Ten years after Mrs. Adaeze Onyeakpa Oshi, arrived Italian Island of Lampedusa after 11 hours journey on a migrant boat across the Mediterranean Sea, she had nothing but gratitude to God for miraculously surviving the perilous journey that had claimed lives of thousands of African citizens fleeing poverty and war to Europe. Although, she made it safely to Italy, two years after she left Nigeria and now enjoys comfortable life that she craved for in Europe, Adaeze is haunted by the ghost of her past- the journey which took her through the deadly Libyan desert where she was sold into slavery by Nigerian human traffickers and the torture and suffering, she endured to regain her freedom before fleeing the war-torn Libya.
The mother of two kids, who currently lives and works in Northern Italian city of Turin with her husband, shares her experience in this interview with Olisemeka Obeche.
What was your earliest recollection of your life as a young girl and how it impacted on who you are today?
Well, I am the last child and the only female child of the eight children born by my mother in a polygamous family at Azia, a town in Ihiala local government area of Anambra state. Although, we were eight, five later died leaving only the three of us. Incidentally, both my parents are late now.
My father died when I was four years of age and that prompted my mother to send me away to live with one of her sisters who was married and living with her husband in Lagos. The couple had no child and so my aunt claimed they needed me so that I could bring good luck to their family.
I was barely five years old when my mother sent me away to live with them because she could not cope with the responsibility of taking care of her eight children. I was the last child and she felt it would be better for me there. I guess my mother did it because she was convinced that my future would be better if I left at that time.
However, when I got to Lagos, everything changed. It wasn’t the kind of life I envisaged or the kind of pampering treatment that I was used to in my house at Azia. I was maltreated and denied basic needs by the woman. For instance, they refused to enroll me in school as they promised my mother. Not that they didn’t have the money.
They were living well by all standards at that time because my aunt’s husband was working with NAFDAC and they had everything to take very good care of me but they just chose to maltreat me for reasons I do not know till today. When neighbours and people started asking questions, they decided to enroll me in a nearly public school that was not up to the standard. Of course, I was more than happy then because I was going school.
But, I hardly finished one session before he was transferred to Akure, Ondo state and we had to leave Lagos. When we got to Akure, instead of getting better, things got worse. Then I was being forced to do the kind of things people of my age were not supposed to do. I was denied food, clothing and other basic cares, even good school by the couple.
Just like in Lagos, when they decided to send me to school, they chose the one that was most substandard in the area for me. In my school then, whenever it rained everything would be over because the roofs would be leaking and water would be everywhere. But, I was determined to make the best of the opportunity. It was when I reached the age of eight years that I began to agitate to go home. When I finally managed to send message to my mother to inform her, what I was going through there, she demanded for my return. By then I was about 13 years of age. I spent about eight years with them before they allowed me to go back home.
Did you experience sexual molestation during this period?
Yes, I did and it was horrible experience. But it’s a chapter in my life that I had closed because it’s something I don’t like to remember or talk about. As a child of God, someone who has taken up gospel ministration, I had since forgiven those people who played part in that era and I have moved on with my life. Thank God, I had found joy and fulfillment along the way and am not going back to that again.
So, what happened when you returned home?
Incidentally, when I returned to live with my mother, I couldn’t cope with the village environment. Having spent much of my eight years in Lagos and Akure, it was very difficult for me in Azia. So, I told my mother that I couldn’t stay in the village because everything was somehow to me. After some time, she sent me back to Lagos, this time to live with one of our family friends. This time around, the couple treated me well and I was enrolled in a normal school. This time, I had the opportunity to attend Federal College, Ikeja for my secondary education.
When I finished secondary education, I relocated to Akure again, where I sat for university matriculation examination preparatory to study at the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA). I barely spent one year at FUTA before the opportunity to travel outside Nigeria came up and I dropped out of school.
Looking back to those years, how do you feel now?
Well, I decided to take nothing but only the positive from that chapter in my life. That is the only convenient thing for me because if I try to reflect on the horrible things that I experienced at that time, I will go crazy. But, like I said, I regard that as the beginning of my life-long lesson. Although, I look back to my time with the couple with gratitude for lessons learnt, I believe that no mother should let her child live far away from her at that age. I was too young to cope with the new environment and adapt to the new way I was being treated. Then, my mother had no option than to send me away.
So, how did you travel out of Nigeria?
Well, after finishing my industrial training during my first year at FUTA, I tried to find a part time job which I needed desperately in order to raise funds to continue my education. When I could not get a part time job then in 2008, the only option available to me then was to quit school and start a petty business. Then, I was already nursing the dream to become a full time gospel artist because I love singing gospel songs.
