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The African playboy who got away with $242m – using ‘black magic’

One day in August 1995 a man called Foutanga Babani Sissoko walked into the head office of the Dubai Islamic Bank and asked for a loan to buy a car. The manager agreed, and Sissoko invited him home for dinner. It was the prelude, writes the BBC’s Brigitte Scheffer, to one of the most audacious confidence tricks of all time.

Over dinner, Sissoko made a startling claim. He told the bank manager, Mohammed Ayoub, that he had magic powers. With these powers, he could take a sum of money and double it. He invited his Emirati friend to come again and to bring some cash.

Black magic is condemned by Islam as blasphemous. Even so, there’s still a widespread belief in it, and Ayoub was taken in by the colourful and mysterious businessman from a remote village in Mali.

When he arrived at Sissoko’s house the next time, carrying his money, a man burst out of a room saying a spirit – a djinn – had just attacked him. He warned Ayoub not to anger the djinn, for fear his money would not be doubled. So Ayoub left his cash in the magic room and waited.

He said he saw lights and smoke. He heard the voices of spirits. Then there was silence.

The money had indeed doubled.

Ayoub was delighted – and the heist could begin.

“He believed it was Black Magic – that Mr. Sissoko could double the money,” says Alan Fine, a Miami attorney the bank later asked to investigate the crime.

“So he would send money to Mr. Sissoko – the bank’s money – and he expected it to come back in double the amount.”

Between 1995 and 1998, Ayoub made 183 transfers into Sissoko’s accounts around the world. Sissoko was also running up big credit card bills – in the millions according to Fine – which Ayoub would settle on his behalf.

In 1998 I was living in Dubai, and I heard rumours that the bank was in trouble. When a newspaper reported that the bank was having cashflow problems, crowds of people gathered outside, waiting to withdraw their money.

The Dubai authorities downplayed the crisis. They called it “a little difficulty that did not lead to any financial losses either in the bank’s investments or depositors’ accounts”.

But this wasn’t true.

“The people who owned the bank took a huge, huge hit. It was not covered by insurance,” says Fine. “The bank was saved because the government stepped in to help. But they gave up a lot of their equity in the bank for that to happen.”

And where was Foutanga Babani Sissoko? By this time, he was far away.

One of the beauties of his scheme was that he did not need to be in Dubai to keep receiving the money.

In November 1995, only weeks after putting on the magic display for Mohammed Ayoub, Sissoko visited another bank in New York and did much more than open an account.

“He walked into Citibank one day, no appointment, met a teller and he ended up marrying her,” says Alan Fine. “And there’s reason to believe she made his relationship with Citibank more comfortable, and he ended up opening an account there through which, from memory, I’m just going to say more than $100m was wire transferred into the United States.”

In fact, according to a case brought by the Dubai Islamic Bank against Citibank, more than $151m “was debited by Citibank from DIB’s correspondent account without proper authorisation”. The case was later dropped.

Sissoko paid his new wife more than half a million dollars for her help.

“I don’t know under what legal regime he married her but he called her a wife and she believed she was a wife,” says Fine.

“She understood that there were many other wives. Some from Africa, some from Miami, some from New York.”

With the bank’s money rolling in, Sissoko could fulfil his dream of opening an airline for West Africa. He bought a used Hawker-Siddeley 125 and a pair of old Boeing 727s. This was the birth of Air Dabia, named after his village in Mali.

But in July 1996, Sissoko made a serious mistake as he tried to buy two Huey helicopters dating from the Vietnam War, for reasons that remain unclear.

“His explanation of why he wanted them was emergency air ambulance. But the helicopters he was looking at were pretty big helicopters, they were not the kind that you see running back and forth to hospitals and trauma centres in the United States, they were much bigger than that,” says Fine.

Because they could be refitted as gunships, the helicopters needed a special export licence. Sissoko’s men tried to speed things up by offering a $30,000 bribe to a customs officer. Instead, they got themselves arrested. And Interpol issued a warrant for Sissoko’s arrest too. He was caught in Geneva, where he’d gone to open another bank account.

Tom Spencer, a Miami lawyer who was asked to represent Sissoko, vividly remembers going to meet him in Geneva’s Champ-Dollon prison.

“I talked with the prison warden, who asked me whether or not Sissoko was going to go to the United States,” Spencer says.

