When we met last November, Bliss’s room was a shoebox. Her worldly possessions were kept in a small case under a cardboard mattress and she had no idea where she came from.
Bliss is a beautiful and spirited 16-year-old Nigerian girl who aspires to be an engineer. She fell into the hands of human traffickers at the age of 12 when her father died and her mother abandoned her two daughters. Not long afterwards her sister disappeared and Bliss was left alone with no one to care for her.
Her new home was a brothel in a slum beside the Lagos airport expressway which is not recognised by the state, and where migrants make their homes with the minimal resources available to them as there is no power, and no water.
The community was desperately poor. There was so much rubbish underfoot, rats thrived, kids played, ladies did their washing, men played ludo and the air was heavy with marijuana. Could sex and drugs possibly ease the pain of living in these notoriously dangerous places?
I was there one Sunday morning, with a group of senior banking executives, leading an immersive learning programme with Leaders’ Quest. We were guests of a Christian movement, ‘God Bless Nigeria’. We headed out in small groups with the intention of bringing together people from very different walks of life to connect and share their stories.
Our group was meeting with prostitutes. Could we convince any girls that there was a possibility they could find another way of living, rather than sleeping with up to eight men a day? Apparently this was imperative to keep a roof over their head, and sustain access to shower facilities and daily food.
When we arrived at what seemed like the main strip we noticed there was a line of wooden dwellings. They seemed more significant than anything else we’d passed. There weren’t any signs, few shops. We entered.
Frank, a local priest, was our guide and he led the way as we followed tentatively behind. Along the corridor, we passed some women and at that point it was crystal clear where we were. This was my first time in a brothel and I felt really uncomfortable.
The space opened onto a wide wooden patio and there were a few chairs. A couple more girls appeared and we started chatting. The girls seemed uncomfortable as they struggled to make sense of why we were there. After about 15 minutes we entered a narrow corridor with numbers on both sides. It reminded me of boarding school dormitories. Frank knocked and more girls peeped out from behind their doors. I was drawn to room five.
Bliss had a piece of material wrapped around her and I was shocked by how small the room was, barely space for a bed with only a tiny window. We sat down and Bliss looked in pain. I could feel her naked body against me as we hugged. Holding a complete stranger felt totally comfortable, we didn’t speak and Bliss was weeping. She needed to call her sister. More tears flowed. She talked. I listened.
I tried to plant a seed of an idea that she had a choice. She was bright and surely there was another way of supporting herself. This was all she knew. It was not obvious where she could find the bare essentials for survival. She didn’t have any cash.
It seemed Bliss felt safe in this room but deeply lonely and life was a struggle. In the moment of feeling loved, Bliss whispered “I’ll come”. I waited outside for her to get dressed. It seemed to take an inordinate time. Eventually six of the girls on Bliss’s corridor of 12 rooms courageously walked past the pimp with us.
I felt like the pied piper following disused railway tracks to awaiting vans. We boarded a danfo, a van with benches for seats and no side door! This was a deeply scary experience but, fortunately, it was just a ten-minute ride back to the national football stadium in Surulere.
We were reconvening for a church service. Temporary marquees had been erected to provide essential services for our new guests. There were showers, hairdressers, doctors and a medical centre.
Bliss started talking. Her dream was to be a fashion designer. It’s an extraordinary dream in a country where many girls don’t receive a secondary school education. Recent statistics suggest over 10 million girls are currently out of school, irrespective of whether they are Muslim or Christian.
For me, one of the tragedies of this story is that the pimp was paid to release the girls. Freedom Foundation eventually paid N6,000 (~£500).
The last time I saw Bliss, she was outside having a haircut and Helen who runs Genesis House for Girls recently sent an encouraging update:
"Bliss is doing very well and is in boarding school at Baptist Girls Academy here in Lagos and spends her holidays in the shelter. She is taking her junior secondary school exams and plans to study engineering. I thank God always for her life and others too. There are currently four of them in the same boarding school, one day student and one in the University. They are all very focused on their studies."
Some trafficked girls are sold by their parents and the girls are lured by false promises. Personally, I can’t imagine the level of desperation that parents must experience to contemplate selling their own daughter. I wonder how life was valued.
How can society stop the cycle of trafficking and prevent innocent vulnerable girls being lured into the city? Somehow I doubt any sum gets vulnerable people out of the cycle of poverty.
When I held Bliss in her den, I appreciated our common humanity and realised that I have the most wonderful job in the world. I woke Bliss up from her sleep to the infinite possibility that she could do whatever she dreamed and now a female engineer is emerging from a cycle of poverty.
Let’s nurture more women to build bridges between warring communities and inspire their daughters to change the world.