So, my goal switched to starting a business and then combining it with gospel ministration. I was already in the business when my uncle’s daughter came to persuade me to travel abroad that it was better than suffering in Nigeria. She said she knew someone that could help me get to Europe. It was so convincing that my mother did not hesitate to give her consent, but on the condition that it must not involve prostitution. I assured her that I will never engage in prostitution.
At that time, I also have a childhood friend, Chioma who incidentally is the only daughter of her family just like me, who also wanted to travel outside the country as well. So, when I told her, she was excited and we teamed up for the trip after meeting the man who was handling our travel plan. The man told us that we were travelling to Spain and that we would get out passport and visa in Libya. That was how our journey into slavery started. We travelled outside Nigeria without even voter’s card. No proper documentation.
How did it happen?
It happened that the man handling our travel plans whom my niece introduced simply as Ejima from Imo state was a human trafficker who specializes in luring people to the city on the pretext of sending them to Europe. He told us that his sister resident in Spain was operating a restaurant and was looking for two young ladies to assist her. And that she was ready to sponsor our visa and other travel expenses to Europe; that once we reach and start working for her, she would deduct it from our pay.
Ejima also assured us that the sister would provide accommodation and feeding for us in Spain until we complete her repayment. He was to accompany us until we enter flight before he comes back to Nigeria. We felt everything was genuine because there were many Nigerian ladies who own saloon or other businesses that usually bring younger girls to Europe through such agreement.
So, we thought the agreement was genuine and we followed him with only small pocket money with us. Before we travelled, I asked some people that I knew that were abroad then and they confirmed that people travel through such means. Although one of them asked if it was slave trade and I told him that the person said it was work travel in Spain. That was how our journey of life and death took off from Akure in Nigeria on May 27, 2009 to Birni Konni, a border town in the Tahoua region of Niger Republic from there we travelled to Agadez.
It was when we reached Agadez and spent one week that I became suspicious of him. I then, called my friend whom I regard as a sister and told her what the man was up to and that he was planning to sell us into slavery. It was at that point that we embarked on serious fasting and prayers, committing the entire journey into the hands of God.
What was it like travelling through the notorious desert route to Libya?
It was a horrible experience. Even if offered so much, it is a journey nobody should embark. I do not also wish any of my enemy to go through it. When we reached Agadez, the traffickers normally spend one week or two to make solid arrangements for the trip. They first conduct headcounts and make sure that their money is complete before the trip. It’s roughly one week of road trip from Agadez to Libya and during this period, you can die of anything especially thirst. There is a section of Libyan territory where all of us, human cargoes will have to lie underneath the vehicle and they cover us with tarpaulin before covering us with goods. They said that was done so that desert patrol officials will never suspect that they were carrying human beings but only goods. You can imagine the experience of lying on your back inside a vehicle covered with thick tarpaulin and goods in a hot desert.
On our way, we could see remains of those who died in the desert on their way to Libya. From fresh decomposing bodies to skeletons- everywhere was littered with remains of people whose hopes and dreams of reaching Libya and Europe ended on the desert. Many of them died as a result of dehydration. It’s horrible sight. It’s something only seen in horror movies. At that area, there is no water, no grass or trees to provide any form of comfort. We reached a point where we were warned never to disembark from the vehicle to avoid leaving footprints behind. We were told that it would tip some desert rebels or human hunters off and they would track us down. At that point, it was only the driver who wore a boot similar to that normally used by desert patrols that usually got down to get anything we needed during that stage of the journey.
However, we reached a stage where we ran out of water and the next place to get clean water was like three-four days journey away. So, we started looking for ‘anyhow’ water to take. We eventually found a well in the desert but the water smelled awful because birds die inside. But we had no option than to drink from that well to stay alive. Normally it was rare to see birds or other living things in the desert. Everything you see there is dead, because living thing can hardly survive in such environment. So, it was strange to see carcass of a bird inside the well. But, we ignored the stench and drank to our satisfaction. That helped us to stay alive till we got to the point where we had fresh water before we reached Sabha, a city in Fezzan region, Southwestern Libya, about 640 kilometers from Tripoli.
It was in this city that Muamar Gaddafi grew up.
It was at Sabha that Ejima sold us to a Yoruba man as slaves for $3,000 ($1,500 each). Before then, he had told us that the man would prepare our travelling document to Spain at the city. When we eventually found out that he had violated the agreement we reached with my cousin, I wanted to confront him but he managed to escape. I kept cursing him since then and anywhere I set my eyes on that guy again, I will make sure he pays for his crime. Despite the fact that I survived, I don’t know lives of many other innocent people he wasted because of his greed.