“I said, ‘Well, you know, we’ll see.’ And he said, ‘Well, please delay it as long as possible.’ And I said, ‘Well why?’ And he said, ‘Because he’s flying in fantastic meals from Paris every night, for us.’ And that was my first bizarre encounter with Baba Sissoko.”

Sissoko was quickly extradited to the US, where he started to mobilise influential supporters.

The readiness of diplomats to vouch for Sissoko shocked the judge presiding over his bail hearing. And Tom Spencer was stunned when a former US senator, Birch Bayh, announced he was joining Sissoko’s defence team.

“Well, you have to ask yourself, why would anyone get involved for a foreign national who has no apparent value to the United States?” says Fine. “I don’t know the answer to the question. But it’s an interesting one to pose.”

The US government wanted Sissoko held in custody, but he was bailed for $20m (£14.5m) – a Florida record at the time.

Then he went on a spending spree.

He would come in and buy two three four cars at the same time… the money was like wind
Ronil Dufrene, Car dealer
His defence team was rewarded with Mercedes or Jaguar cars. But that was just the start.

Sissoko spent half a million dollars in one jewellery store alone, Fine recalls, and hundreds of thousands in others. In one men’s clothing store he spent more than $150,000.

“He would come in and buy two three four cars at the same time, come back another week and buy two three four cars at the same time. It was just, the money was like wind,” says car dealer Ronil Dufrene.

He calculates that he sold Sissoko between 30 and 35 cars in total.

Sissoko became a Miami celebrity. He already had several wives, but that didn’t stop him marrying more – and housing them in some of the 23 apartments he rented in the city.

“‘Playboy’ is the right word to describe him. Because he is very elegant. And handsome. And he dresses with great style. He blew a lot of money in Miami,” says Sissoko’s cousin, Makan Mousa.

Sissoko was also giving away large sums to good causes. His trial was approaching, and he knew the value of good publicity. In one case witnessed by his cousin, he gave £300,000 ($413,000) to a high-school band that needed money to travel to New York for a Thanksgiving Day parade.

                                       Sissoko donated a large sum of money to a high school band in Miami

Another of his defence lawyers, Prof H T Smith, remembers that on Thursdays he would drive around giving money to homeless people.

“I was thinking, is this some modern day Robin Hood? Why would you steal money and give it away? It doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

“The [Miami] Herald did a story just after he left, and I think – I don’t want to exaggerate but I think they said they could chronicle like $14m he gave away. He was only here 10 months. That’s over a million dollars a month.”

 

Alan Fine took a slightly more cynical view.

“So much of what he did was for image and to perpetuate a belief that he was a very powerful man and fabulously wealthy. He would give away money, but… to my knowledge, it was never done in a way that he didn’t get publicity for it.”

Despite this PR drive, when Sissoko’s case came to court he disregarded his lawyers’ advice and pleaded guilty.

Maybe he calculated that this would provoke fewer questions about his finances.

The sentence was 43 days in prison and a $250,000 fine – paid, of course, by the Dubai Islamic Bank, though without its knowledge.

After serving only half this sentence, he was given early release in return for a $1m payment to a homeless shelter. The rest he was meant to serve under house arrest in Mali.

Instead, he returned home to a hero’s welcome.

It was around this time that the Dubai Islamic Bank’s auditors began to notice that something was wrong. Ayoub was getting nervous, and Sissoko had stopped answering his calls.

Finally, he confessed to a colleague, who asked how much was missing. Too ashamed to say, Ayoub wrote it on a scrap of paper – 890 million dirhams, the equivalent of $242m (£175m).

He was found guilty of fraud and given three years in jail. It’s rumoured he was also forced to undergo an exorcism, to cure him of his belief in black magic.

Sissoko has never faced justice. In his absence, a Dubai court sentenced him to three years for fraud and practising magic. Interpol issued an arrest warrant and he remains a wanted man.

I found transcripts from other trials at which Sissoko failed to appear, including one in Paris. His lawyer claimed he was a scapegoat for Ayoub’s actions and the bank’s money had gone elsewhere, but the court didn’t swallow it and convicted him of money-laundering.

For 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, Sissoko was a member of parliament in Mali, which gave him immunity from prosecution. For the last four years, no longer an MP, he has been protected by the fact that Mali has no extradition treaty with any other country.

