A front-row seat to the Nigerian sex trade

Taina Bien-Aimé
Jan 29, 2021 · 8 min read

A conversation with ‘Òlòturé’ Director Kenneth Gyang

Photo from Òlòturé provided by the director.

Set in Nigeria, Òlòturé is the story of a young journalist who goes undercover on the streets of Lagos with the goal of exposing the sordid truths about sex trafficking. She discovers a world teeming with organized criminal trafficking networks, intense violence, sexual exploitation, rape, and corruption at the highest levels of government.

Kenneth Gyang directed the critically acclaimed Òlòturé, now available on , Netflix. The story is loosely based on reporting by the Nigerian investigative journalist, Tobore Ovuorie. While reviews unanimously praise Gyang’s feature film, they each warn that Òlòturé is brutal to watch. Indeed, Gyang does not spare the viewer with scenes of rape, beatings, assault, psychological terror and dehumanization, showing us the mechanisms of human trafficking and the lives it destroys.

In a phone conversation, Gyang shared with me some thoughts about his movie, his inspiration for making Òlòturé and how governments, including Nigeria, must tackle sex trafficking and the sex trade.

Q: Congratulations on your powerful film. The reviews that warn about the brutality of Òlòturé underline how little people know about what is required for sex trafficking to function, facts from which you didn’t shy away. What inspired you to make the film?

Kenneth Gyang (KG): I’ve had the great privilege of traveling around the world and wound up in Luxembourg in 2017 to work on an immigration project. A friend took me around to sightsee and we landed in this area of town where many Nigerian women were on the street. Here I was, in a tiny country in Central Europe, a place I would call “pure” by its pristine and affluent status in the world, and my sisters were on the road, just waiting. The contrast jolted me. The sight of it went beyond my imagination and understanding. Was I the only one to be shocked and to wonder how these women got here? I needed to find out why this horror was happening in front of our eyes and no one was asking questions. That’s when I thought that if there was ever a time a film should be made about sex trafficking, it’s now.

Q: Was this the first time you had encountered sex trafficking?

KG: Years ago, I was at the airport about to fly to Ethiopia when I saw a very young Nigerian woman at the boarding gate. Curious to see a compatriot there, I asked her where she was heading. She told me she was from Edo State, on her way to India to work. I joked with her, saying that if there is another country in the world that mistreats women as badly as Nigeria does, it’s India, so why would she go there? She mumbled that a friend had found a job for her. A woman was traveling with her, she said, pointing at someone who kept her distance but who was watching us. The young woman and I took a picture together and I wished her the best of luck. I still wonder about her after all these years.

Òlòturé Director Kenneth Gyang

Q: Òlòturé is an ambitious movie. What was your road toward success?

KG: I had started working on El Dorado Road, a project about the f sex trafficking journey from Nigeria to the Mediterranean via Libya. Then the producer and media mogul Mo Abudu offered me the opportunity to direct a full-feature film on the subject matter, which I was excited to accept. There were several films about sex trafficking, but I wanted to tell it from a scale that hadn’t yet been explored. I was very aggressive in my quest to get Òlòturé done.

Q: According to sources, tens of thousands of young women are trafficked from Nigeria, 90% of whom come from Edo State. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 80% of Nigerian women and girls are being trafficked into the European sex trade. When you were conducting your research, were you surprised by the scale of sex trafficking of women and girls from Nigeria?

KG: Nigeria is one of the biggest countries in Africa, so imagine the endless source of women and girls for trafficking. People often tell me they didn’t know the problem was this huge, but it’s been out there for a massive period of time. Tens of thousands of young women have been trafficked from Nigeria to Europe, to the Emirates, to Asia. It’s staggering. What is evident is that we need a lot more awareness, even if the suffering has been in plain sight for decades in almost every major city in Europe.

Q: In the film, you show the mechanics of sex trafficking unfolding organically: the acute vulnerabilities of the young women, how traffickers groom and lure their victims, and the superstitions involved. Was that intentional?

KG: Yes, of course. Many films about sex trafficking have been made, but none by a Nigerian filmmaker who understands the sensitivities of our culture, the harmful cultural practices, and all the elements that make women easy prey to the sex trade. Nigeria is a country filled with movies done with artistry and poetry. I didn’t want to be poetic with Òlòturé; I wanted to show the criminal elements, the viciousness and the cruelty of sex trafficking, what it entails and what it does.

The movie exposes the heartlessness of traffickers, including Alero, a woman who is the frontline trafficker. She probably herself had been trafficked to Europe at one point, survived it, and “graduated” to become a merciless recruiter. In cultures like ours, it’s easier for women traffickers to go to the villages and offer poor women a job in Europe, when there is none at home. The traffickers have parents believing that they’re taking their daughters to the land of milk and honey. Rarely do they know that their daughters are heading down the road of hell that is prostitution.