Then, they drove us to a city called Houn, another town in Fezzan region of Libya where the Yoruba human trafficker, Kabiru eventually sold us for $6,000 to Madam Pat ($3,000 each). After the last sale, Madam Pat, an Edo woman took us to her place where she said we could make money for them through prostitution. The next morning, the madam who bought us woke me up and handed us a whitening cream, a soap called Casanova with which I could be bathing to look appealing to customers.
She also bought me sexy clothes that we would be wearing inside the house so that customers would be patronizing us. But outside house, you always wore clothes that covered every part of the body and it’s always hot. When it became clear that they were forcing us into prostitution, I revolted, telling them that I had never done such a thing before and would not start then. The madam that bought us tried all tricks to force us but we refused to exchange our body for money. They later transferred my friend to Tripoli as part of their bid to break us down. Then, I was the one that was behind the resistance.
So, when they took her away and I still resisted being forced into prostitution. Then, I was locked up and not allowed to go out and they tried to poison me, swearing that it was better for me to die than remain useless for her after paying $3,000 for me. Miraculously, I survived and still refused to sell my body. They continued tormenting me to the extent that I made up my mind to take my own life instead of serving the woman as a prostitute.
Then, I was about 22 years of age. It was then that God used a Muslim man from Niger, Ismail who operates a pizza shop nearby to rescue me from the slavery. The man had seen me and took pity because I was sick and dying because of too much beating, starvation and stress they had subjected me to. Then, they would continue beating me until I pass out and be vomiting blood. It was while I was about to take drugs that they bought for me that the man, whom I knew nothing of came to intervene on my behalf.
He approached them and asked how much I was indebted to them and the woman said $6,000. He agreed to pay them the money so they could let me go. Instantly, he paid them $1,000 for them to release me to him, promising to pay the $5,000 balance. That was how I regained my freedom and subsequently stayed at the man’s house. He equally employed me to sell at his pizza shop and he was paying me and saving the money for me. That was how we raised the money to pay that woman off after six months. That was around June 2010.
How did you eventually find your way to Italy?
By the time the Jasmine revolution crisis hit Libya and the country was fast descending into chaos, Ismail called me one day and said, I should get ready that he would send me to Italy, as the country was no longer safe for me. That was how the journey to Italy started. Honestly, I never consider that guy as a human being but an angel sent by God to rescue and help me and he really played that role well.
It was when they decided to open the Mediterranean Sea locally known as Lampa Lampa, so that people who wish to escape the violence could use the sea route. It was then that Ismail called me and told me to get ready to use the opportunity to travel to Europe. Then, I told him that I had not saved enough money because at that point, my goal was to save enough money that can enable me to travel back to Nigeria. Then, I had lost interest in travelling to Europe. But, he told me that I should not worry that he will support me with any amount I have so that I could make the journey to Europe.
By this time, I had managed to re-establish contact with my friend, who was taken to Tripoli. I was overjoyed when she also told me that she had regained her freedom. I informed her about my plan to travel to Italy and she informed me that her Ghanaian boyfriend was one of those human smugglers that take people out of Libya. From there, we started planning for the journey and when the time reached, Ismail sent me to Tripoli to meet with my friend with all the money we gathered for the trip.
Before travelling, I had begged Ismail to travel with me so that we could claim to be husband and wife, because I heard that if we made such claims they would give us documents faster. He refused, telling me that his plan was to go back to Niger, his country. But before I left his house that day, I prayed for him, asked God never to let him down and always open doors for him as he had sacrificed so much for me.
However, by the time I reached Tripoli, everything needed for the trip was ready. I was overjoyed when my friend’s boyfriend, Attah called me a week later at the base camp to inform us that Ismail had arrived Tripoli to join us on the trip. When he managed to join us at the camp, I asked how he came to change his mind and raised money for the trip; and he told me that one Baba helped him sell his property and gave him the money. I was very happy that he was with us.
Meanwhile, we spent longer time at the base camp because the sea was not friendly. They kept postponing it because the news we were hearing was that those who travelled did not make it because of the bad weather condition out there. Then, I started fasting and praying, asking God to make a way for us to pass through. And it came to pass that God successfully led us through the Mediterranean seas safely. Since I left Nigeria till date, God has never let me down and will never abandon me.
So, when it was time for us to make the journey and we came down to the port, it was my first time of seeing that kind of sea that has no beginning and no end in sight. I was scared because I don’t know how to swim. But Ismail told me not to be afraid that I could make it. That was how I entered the boat.