The Dubai Islamic Bank, nonetheless, is still pursuing him through the courts.

presentational grey line
I flew to Mali’s capital, Bamako, to find people who might tell me about Sissoko.

I tracked down his seamstress, who remembered him fondly.

“The last time I saw him, two or three years ago, I made him a suitcase of clothes. If he didn’t give out presents, he wasn’t happy. It’s his style. He loves to give things to people,” she said.

I also found his driver, Lukali Ibrahim.

“The good thing about him is that when things are going well you can expect a lot of presents from him. He likes to help people with their problems,” he said. “The bad thing, I can tell you a few. This is someone who always gives people hope but instead of telling you the truth, he’s just leading you on.”

In the market, I found a goldsmith who had only praise for a client who would call and ask him to make presents for his friends.

I also heard that he could be found living near his native village, Dabia, which had given its name to Sissoko’s short-lived airline, near Mali’s border with Guinea and Senegal.

After a long drive, I found a house that fitted the description I’d been given.

Suddenly, surrounded by armed guards, there he was. Babani Sissoko, in person, now perhaps 70 years old.

He agreed to an interview. The atmosphere was edgy and slightly surreal. He began by telling me about his entry into the world.

“My name is Sissoko Foutanga Dit Babani. You know, the day I was born all the villages round here burned down. The villagers went round shouting, ‘Marietto has had a boy.’ The fire leapt and leapt. There used to be a lot of bush around.”

He then talked about his efforts to rebuild the village, which began in 1985, and about the money he made. At one point he had been worth $400m, he said.

Eventually, I asked about the $242m he had received from the Dubai Islamic Bank.

“Madame, this $242m, this is a slightly crazy story. The gentlemen from the bank should explain how they lost all that money. I mean the $242m. Listen, how could that money have left the bank the way it did? That’s the problem. It’s not this man alone [Ayoub] who authorises the transfers. When the bank transfers money it’s not just one person who does it. Several people have to do it.”

I pointed out to him that Mohammed Ayoub had claimed at his trial that Sissoko had put him under a spell.

“The gentleman you’re talking about, I’ve seen him and met him,” he said.

But the heist, he denied.

“The only contact I had with him was when I went to buy a car. The bank bought it for me and I repaid the loan. It was a Japanese car.”

Had he controlled people by means of black magic?

“Madame, if a person had that kind of power, why would he work? If you have that kind of power you can stay where you are and rob all the banks of the world. In the United States, France, Germany, everywhere. Even here in Africa. You could rob all the banks you want.”

I asked him if he was still rich.

His answer was blunt.

“No, I’m not rich any longer. I’m poor.”

Defying Interpol, Sissoko has spent a remarkable 20 years on the run, even if he has squandered all his money and can never leave Mali.

He has never spent a day in jail for the black magic bank heist.

Source BBC.com

5-year-old ‘marries’ love of her life ahead of open-heart surgery

A little girl who was born with a life-threatening heart condition saw a big wish come true recently, when she was able to “marry” her best friend in a special playground ceremony. Sophia Elyssa Chiappalone, of Connecticut, has already undergone two open-heart surgeries and several other procedures, and had made the special request ahead of a third surgery, which is scheduled for January at Boston Children’s Medical Center, Yahoo reported.

On Oct. 23, Sophia and her best friend, Hunter, who she met in preschool, joined together on a playground and exchanged “vows” while photographer Marisa Balletti-Lavoie of Sassy Mouth Photo captured the precious images. The idea came from the pint-sized bride herself, and was happily agreed to by Hunter and his mom.

Sophia was diagnosed with tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia, which is a genetic heart defect involving four different issues, shortly after her birth. Sophia’s mother, Kristy Somerset-Chiappalone, started the “Sophia Elyssa Chiappalone the beautiful baby with a broken heart” Facebook page and explained that her daughter’s case is considered severe and will require several open-heart procedures before it is completely repaired. The condition is also likely to shorten her lifespan, and she will need a heart and lung transplant in the future.

Sophia Elyssa Chiappalone and Hunter.    Sassy Mouth Photo  www.sassymouth.net

“She’s a walking miracle,” Somerset-Chiappalone told NBC Connecticut. “There is no life expectancy at this time because there’s no reason for her to be alive.”

