By Ona Akinde
- Title: Zura Maids
- Author: Apio Eunice Otuko
- Publisher: FEMRITE Publications Limited
- Number of pages: 300
- Year of publication: 2017
- Category: Fiction
When we tell our stories of Africa, we cannot do so without highlighting the reality of human trafficking, from slaves in Libya to girls sold into prostitution in Europe, with many drowning at sea in the process. It is clearly an ongoing reality. In Zura Maids, Apio Eunice Otuko’s debut novel set in Uganda, we follow the protagonist, Lena Ayugi, as she tries to gain justice for herself and save others from going through the same experiences that she did.
Lena’s story begins with a war that displaces her family. With nowhere else to go, they end up in Acokara, a settlement on the outskirts of Kampala, with other displaced families. Her mother struggles to raise her and her siblings, barely managing to send Lena to the university in the hope that a degree will get her a good job. However, things do not work out as planned. Lena’s efforts are unsuccessful and she returns to Acokara dejected and ashamed. She even burns her certificate. She also has to pick up the pieces after rebels attack the camp, killing her mother in the process.
Her mother’s death automatically makes her the sole breadwinner for her four younger siblings. Desperate by now, and against her siblings’ protests, she jumps at the opportunity offered by Esther, a visitor to the camp, to work as a domestic servant in Kampala. She hopes it will open more doors for her. However, things go south when Lena arrives Kampala and realises she has been deceived. Her ‘job’ is prostitution. Desperate to escape, she sets the brothel on fire and is arrested and charged with arson.
Thankfully, a lawyer, Arthur Mabende, takes up her case for free and earns her a shorter prison term than she might otherwise have received. In two years, she is freed and ready to begin her life again. Returning to Acokara, Lena discovers that Esther had gone back to the settlement and recruited more girls, including her younger sister, Lilly. Lena is devastated and vows to make Esther pay for her crimes as well as rescue her sister and the other girls. With the help of Arthur, the quest for justice begins.
A key character in the story is Martina Maa whom Lena meets while in prison. Martina is the owner of the company Zura Maids. She is in prison for child abduction and feels responsible for what has happened to Lena. When Lena is about to leave prison, Martina gives her some phone numbers and addresses to reach out to on Martina’s behalf. Martina even offers her a job. Lena returns to the city determined to find the missing girls and with the help of Arthur, whose own sister went missing some years back, quickly discovers a possible connection between Zura Maids and the trafficked girls.
She also comes up against Mukwano, one of Martina’s managers, who is determined to take over Martina’s companies while Martina rots in jail. With Lena and Arthur in the picture, Mukwano’s plan is in jeopardy. He is willing to do all it takes to eliminate whoever stands in his way but his opponents are up to the task. With the help of Akurut, one of the prison wardens, they are able to gain access to Martina and all the information they need. Even with Martina’s help, there are still other risks involved in ensuring that the girls are rescued and justice prevails.
A highlight of the novel is the effort the author puts into explaining the different forms human trafficking takes and how it affects both men and women of all ages. It is not just about prostitution but also the use of children as slaves and soldiers. The author also highlights how much deceit is involved, the various lies told in the recruitment processes, the various ways the illegality is covered up and how complicit businesses get away with it. We also learn in detail what the human trafficking process is like. When Lena infiltrates Zura Maids, we are shown how girls are treated after being enslaved. They are demeaned, broken, starved and brainwashed – in a word, dehumanised – in order to prepare them for their new life.
Unfortunately, the novel ends too abruptly, leaving the reader with a number of questions: what happens to Martina and Mukwano? What feelings do Lena and Arthur have for each other? How will things change in Acokara? With these questions left unanswered, the author, ironically, undermines the suspense she has hitherto generated.
At the core of Zura Maids is the theme of freedom. The novel explores a number of ways in which one can be held captive. To deprive a person of their freedom is to do them a great injustice. The author pushes the reader to see beyond the surface. Things are not always as they seem and deceit is powerful. In the process, the reader experiences a range of feelings, from empathy to anger to relief. Zura Maids goes beyond being just a novel: it is a tool of sensitisation as well.
Photograph: ‘Freedom!’ by Alban Gonzalez
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Ona Akinde is a Lagos-based writer and editor with a love for words and the powers they possess. She is a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.
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