The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (2019) notes that at least forty per cent of Nigerians (translated to about 83 million citizens) live below the poverty line. Most of these numbers stay in rural areas. This tale of poverty seems only to get worse by the day. Indeed, the 2019 figures have currently grown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, current economic hardships, among other harsh realities of life. One of the more popular ways of trying to escape this poverty cycle for many families is migration either from rural areas to urban areas or from Nigeria to foreign countries. People are desperate and thus seek what sustenance they can to make life better. Many become house helps in the cities or try to find their way through any means possible. This narrative often ends in people being maltreated in the city or trafficked within or outside of the country. Daisy Odey in a safe underestimation of this notes in a recent Aljazeera article that beautifully captures this societal issue there are hundreds of underage girls work as domestic help in cities across Nigeria. It is the narrative of these people that Emeka Ukwuaba focuses on.
Benign Pain is a 216-paged novel set primarily in contemporary Nigeria with few scenes in America and Italy that tackles several issues majorly affecting domestic assistants or domestic helps, more commonly called (as also used in the novel), house helps. The book is a potpourri of many tales that centres on the lives of various characters trying to resuscitate dying dreams in gloomy situations. Three major characters stand out, Nebuwa, Lebechi, and Anuli, three young girls who try to wriggle their way out of poverty and find a flame to their dying dreams, mainly through being domestic assitants. Nebuwa is a village girl who goes to the city as a domestic assistant or house help as the novel puts it, to Chinwe and Kene, when her hopes of reaching great heights through education are dashed by poverty. She finds out eventually that life in the city is not always the picture of bliss painted at home. As she begins to lose her sense of humanity and dreams once more, she will have to make a decision of lasting consequences. Lebechi is another poor girl in the village who is forced to stay there after the death of her bus driver father. She gets another opportunity to get to the city as a domestic assistant to Chinwe and Kene and grabs it fast. Over there, she also experiences several indignities and decides to escape. She is then thrust into an international adventure to Italy meeting characters who are set to explot her sexually and tear the last shreds of her human dignity. The last prominent character, Anuli, seeks a better life in the home of Dike and Uloma but like Nebuwa and Lebechi, find her dreams shaken. There are also other stories of women like Alice, Ego and Nancy who undergo troubling experiences as domestic assistants, with some of them ending in tragedy.
It is not totally a tale of woe as the author shows that life can change for the better despite these travails. For instance, Nebuwa on return to the village focuses on her education with support from her elder brother. She eventually gets adopted by a kind couple too and her life’s fortune changes. In this way, Ukwuaba seems to balance his tale by showing that it is possible to be kind to people and indeed, that some people have done so. He also shows that anyone can rise from a life of poverty, pain and abuse to become successful life as noted in the life of Nebuwa. Furthermore, Lebechi who is eventually trafficked to Italy finds her way back to Nigeria and starts a new adventure in fighting against trafficking, amongst other things while becoming a successful entrepreneur.
One notices in Benign Pain a trail of dashed dreams and hollow hope for survival as characters go from one pain to the other. It exposes the reality of several domestic assistants who are maltreated and abused by their employers. The monstrosity of these employers, who in many cases are relations of these domestic assistants, leave room for concern. The book seems to paint this horrid picture as a mirror that society will look at and adjust. As noted earlier, trafficking is a strong theme that runs through the book with people – women and men – trying to exploit young women in several ways, mainly for sexual purposes.
The author shows the courage of many women who try to fan the flames of their dying dreams but often have them snuffed out by society. Despite these odds, these women’s resilience is highlighted throughout the book and will give readers cause to pause and celebrate women generally. Trafficking has a big market and a history that dates from time immemorial with a significant aspect of it being slavery. Several writers have interrogated these in their works on the Nigerian and international scene including Ifeoma Chinwuba in her Merchants of Flesh, Amira Tsasi in The Colour of Our Sky, Sophie Hayes in Trafficked and Sold by Patricia McCormick.
A key thing that stands out in the book is the author’s indirect questioning of the need for people in the village to always migrate to the city in search of better tidings. He seems to suggest villagers should employ more creativity to work out means of survival and enriching themselves. This will possibly reduce the forced migrations and exploitation of women as seen in the novel. One notes that Emeka Ukuaba uses Benign Pain not only to expose the plight of domestic help in modern Nigeria and the atrocious plague of sex trafficking, but he also demonstrates possible ways of dealing with these societal ills. Indeed, he uses this novel to portray societal ailments hoping that readers can examine these and work towards some form of redemption.
Odey, Daisy. ‘A long way from home: The child ‘house helpers’ of Nigeria’ Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/7/15/a-long-way-from-home-the-child-house-helpers-of-nigeria
Ukwuaba, Emeka. Benign Pain. Makurdi: SEVHAGE, 2021.
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