Balletti-Lavoie told Yahoo she was asked to do the shoot by Hunter’s mom, Tracy Laferriere, who is a close friend. Shortly after she shared photos of the pair on her Facebook page, their story went viral.

“I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the love and support we’ve gotten with Sophia and her recent wish,” Somerset-Chiappalone posted on her personal Facebook page, on Oct. 25. “It was pure innocence in the purest form. My heart aches with joy with the people standing behind Supergirl on this fight. She’s fought to be alive since her first breath, but that’s all she knows. I love the idea of sharing the beautiful story that is her and Hunter. Most people wait a lifetime for someone who wouldn’t stand by them through such illness. She met a best friend and love of her life at 3 who does. You know they say marry your best friend, it just doesn’t usually happen before 1st grade!!! I agree, the world should know this story.”

Fox News

Our kidnap by B’Haram in 2014 accidental — Chibok girls

The abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno State by Boko Haram’s jihadist insurgency was the accidental outcome of a botched robbery, say the girls who spent three years in their brutal captivity.

The Chibok girls made the surprise revelation in secret diaries they kept while held prisoner and a copy of which has been exclusively obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

They were kidnapped from their hostel at the Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State by Boko Haram fighters on April 14, 2014.

Recalling the night of their kidnapping in April 2014, Naomi Adamu described in the diaries how Boko Haram had not come to the school in Chibok to abduct the girls, but rather to steal machinery for house building

Unable to find what they were looking for, the militants were unsure what to do with the girls.

“One boy said they should burn us all, and they (some of the other fighters) said, ‘No, let us take them with us to Sambisa (Boko Haram’s remote forest base) … if we take them to Shekau (the group’s leader), he will know what to do,’” Adamu wrote.

She was one of about 220 girls who were stolen from their school in Chibok one night April 14,  2014 – a raid that sparked an international outcry and a viral campaign on social media with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.

Championed by former Minister of Education, Oby Ezekwesili and the U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama – along with a diverse cast of media celebrities – the campaign won international infamy for Boko Haram and helped galvanise the Nigerian government into negotiating for the girls’ release.

Adamu was among 82 of the Chibok girls released by Boko Haram in May – part of a second wave after 21 of them were freed in October. They are being held in a secret location in Abuja for what the government has called a “restoration process.”

A few others have escaped or been rescued, but about 113 of the girls are believed to be still held by the militant group.

The authenticity of the diaries, written by Adamu and her friend, Sarah Samuel, cannot be verified, nor their intended role as the government negotiates with Boko Haram for more releases.

The diaries shed light not only on the horrors the girls endured under Boko Haram, but their acts of resistance, and their staunch belief that they would one day go home.

The girls said they started documenting their ordeal a few months after the abduction when Boko Haram gave them exercise books to use during Koranic lessons.

To hide the diaries from their captors, the girls would bury the notebooks in the ground, or carry them in their underwear.

Three of the other Chibok girls also contributed to the undated chronicles, which were written mainly in passable English, with some parts scribbled in less coherent Hausa.

“We wrote it together. When one person got tired, she would give it to another person to continue,” Adamu, 24, said from the state safe house in the capital, where the girls are being kept for assessment, rehabilitation, and debriefing by the government.

Life in the Sambisa involved regular beatings, Koranic lessons, domestic drudgery and pressure to marry and convert.

The girls’ spirits remained intact, as they devised amusing and mocking nicknames for the fighters, the diaries show.

Yet cruelty and brutality were ever present.

When five girls tried to escape, the militants tied them up, dug a hole in the ground, and turned to one of their classmates.

The jihadists handed her a blade and issued a chilling ultimatum: ‘cut off the girls’ heads, or lose your own’.

“We are begging them. We are crying. They said if next, we ran away, they are going to cut off our necks,” Adamu wrote.

On another occasion, the militants gathered those girls who had refused to embrace Islam, brought out jerry cans and threatened to douse them in petrol then burn them alive.

“They said, ‘You want to die. You don’t want to be Muslim,(so) we are going to burn you,” read the diary entry.

As fear set in, the militants cracked into laughter – the cans contained nothing but water, the girls wrote.

One of the most striking excerpts illustrates the pervasive fear spread by Boko Haram in the North-East, where the group has killed 20,000 people and uprooted at least two million in a brutal campaign that shows no signs of ending soon.