From Libya coast to Italy, my eyes were closed and I kept telling God in prayers: ”I cannot open the eyes till I reach my destination-Italy. And I know you will prove yourself worthy again. You have done it last year and you will do it again. Last year was battle. This year would be victory.” It was when they started saying that we had reached Italy and rescuers were coming to take us that I eventually opened my eyes.
What happened when you people reached Italy?
We landed at Italian Island of Lampedusa around May 26, 2011 where we spent about three days. After that we sailed to Genoa on a bigger vessel and were taken to a migrant camp where they started processing our documents. Ismail and I were in the same camp. At the end of the day, I was given one year Italian document and later ten years resident permit. They asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to learn Italian language and then start schooling. That was how I was enrolled in a language school and when I got a diploma in language, I decided to go for primary and later high school. I studied social sanitation between 2014 and 2019. I took my final year exam in July 2019. To the glory of God, I am happily married with two children. We live and work in Turin and I was planning for my further studies in medicine or nursing before coronavirus pandemic came and I decided to wait. I will continue after the pandemic.
Do you think there are still Nigerians stranded in Libya?
Yes. Many Nigerians sold as slaves are still in Libya and other parts of North Africa and many are still being sold. Majority of them die in the process while those who survived what they were put through are still trapped waiting for the time they can be able to secure their freedom. The amount we were being sold is so much that it takes only the grace of God for people like us to be able to raise money and pay for our freedom.
I believe that not everybody was lucky as me. Many still work hard but perish in the process. The kind of torture Nigerian girls sold as slaves go through in Libya is unimaginable. There was a recent video trending on the social media of an Igbo girl being tortured by the master who incidentally is also an Igbo man. That reminded me of what I went through over ten years ago. That’s the kind of punishment they give because what they care is about making money through your body and nothing more.
What will be your advice to young girls who may be convinced to take such risk? They should never try it. It’s a risk not worth taking. I have used every opportunity I have to tell people that traveling to Europe through Libya is a suicide mission. There was this young girl from my village who told me that somebody wanted to sponsor her to Turkey so that she would pay N5 million when she starts working.
I told her not to enter into such agreement that it was a slave trade. I am using this medium to tell others the same thing. There are many people like Ejima going about looking for young girls to recruit into slave trade in Libya and they will make all kinds of promises to you while in Nigeria. The moment you step outside the shores of this country with no valid identification and any means of reaching out to people, you became their slave.
Why did you decide to go into gospel ministration while in Italy?
Music has always been my first love and something I enjoy doing. I recall one particular day when my late brother called me and told me that I would be musician. Although, he did not tell me whether I will be a gospel artist or secular musician, he prophesied that people would be hailing me on stage. I was laughing then because I never envisaged that I will become an artist someday.
As a girl child who was forced to part ways early in life with her mother and faced with maltreatment in far-away Lagos, music provided me with consolation. Then, I was too much addicted to gospel songs of people like Rosemary Chukwu, Chinyere Udoma etc. I remember then, that whenever my aunt played the songs in the morning, I would be happy and be singing it in my heart as well.
Those songs inspired me to be a gospel artist so I can share my story and all the things God had done in my life through music. I want to let people understand, through my songs that if you believe, trust and obey God, you will conquer because God will never let you down. It’s just a matter of time.
What brand of gospel music do you represent?
I chose to sing through the heart, what I believe and what I am in the sight of God and humanity. As far as am concerned, I represent light, purity and God’s favour and unfailing love. If God saw me through one of the deadliest journeys and by his grace, I am about to become an Italian citizen because I believe and trust in him, then He will do the same for others who believe in him. That is my message and brand of gospel ministration. I am channeling my music to Nigeria because the message in my songs is mostly needed by my fellow Igbo brothers and sisters. My predicament started from Nigeria and so many people are passing through what is worse than I went through.
So, my goal is to share my story and testimonies with them so that they can as well achieve breakthrough. The only means where I can easily reach them is through songs. In as much as I cannot see them, interact with them and possible offer my help, I believe that my songs will go a long way in channeling their minds back to God and in living the right life as true children of God.
How many songs have you recorded so far and future plans?
I have recorded about six songs so far with over 20 songs waiting to be recorded. My plan is to be able to produce the video for the songs as well as start work on other songs as well. It’s my desire to use my songs to reach as many people that I may not be able to reach physically and to inspire them to place their trusts in God. If, I am able to achieve that, I will be eternally grateful to God because I believe that God let me live so that people will learn more about his wonders through me. That is why I consider myself as Adaeze, daughter of Zion.