Benin, Nigeria — 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 abut $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."