During their captivity in the Sambisa Forest, some of the Chibok girls escaped and ended up in a nearby shop where they asked the owners for help, as well as food and water.

“The girls said, ‘We are those that Boko Haram kidnapped from (the school) in Chibok,’” Adamu wrote. “One of the people (in the shop) said: ‘Are these not Shekau’s children?’”

The shop owners let the girls stay the night.

But the next day they took them back to Boko Haram’s base, where the girls were whipped and threatened with decapitation.

Despite being flushed with relief at her own freedom, Adamu worries about her closest friend and co-author, Samuel, who is still with the group, having married one of its militants.

“She got married because of no food, no water,” Adamu said from the government safe house in Abuja.

“Not everybody can survive that kind of thing,” she added. “I feel pained … so pained. I’m still thinking about her.”

Culled

10 year old rape victim, gives birth by Caesarean section

A 10-year-old rape victim who was denied permission for an abortion by the Indian Supreme Court last month has given birth to a baby girl.

The girl is not aware that she has given birth. During her pregnancy, she was told her bulge was because she had a big stone in her stomach.

The baby weighing 2.5kg (5.5lb) was delivered by Caesarean section in Chandigarh at 09:22 (03:52 GMT).

Both the mother and the newborn are doing fine, an official told the BBC.

The girl alleges she was raped several times in the past seven months by her uncle, who has been arrested.

Her pregnancy was discovered in mid-July when she complained of stomach ache and her parents took her to hospital.

A local court in Chandigarh turned down the abortion plea on the grounds that she was too far into her pregnancy after a doctors’ panel said that termination of the pregnancy would be “too risky”. Later, the Supreme Court also refused to allow an abortion for her on similar grounds.

Baby ‘to be put up for adoption’

 

As the baby was born prematurely at 35 weeks, she has been placed in the neo-natal intensive care unit of the hospital where she will remain for the next few days, the BBC’s Geeta Pandey reports from Delhi.

The parents of the 10-year-old girl, who said from the beginning that they did not want to have anything to do with the baby, did not even look at the newborn, our correspondent adds.

The infant will be looked after by the child welfare committee until she is put up for adoption, an official said.

The girl who gave birth is expected to remain in hospital for up to 10 days.

Her case has dominated headlines in India for the past several weeks, with officials saying it is the first-ever case of a child so young giving birth.

Indian law does not allow terminations after 20 weeks unless doctors certify that the mother’s life is in danger.

But in recent years, the courts have received several petitions, many from child rape survivors, seeking to terminate pregnancies after 20 weeks. In most cases, these pregnancies are discovered late because the children themselves are not aware of their condition.

Child welfare activists who interact with the 10-year-old on a regular basis say that is precisely what happened with her – the girl is very innocent and had no idea what had happened to her.

Her parents also missed the telltale signs of her pregnancy perhaps because she’s “a healthy, chubby child”. Besides, they couldn’t imagine that their daughter could be pregnant at 10.

Scale of Abuse in India

  • A child under 16 is raped every 155 minutes, a child under 10 every 13 hours
  • More than 10,000 children were raped in 2015
  • 240 million women living in India were married before they turned 18
  • 53.22% of children who participated in a government study reported some form of sexual abuse
  • 50% of abusers are known to the child or are “persons in trust and care-givers

Sources: Indian government, Unicef

23-year-old lady suffers rare disorder that makes her constantly beg for sex

A young woman has revealed the details of her painful struggle with a condition that leaves her constantly sexually aroused.

Amanda McLaughlin, 23, from the United States, has lived with the problem for 10 years and says she has to beg her fiance JoJo for sex every day to relieve her symptoms.

The condition, called persistent genital arousal disorder (PGAD), causes pain in her legs and pelvis that is so bad she is unable to work and rarely leaves her home.

Now Ms. McLaughlin has spoken of her ordeal as part of a documentary for BBC Three’s Living Differently.

It’s not fun to be aroused all the time,” she said. “It feels like you’re about to orgasm and then it never goes away.”

Ms. McLaughlin’s symptoms began when she was just 13 years old but she was not diagnosed with PGAD until six years later.

Her mother, Victoria, admitted that she and her family did not understand her daughter’s condition at first.

“When she first became sexually active, she was having sex a lot,” she said. “My whole family just thought she was a wh**e.

