As I walked home late last Tuesday exhausted from a long day at work, I saw them. Beautiful creatures decked out in cheap and revealing silk and lace, overly done makeup and sky high shoes. As I stood in the corner admiring them, she called out to me. Shocked and embarrassed I quickly turned away and doubled my step. What was I thinking starring at them in full view of everyone? I shuddered to think that someone from my church, office or neighborhood may have seen me and had erroneous ideas about my life style.
Still I couldn’t help thinking about them. There was none without a personal touch of beauty and I was curious to discover how they became this way.
It’s another Tuesday and as with every other day after work I am tired, hungry and edgy. As I walk past them today this time accompanied by a colleague, I try hard not to stare but she calls out to me yet again… The one with the gold tinted hair, purple lipstick and low cut blouse. …. ‘oya come now’ she called. ‘I always see you looking, I am not expensive Ooohhh’ and you will enjoy yourself she added with a hint of laughter in her voice.
Yeeeey! My colleague screamed as she turned on the caller with eyes wild with rage. Look at this dog ‘tufia’- she spat as she raised her hand over her head and snapped her thumb and middle finger together in the characteristic Nigerian way of rebuke. Do you think every woman is like you people who do not have any shame, conscience or dignity?
Looking at the caller while my colleague rained more abuses on her, I saw in her eyes the answer to my never ending question. It lasted only a fraction of a second but I saw it… pain, embarrassment, anger and guilt. It disappeared just as quickly as it appeared and her face assumed a hard look of mockery and nonchalance. ‘See this one O’ she crooned lifting up her hands and waving them up and down towards my colleague as she did a poor imitation of laughter. You think you are holy, *another laugh*, listen whether it’s one man or two, we are all the same. At this her fellow cronies joined in the laughter.
I still don’t know why I did it, after all Chioma was right to call her shameless but as I reminded myself, I did see for a split second a look of shame and guilt on her face. I walked up to her, smiled and said I am sorry for the things my friend just said, I am sure she didn’t mean it. She looked up at me mockingly and said ‘my dear if you think you can have me for free’ forget it, ‘pay before service’. At this the whole lot of them screamed ‘pay before service’ and reeled off in laughter. I mumbled more apologies as I ran off after Chioma who had stomped off in anger.
Stella! Chioma said under her breathe obviously embarrassed to even be having such a conversation, why did you apologize to her for? In fact if I didn’t have to rush home to cook for my husband I would have insulted her more. And then pouting and emitting a hiss from her lips, she said RUBBISH!
As I lay in bed that night, I was unable to sleep and kept wondering to myself: what hardship makes a woman become a prostitute? At what point in her life does her body become a market for the highest bidder or just any bidder? I sigh as I make a personal choice that I will be different from the others, I will treat them like treasures, a diamond in the rough but none the less treasures.
Thursday was a good day, by 5pm I was done but I decided to stay back at work until it got dark so I would see them as they came out to work.
As I strolled slowly past them that evening I looked out for her but she wasn’t there. Had she already been picked up I wondered, should I go ask for her, I didn’t even know her name. Hmmm, maybe I just wasn’t meant to hear her story I decided. As I was about to cross the road I heard the sharp hiss of a cat call and even before turning I knew it was her. As I turned in the direction of the call I saw her huddled in a corner seated on a bench by the local ‘roasted meat’ seller. She seemed different today I thought as I walked towards her and on reaching her realized what was different. She wasn’t decked out in her usual glamour of inappropriate clothing and make up. All she had on was a worn T-shirt, knee length cut-off jeans and bathroom slippers.
She looked up suspiciously and then said ‘na me you de find’ (are you looking for me?) I nodded even as she quickly added, why?
I took a deep breath and answered, I don’t know!
She looked up at me again this time with more suspicion and then reluctantly moved to create space on the bench for me to sit. I hesitated for a moment thinking of what people would say if they saw me here and then just as quickly sat down as I noticed the hardness returning to her face.
So, she asked in broken English. I always see you look me as you pass from office, she narrowed her eyes and peered closely into my face and then continued…. Why you always look my face.
I took in a deep breath as I tried to think up a suitable answer that would not offend but rather show concern. Here it goes, I told myself as I slowly opened my mouth to speak the first words that came to my head. I want to be your friend! At this, she threw her head back and laughed out loud this time with real humor unlike the one from the first time I heard her laugh. When she was done she looked back at me and asked, why you want to be my friend? Looking her straight in the eye, I decided to be as honest as possible and so replied ‘I don’t know’.
She looked at me some more, gave a deep sigh and put her head down for a long time. Oh gosh I thought ‘now she’s angry’.
When she looked up again she had tears in her eyes and she said to me: ‘this no be the life I want to live, but I have old mother, wicked father and plenty brother and sister’. She continued in broken english ‘when I small, my father use to carry me go bed and do plenty thins that father not suppose to do to his child. When I big finish I tell myself is better for other man to do this things to me in bed than my wicked father, so I run away to this town where I am making money to be sending to my mother for food and school for my brothers and sisters. Me I no want them to come and do what I am doing so I prefer to rubbish my life for them own life to be better. She put her head down again and this time when she raised up her head the hard look was back on her face and she looked at me with anger and said ‘I no even know why I am telling you all this things’. Unsure of what to do I looked away from her face frantically thinking, do I show pity, give her a hug, a smile or some money, at this point I didn’t want her to be offended by whatever gesture I may show so I kept my head down. Realizing this might also seem offensive I lifted up my head, sighed, smiled and asked; will you come and visit me in my office tomorrow? She gasped in shock and I gasped in shock at the audacity of my request. What if someone recognized her from the street I began to wonder, how would she dress to come over, would she wear her usual night make up? I realized as I looked at the excited look on her face it was too late to take back my invitation. I spent some more time speaking with Helen as she told me her name was. Lie or truth I knew not. We talked about our mothers, our siblings and about men. I laughed as she told me some of her exploits. As I got up to leave I looked her squarely in the eye and said, Helen, I do not like this your work, I want you to stop and also go back to your village and expose your father for the wickedness he has done in order to protect other young women around him including your sisters. She looked up at me smiled and said ‘ aunty maybe now as you are my friend, I will want to change but for now I must go back to work’ and giving me another smile she turned her back and walked back to the dingy compound where she had a small room to herself.
Helen is the face of thousands of women on the street; we see them, insult them, wish them dead and treat them as trash. While no one should condone their lifestyle it’s time to ask ourselves about what led them to such dehumanizing conditions and make efforts to cause a change, one treasure at a time.