Clad soberly in a chequered knee-length dress, Tobore Ovuorie doesn’t looks as if she once posed as a sex worker in a revealing outfit and high heels on Lagos’s streets.
She did so to go undercover and infiltrate a prostitution ring to expose the truth about the terrible backstreet trade.
She took on the dangerous mission after a friend left for Europe, became a sex worker and died, leaving Ovuorie shocked and beset with questions.
Today, Ovuorie’s remarkable story has been turned into a hit Netflix film, Òlòtúré, which has shone a bright light on one of Nigeria’s darkest trades.
“I needed to do justice, to know the truth. I wanted to know the process, the back story about these ladies,” the 39-year-old reporter said.
By dressing up, she sought to gain the prostitutes’ trust — the first step to introducing her to a “madam”, a pimp.
After eight months working undercover in 2013, Ovuorie emerged with a terrifying account about the victims of sex trafficking.
Some people were sent to Europe, where they were coerced into becoming sex workers. Others were forced to participate in orgies organised by local politicians. Some became victims of organ trafficking for ritual crimes.
She published her story in 2014 in the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times and a Dutch investigative magazine, Zam Chronicles, inspiring a production company in Nigeria to adapt it for the screen.
Released in October on Netflix, the story has been widely watched and applauded in its home country.
“Sometimes investigative journalists in search of the story become the story,” said director Kenneth Gyang But in this case, the reporter was also “the torch that led us into the lives” of victims.
Sex trafficking is rife in Nigeria, in particular in southern Benin City, a recruiting ground for criminal gangs who smuggle women to Europe.
How many are trafficked is unknown, but in Italy authorities say that there are between 10 000 and 30 000 Nigerian sex workers.
Several thousand others are stuck in Libya and other African countries, often exploited by criminals who make them believe they will one day reach Europe.
In the film, a journalist named Òlòtúré, playing the part of Ovuorie during her investigation, heads to neighbouring Benin with a dozen other girls.
From there, their “madam” promises they will depart to Europe in exchange for money (up to $85 000) that they will have to repay once they arrive in Italy.
Very quickly, the journey turns sour. Instead of heading to the border, their minibus stops in a gloomy training camp on the outskirts of Lagos.There, the girls are roughed up and divided into two groups — the “street” prostitutes and the “special” prostitutes reserved for wealthier clients.
On screen, the most gripping character is Linda, a young uneducated woman from a poor rural background, who becomes friends with Oloture.
Linda “represents many of those young ladies and how they get in disillusion”, said Ovuorie, who came across such a character during her investigation.
For the director, it is exciting that the film is a success in Nigeria.
“We have to see how to make this film available in remote places for young vulnerable women who might be susceptible to be trafficked to Europe,” said Gyang.
On social media, the movie — and its ending — have triggered passionate debate.
“For most of these ladies there is never any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Gyang, “so why would you try to make a film that would end on a happy note?”
Ovuorie said that what she saw and experienced during her investigation still haunts her. She is now trying to find the women she was meant to go to Europe with, and tell their stories.
Her work has inflicted a heavy emotional cost, she said.
“I’m a shadow of myself, I try to smile, to look bright, but most of the time it’s been just me fighting to hold on to life”. — AFP