“I doubted her completely — I still feel guilty.” Victoria is now very supportive of her daughter, as is JoJo.

Amanda said: “Relationships are really hard to keep with this problem. But he never once has judged me, he never made me feel bad about working. It was love at first sight.”

She added that her condition affects the couple’s sex life ‘tremendously’.

“You’d think that you could have sex and it would just go away, but it doesn’t,” she said.

“Sometimes I will be crying and begging him to have sex with me just to relieve some of the pressure that I have down there.”

JoJo said: “When she first told me, I didn’t know how to feel about it; but I liked her, so I was prepared to jump in.

“The more I can learn, the more I can help her. I’ll help her so she can get anything she needs.”

Amanda currently takes 30 different types of medications to ease the pain caused by her condition. She also uses ice ‘inserts’ to ease her pelvic swelling.

Assistant professor of neurology at Michigan University, Dr. Priyanka Gunta, who is currently treating Amanda, said: “Because it’s such a rare diagnosis and there’s been such little research, we don’t know exactly what causes it. We suspect it’s multifactorial.

“I don’t have a quick cure for this, but we’re going to be trying a few different therapies.

“I’m very hopeful that we can get her functioning better.”
Source: DailyMail

‘I was gang-raped on my wedding day’- Terry Gobanga

When Terry Gobanga – then Terry Apudo – didn’t show up to her wedding, nobody could have guessed that she had been abducted, raped and left for dead by the roadside. It was the first of two tragedies to hit the young Nairobi pastor in quick succession. But she is a survivor.

It was going to be a very big wedding. I was a pastor, so all our church members were coming, as well as all our relatives. My fiance, Harry, and I were very excited – we were getting married in All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi and I had rented a beautiful dress.

But the night before the wedding I realised that I had some of Harry’s clothes, including his cravat. He couldn’t show up without a tie, so a friend who had stayed the night offered to take it to him first thing in the morning. We got up at dawn and I walked her to the bus station.

As I was making my way back home, I walked past a guy sitting on the bonnet of a car – suddenly he grabbed me from behind and dumped me in the back seat. There were two more men inside, and they drove off. It all happened in a fraction of a second.

A piece of cloth was stuffed in my mouth. I was kicking and hitting out and trying to scream. When I managed to push the gag out, I screamed: “It’s my wedding day!” That was when I got the first blow. One of the men told me to “co-operate or you will die”.

close-up of Terry GobangaTERRY GOBANG

The men took turns to rape me. I felt sure I was going to die, but I was still fighting for my life, so when one of the men took the gag out of my mouth I bit his manhood. He screamed in pain and one of them stabbed me in the stomach. Then they opened the door and threw me out of the moving car.

I was miles from home, outside Nairobi. More than six hours had passed since I had been abducted.

A child saw me being thrown out and called her grandmother. People came running. When the police came they tried to get a pulse, but no-one could. Thinking I was dead, they wrapped me in a blanket and started to take me to the mortuary. But on the way there, I choked on the blanket and coughed. The policeman said: “She’s alive?” And he turned the car around and drove me to the biggest government hospital in Kenya.

I arrived in great shock, murmuring incoherently. I was half-naked and covered in blood, and my face was swollen from being punched. But something must have alerted the matron because she guessed I was a bride. “Let’s go around the churches to see if they’re missing a bride,” she told the nurses.

All Saint's Cathedral is the national Anglican cathedral in Nairobi
All Saint’s Cathedral is the oldest Anglican cathedral in Nairobi

By coincidence, the first church they called at was All Saints Cathedral. “Are you missing a bride?” the nurse asked.

The minister said: “Yes, there was a wedding at 10 o’clock and she didn’t come.”

When I didn’t show up to the church, my parents were panicking. People were sent out to search for me. Rumours flew. Some wondered: “Did she change her mind?” Others said: “No, it’s so unlike her, what happened?”

After a few hours, they had to take down the decorations to make room for the next ceremony. Harry had been put in the vestry to wait.

When they heard where I was, my parents came to the hospital with the whole entourage. Harry was actually carrying my wedding gown. But the media had also got wind of the story so there were reporters too.

I was moved to another hospital where I’d have more privacy. That was where the doctors stitched me up and gave me some devastating news: “The stab wound went deep into your womb, so you won’t be able to carry any children.”

