous and glances around the club before moving closer again.
“We were brought here last week. They took our clothes, money, papers and mobile phones,” she whispers. The girl says her name is Shakira. Her friend, Mercy, who sits next to her, has been crying. “They said they would beat us if we did not work,” she says.
As we talk, the disco music is cranked up and a group of men are gather across the room from us, so we decide to leave. Some of the girls follow including Shakira and Mercy and as we walk towards our car they pull Baudin to the side.
By now, a crowd is in tow and threatening voices are raised above the thumping music.
“What do you want here?” says a scrawny man with high cheek bones but Baudin ignores him and keeps walking. He places his arms protectively around the girls’ shoulders. He quickens his pace and ushers Shakira and Mercy towards the tax. Suddenly, Mercy dives into the front passenger seat and Shakira throws herself into the back and we quickly follow. Baudin orders the driver to go but as he tries to shut the door a crowd surrounds the car. “On y va! On y va! (Let’s go! Let’s go!),” Baudin yells as we attempt a frantic escape.
Photographer Angie Catlin and I had arrived in Burkina Faso a week earlier to investigate a human trafficking problem said to be the worst anywhere in Africa. A former protectorate of France which gained independence in 1960, Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa surrounded by Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The capital is Ouagadougou, a low-rise city with a population of around 1.5 million, an impoverished but vibrant place with wide boulevards lined with kiosks selling everything from mobile phones to guns, mattresses and tailors’ dummies. During daytime, the capital seems pleasant but when night falls its seediness comes to the fore in parts where the city’s burgeoning sex trade has taken hold.
Baudin despairs at the misery here. A streetwise pastor with a penchant for colourful African tunics, much of his time is spent helping girls who’ve been forced into prostitution. On our first day in the city, he takes us to a Christian church run by a friend. It is Sunday morning and Reverend Richard Addo struts the floor with a microphone, evangelising to a rapt congregation. He is dressed immaculately in a three piece cream suit and as he leads prayer he tells his audience repeatedly that 2011 will be their “year of favour and grace”. His service lasts for nearly three hours and as a finale he exclaims hoarsely, “Praise the lord!” before a choir sings a gospel rendition of the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”
In his office later, Rev Addo and Baudin talk about Burkino Faso’s sex trade.
“People trafficking is big, big business. The girls come mostly from Nigeria and pay money to traffickers as they want to go to European nations such as Britain, France and Italy. They are told they will be nannies and housemaids but they end up here and find they have been “sold’. They must then prostitute themselves to pay off the debt.
“It is endemic,” Rev Addo says. He knows this much because prostitutes and traffickers attend his church. Baudin nods his head in agreement as his friend speaks. He estimates that as many as 500 girls a month are being trafficked through Ouagadougou and says the problem is mushrooming in other cities such as Bobo-Dioulasso, Nouna, and Hounde.
In 2009, for example, Burkina’s security forces intercepted 788 children, many thought to be destined for the sex industry in Europe but Baudin says the authorities are generally ill-equipped to combat the trade.
“It’s the tip of an iceberg,” he says in reference to the above figure. Baudin feels like he’s whistling in the wind but his personal crusade has been supported by a charity called Serving in Mission. Its director, a Canadian called Alan Dixon, says that with Baudin’s help SIM has helped some 50 trafficked girls to date but there is no money left at a time when the issue is escalating.
Others warn of a crisis including a diplomat at the Nigerian Embassy in Ouagadougou who says Burkina Faso has the “worst trafficking problem in West Africa”, quite an assertion when you consider the problems afflicting neighbours such as Mali and Niger. The next day I interview Ousmane Sawadogo, who works with a children’s charity called Keogo. He says many of the 800 or so girls they support are trafficking victims. “We identify victims, most of whom come from Nigeria, and try and trace their parents and repatriate them. Bonded labour is also a big problem. The traffickers have changed routes since 2008 so people move from Niger to Burkina, Mali to Burkina and Burkina to Mali. In fact we work with 10 countries against trafficking,” he adds.
According to the African Solidarity Association in Ouagadougou – which has 65 staff helping around 300 to 400 prostitutes – the demand in Europe for young girls is a major factor fuelling the trade and such is the concern of the Red Cross that it is embarking on a controversial initiative whereby it will actually pay traffickers to cease their trade.