Q: It is very difficult for sex trafficked women to speak up about their ordeals for myriad reasons, primarily out of fear of their traffickers, of being undocumented in a foreign land; of not being believed. In Òlòturé, there is an added factor — a religious ritual — few understand. Can you describe it?

KG: I have a scene in Òlòturé showing a religious ceremony, called a juju ritual, whose goal is to perpetually bond the women to their traffickers. Juju has profound psychological and spiritual effects in our culture. The women must give the local priest who oversees the ritual a piece of themselves: their nails, hair, clothing, which get mixed with concoctions he prepares. They witness the sacrifice of a live animal, like a rooster, and sometimes the women are made to drink its blood. The power of juju is so strong that women believe they can never testify against their trafficker or even leave their entrapment. If they break that bond and fail to pay their “debts,” which are always mounting, they will be cursed or die, and their families will be cursed and die. It’s extremely difficult for Europeans to understand the intensity that juju has on women trafficked from my country. The women are naked in that scene, because I wanted to illustrate the depths of the extreme vulnerability they face and the traffickers’ power to abuse. Juju has more impact on trafficked women than any violence they endure.

Q: What is the solution?

KG: A few years ago, the oba of Benin — a head priest who has authority over all the spiritual priests — declared that he would put a curse on any priest who conducts rituals on women who were targeted for “immigration.” Some say he is doing more for sex trafficked Nigerian women than any government or organization has done so far. It’s promising. If the curse is removed, the women will hopefully feel liberated enough to seek help.

Photo from Òlòturé provided by the director.

In terms of other solutions, we must change the narrative around sex trafficking. I made Òlòturé, because I believe the best way to show the truths of this horror is through fiction. The priorities and focus of the media on sex trafficking are misplaced. They don’t understand the dynamics or the political corruption that allows sex trafficking to occur; how desperate women are to go to Europe or America or anywhere outside of Nigeria to earn a living and provide for their families. Of course, I don’t blame these women — people need to eat. What they don’t know is that it’s not Hollywood that is waiting for them, but a world of extreme violence and misery. And people don’t like to think about the horrible acts men who buy these women actually perform on them.

Q: Nigeria was a key territory of the West African coast, which the Europeans exploited as a source for the slave trade to the Americas beginning in the 17th century. Do you see any comparisons with trafficking into the sex trade?

KG: To me, it’s the same thing as the slave trade, especially the way women are treated. Some elements have changed, of course, but fundamentally, women in both situations were and are treated like animals and purchased to serve the pleasure of men for the profit of traffickers. I remember a couple of years ago when the #BringBackOurGirls campaign started. The kidnapping of young girls to become sex slaves and “wives” to the terrorists made me so angry. I asked myself when will this change? From slavery to terrorism today, this is still how society treats women and girls. I do believe, though, that a lot of people have respect for women. They may not be in policy making, but they have a voice and can effect change.

Q: What are the next steps with your film?

KG: Before the global outbreak of COVID-19, Òlòturé was trending as one of the top ten most watched films on Netflix. The conversation dried up a bit because of the pandemic, but people, including local politicians and lawmakers, are still having conversations about the film. We’re hoping to show it in South Africa in 2021, where laws on prostitution are being debated.

I’m first and foremost a filmmaker, but from what I’ve seen in terms of preventing sex trafficking, the Swedish government has one of the best solutions. That country was the first to pass a law that holds accountable the men who buy these women for sex. It’s important to focus on the men who buy these women from sex traffickers. The law also mandates the government to offer services to the women.

Q: Is that your hope for Nigeria?

KG: Right now, I can’t imagine a law like that happening in Nigeria. Òlòturé makes a point of highlighting high-level corruption and politicians who are complicit in sex trafficking. Many politicians want the right to continue having parties with young women they procure from a trafficker or an agency. They want to maintain the control of when and with whom they have sex and pay for sex. They have the power, both political and economic, to decide what laws are in place or not. I can’t imagine they would ever agree to pass a law that holds them accountable and that stops criminalizing the women.

Nevertheless, we can hope. Òlòturé was funded by Nigerians; they joined me in telling this story, so things can change for the better. I love my country and will do all that I can to bring the sex trade to light. Òlòturé is just one film and the campaign has just started, but I’m working on it.

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At The Edge of the Margins

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Taina Bien-Aimé

Written by

Executive Director @CATWIntl. Feminist and human rights activist who believes the rights of women and girls are indivisible

At The Edge of the Margins

Analysis and commentary from the CATW team and our international partners. Creating a world where no woman or girl is bought or sold.