Terry pictured this year

I was given the morning-after pill, as well as antiretroviral drugs to protect me from HIV and Aids. My mind shut down, it refused to accept what had happened.

Harry kept saying he still wanted to marry me. “I want to take care of her and make sure she comes back to good health in my arms, in our house,” he said. Truth be told, I wasn’t in a position to say Yes or No because my mind was so jammed with the faces of the three men, and with everything that had happened.

A few days later, when I was less sedated, I was able to look him in the eye. I kept saying sorry. I felt like I had let him down. Some people said it was my own fault for leaving the house in the morning. It was really hurtful, but my family and Harry supported me.

The police never caught the rapists. I went to line-up after line-up but I didn’t recognise any of the men, and it hurt me each time I went. It set back my recovery – it was 10 steps forward, 20 back. In the end, I went back to the police station and said: “You know what, I’m done. I just want to leave it.”

Three months after the attack I was told I was HIV-negative and got really excited, but they told me I had to wait three more months to be sure. Still, Harry and I began to plan our second wedding.

Although I had been very angry at the press intrusion, somebody read my story and asked to meet me. Her name was Vip Ogolla, and she was also a rape survivor. We spoke, and she told me she and her friends wanted to give me a free wedding. “Go wild, have whatever you want,” she said.

I was ecstatic. I went for a different type of cake, much more expensive. Instead of a rented gown, now I could have one that was totally mine.

In July 2005, seven months after our first planned wedding, Harry and I got married and went on a honeymoon.

Harry Olwande and Terry on their wedding day in July 2005Harry Olwande and Terry on their wedding day in July 2005

 

Twenty-nine days later, we were at home on a very cold night. Harry lit a charcoal burner and took it to the bedroom. After dinner, he removed it because the room was really warm. I got under the covers as he locked up the house. When he came to bed he said he was feeling dizzy, but we thought nothing of it.

It was so cold we couldn’t sleep, so I suggested getting another duvet. But Harry said he couldn’t get it as he didn’t have enough strength. Strangely, I couldn’t stand up either. We realised something was very wrong. He passed out. I passed out. I remember coming to. I would call him. At times he would respond, at other times he wouldn’t. I pushed myself out of bed and threw up, which gave me some strength. I started crawling to the phone. I called my neighbour and said: “Something is wrong, Harry is not responding.”

She came over immediately but it took me ages to crawl to the front door to let her in as I kept passing out. I saw an avalanche of people coming in, screaming. And I passed out again.

I woke up in hospital and asked where my husband was. They said they were working on him in the next room. I said: “I’m a pastor, I’ve seen quite a lot in my life, I need you to be very straight with me.” The doctor looked at me and said: “I’m sorry, your husband did not make it.”

I couldn’t believe it.

Terry places a ring on Harry's finger
Terry places a ring on Harry’s finger

Going back to church for the funeral was terrible. Just a month earlier I had been there in my white dress, with Harry standing at the front looking handsome in his suit. Now, I was in black and he was being wheeled in, in a casket.

People thought I was cursed and held back their children from me. “There’s a bad omen hanging over her,” they said. At one point, I actually believed it myself.

Others accused me of killing my husband. That really got me down – I was grieving.

The post-mortem showed what really happened: as the carbon monoxide filled his system, he started choking and suffocated.

I had a terrible breakdown. I felt let down by God, I felt let down by everybody. I couldn’t believe that people could be laughing, going out and just going about life. I crashed.

One day I was sitting on the balcony looking at the birds chirping away and I said: “God, how can you take care of the birds and not me?” In that instant I remembered there are 24 hours a day – sitting in depression with your curtains closed, no-one’s going to give you back those 24 hours. Before you know, it’s a week, a month, a year wasted away. That was a tough reality.

I told everybody I would never ever get married again. God took my husband, and the thought of ever going through such a loss again was too much. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody. The pain is so intense, you feel it in your nails.

But there was one man – Tonny Gobanga – who kept visiting. He would encourage me to talk about my husband and think about the good times. One time he didn’t call for three days and I was so angry. That’s when it hit me that I had fallen for him.

Tonny and Terry Gobanga
Tonny and Terry Gobanga

Tonny proposed marriage but I told him to buy a magazine, read my story and tell me if he still loved me. He came back and said he still wanted to marry me.