“We have a budget to pay people between 25,000 CFA (£32) and 50,000 CFA (£64) a month to stop trafficking. But they (the traffickers) must be willing to work with us and help the girls,” explains the charity’s director, Koda Adama.
Some 2700 miles away in Britain concern is increasing too and it was an anti-trafficking organisation in London called Afruca who advised that criminal gangs – mostly Nigerian – are targeting Burkina Faso in order to circumnavigate tightened border controls elsewhere in the region. “Burkina Faso is the worst place I have ever seen for trafficking and we are finding around two victims a month from West Africa arriving in Britain, up some 50 per cent on a couple of years ago,” says the charity’s director, Debbie Ariyo, who is originally from Nigeria and widely regarded as an expert on the issue.
While groups such as Afruca pick up the pieces of shattered lives in the UK, local charities attempt do likewise on the streets at night in Ouagadougou. We ask if we can join them but they refuse our request, saying that our presence as journalists might compromise their relationships with both the girls and gangs who control the red light zones.
Fortunately Baudin knows someone with contacts to a brothel and after a number of phone calls we are given permission to visit. Mercy’s Sex Shop is in the Pissi area of Ouagadougou. A dingy bar at the side of a dusty road with no street lighting, it feels like the most desolate place on earth. Mercy, a fat, scowling woman from Nigeria, introduces five of her girls.
The women are all Nigerian – Juliet, Joyce, Rebecca, Joyce and Patience – and explain they were promised work in Europe but trafficked to Ouagadougou instead. The youngest, Patience, who says she is 18, was brought to the city two years ago. She seems in another world, her eyes glazed over as if high on something. But drugs – alcohol aside – are not a major problem in the city; it would seem that life here has ripped the heart from the girl.
“I am from Inugu in the east of Nigeria. I was told I would be working as a nanny but I am here every night. We work seven nights a week from 6pm to midnight and pay 2000 CFA (£2.60) each day to rent a room. The men pay us 5000 CFA (£6.40) each. I have maybe three to five men in an evening,” Patience says.
Her friend, Juliet, has been here for six years and sends money each week to support her four children who live in Benin City, Edo state, Nigeria. The 45-year-old hasn’t seen them for more than four years and they have no idea she’s a prostitute. Discreetly, Baudin offers them his contact details and instructs them to call if they want help.
Leaving such a dire existence though is far from easy. Debts of three to four million CFAs must be paid back to brothel owners and Baudin explains that witchcraft is used by criminals to terrify their victims into silence. When girls arrive in Burkina Faso they are often taken to a Ju Ju man and made to swear an oath they will remain loyal to the traffickers. The practice is akin to voodoo and the cultural norm in parts of Africa so spells are cast and girls are threatened that if they break their promises then something awful will afflict them and/or their families.
Baudin takes us to meet a Ju Ju man called Abass, who is originally from Burkina Faso’s neighbour to the south- west, Benin. A short man in his early 30s with a goatee beard, Abass wears a white tunic and grins broadly and as we sit and talk he shows us the shells that “read the future” and a bottle of rum he uses during rituals.
“People come to me with many requests, to be successful in their working lives, for example. Girls who work in the sex industry will pay me around 35,000 CFA (£45) so they can get lots of business. These girls go away from me very happy,” Abass claims.
I ask if we can witness a ritual and Abass agrees but on our return three days later the Ju Ju man has changed his mind. The shells, he says, told him our intention was to “destroy his work”.
For the police, Ju Ju renders trafficking investigations nigh impossible and the next day at Central Police HQ, Inspector Alain Kabore, explains that witnesses are too frightened to co-operate.
“We know that people are even killed for their body parts in some Ju Ju rituals but people will not speak up,” he adds.
Kabore heads an anti-trafficking unit formed in 2009 but his team of only six men has no computers and he says that a lack of resources greatly impacts upon his work. I ask if it would be possible to witness an anti-trafficking operation but he says none are planned and adds: “If you are willing to pay money, though, we can arrange for armed officers to protect you for the duration of your stay.”
CORRUPTION is rife in Ouagadougou. Baudin says that many police officers take bribes to turn a blind eye to people trafficking: indeed, inside one bar we visit a drunken off-duty policeman flashes his warrant card as he sits with his arm around a teenage prostitute. Baudin’s claims are backed by two former traffickers who attend Rev Addo’s church.
Nigerians Ebo Collins and Imo Kessi say that when arrested in the past they would pay bribes of up to 500,000 CFA to policemen in order to secure their release.
“Everyone is making money. I got my girls from Benin City in Nigeria, usually aged between 16 to 20. They would be told they were going to Holland, Italy, France or the UK via Libya and Morocco. Others knew they were going into prostitution and were willing to do so because of the high levels of poverty in Nigeria. We would arrange for them travel in buses from Nigeria through Benin, Togo and up to Burkina. We would take orders from people in Ouagadougou and make a couple of trips a month and bring back around 20 girls at a time. I would charge 250,000 CFA (£320) for each girl, so one girl would cover expenses while the other two were profit,” Collins says.
With the average wage in the capital around 30,000 CFA (£38) a month, Kessi adds, human trafficking is an extremely lucrative business. Later that day, Baudin takes us to meet another ‘ex-trafficker’ whom we cannot name for legal reasons. He hails from Ago-Amodu, Oyo state, and bears the facial markings of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. He says that corruption makes Ouagadougou a target for criminals because nations such as Niger and Mali have been clamping down. He claims to work hand in hand with the Nigerian Embassy to repatriate victims and says he has rescued more than 100 women. This is confirmed to us by a diplomat at the embassy but two different sources claim later that this man is heavily involved in selling people for the sex trade.
“Rescuing girls is a front to give him respectability within his community. He demands money from traffickers and if they don’t pay up then he tips off the police about their activities,” says a woman on condition of anonymity, whose allegation is backed by one of Kabore’s detectives.
Baudin trusts few people. He is an impulsive man willing to risk his life but at times his courage verges on the foolhardy. On several occasions he takes us to red light zones so we can witness the scale of the city’s blight. One night in the Dapoya area, girls are lined up at the roadside and as we pass a brothel called Ali Baba’s, Baudin tells the driver to stop. As the car slows, he winds down a window and summons a young girl across to him. Her name is Bola and she comes from Lagos, Nigeria, and although she claims to be 22 she looks much younger.
“I am a minister. If you give your life to Christ then we can help you. Do you want to give up this work and this life?” Baudin asks.
“Yes,” Bola replies and Baudin alights the car. They speak for a few minutes until a woman appears from inside the club. She is the madame and begins to cause an almighty scene. She screams in French at Baudin and then a group of men appear from inside the bar. Baudin sprints back us but as the driver tries to drive off we are quickly surrounded. The mob rock the car and reach in through the windows to grab at Angie’s camera. A door is flung open and Baudin is dragged from the back. He is ringed by angry people shouting and gesticulating animatedly; Ali Baba’s bouncers. One of them pulls a knife but Baudin talks for his life and the situation eventually calms – but only after we are forced to pay money for his safe release. The frightened pastor says later that the presence of two white people probably saved his life.
Most people would have been unnerved at this but two nights later Baudin rescued Shakira and Mercy from the brothel at Samghandi. Posing as charity workers, we’d negotiated access to the club in order to interview the girls and although the unexpected turn of events led to another volatile situation, we sped off with Shakira and Mercy safely in the car.
Mercy, aged 15 years old, and 19 year old, Shakira, had been extremely fortunate. They came from a village called Agbor, in Delta state, Nigeria, seven days previously having paid money for jobs in America but on arrival at a bus station in Ouagadougou they were abducted by traffickers; the night we encountered them was to be their first working as prostitutes.
“They told us we must have sex with men as we owed them money. We were told we would have to pay back 1,200,000 CFAs but we refused to do what they said so they moved us to the village and threatened to kill us if we didn’t work,” Mercy said.
“They told my new name was to be “Shakira’,” said her friend whose real name, it transpired, was Jennifer Medumeye.
The following day, Baudin took the girls to police HQ where they gave statements to Kabore’s anti-trafficking unit and Mercy and Jennifer are now safe. A week later, police raided the Samghandi club but despite several arrests the bar remains open and young girls are still sold for sex.
Some names have been changed.
The above story was first published by The Herald Magazine on 21st January 2012. It was later republished by a number of media including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
A photo essay was published by The Guardian in June 2012
Anyone wishing to make a donation to Serving In Mission’s anti-trafficking project in Burkina Faso can do so by visiting www.sim.co.uk/donate and quoting project number BF93930 in the box indicated on the form.