But I said: “Listen, there’s another thing – I can’t have children, so I cannot get married to you.”

“Children are a gift from God,” he said. “If we get them, Amen. If not, I will have more time to love you.”

I thought: “Wow, what a line!” So I said Yes.

Tonny went home to tell his parents, who were very excited until they heard my story. “You can’t marry her – she is cursed,” they said. My father-in-law refused to attend the wedding, but we went ahead anyway. We had 800 guests – many came out of curiosity.

It was three years after my first wedding, and I was very scared. When we were exchanging vows, I thought: “Here I am again Father, please don’t let him die.” As the congregation prayed for us I cried uncontrollably.

A year into our marriage, I felt unwell and went to the doctor – and to my great surprise he told me that I was pregnant.

As the months progressed I was put on total bed rest, because of the stab wound to my womb. But all went well, and we had a baby girl who we called Tehille. Four years later, we had another baby girl named Towdah.

Terry and her daughters

Today, I am the best of friends with my father-in-law.

I wrote a book, Crawling out of Darkness, about my ordeal, to give people hope of rising again. I also started an organisation called Kara Olmurani. We work with rape survivors, as I call them – not rape victims. We offer counselling and support. We are looking to start a halfway house for them where they can come and find their footing before going back to face the world.

I have forgiven my attackers. It wasn’t easy but I realised I was getting a raw deal by being upset with people who probably don’t care. My faith also encourages me to forgive and not repay evil with evil but with good.

The most important thing is to mourn. Go through every step of it. Get upset until you are willing to do something about your situation. You have to keep moving, crawl if you have to. But move towards your destiny because it’s waiting, and you have to go and get it.

Culled from BBC

How a Nigerian woman survived 10 days in the Desert after her friends died

Agency Report || A 22-year-old Nigerian woman attempting to migrate into Europe via the harsh Sahara Desert survived after being abandoned by traffickers for 10 days.

The International Organisation for Migration said the woman, given the nickname Adoara, was the only female among the survivors of a rescue mission on May 28.

“She left Nigeria in early April hoping for a better future in Europe.

“There were 50 migrants on the pick-up truck when it left Agadez for Libya, but only six are still alive today,” Giuseppe Loprete, Niger Chief of Mission for IOM, said.

Recounting her ordeal, the Nigerian survivor said: “We were in the desert for 10 days. After five days, the driver abandoned us.

“He left with all of our belongings, saying he was going to pick us up in a couple of hours, but he never did,” she recalled.

During the next two days, 44 of the migrants died which persuaded the six left to start walking to look for help.

“We had to drink our own pee to survive,” said the woman now in an IOM camp in Niamey, Niger.

She had left Nigeria with two close female friends, who both died in the desert.

“They were too weak to keep going,” she sadly remembers. “We buried a few, but there were just too many to bury and we didn’t have the strength to do it,” Adaora adds.

“I couldn’t walk anymore. I wanted to give up,” she recalls.

Two other migrants carried her until a truck driver picked them up and took them to local authorities who then alerted IOM staff in Dirkou in the Agadez Region of north-eastern Niger.

By the time the six survivors reached IOM’s transit centre in Dirkou, Adaora was unconscious.

She received medical assistance and once recovered, she gave a detailed account of her experience to both the authorities and IOM staff.

Two of the other migrants from the group went back with IOM staff and the authorities to find the bodies and identify the victims.

After having received medical assistance at IOM’s transit centres in both Dirkou and Agadez, Adaora is currently recovering at IOM’s transit centre for migrants in Niamey, awaiting her imminent voluntary return to Nigeria.

Adaora says she had no idea what the route was going to be like, otherwise she would have never left Nigeria. Going back, she wants to continue her work as a nurse. “I think it’s important we all assist each other when we are in need,” she says.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it rescued no fewer than 600 people since April 2017 through a new search and rescue operation that targeted migrants stranded in Sahara Desert.

The UN migration agency, however, regretted 52 migrants, mostly from The Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire, died over the period, according to its statement on Tuesday.

“We are enhancing our capacity to assist vulnerable migrants stranded in Northern Agadez, towards the Niger-Libya border.

“Saving lives in the desert is becoming more urgent than ever.

“Since the beginning of the year we have been receiving frequent calls to rescue victims who embark on this route‎,” Giuseppe Loprete, Niger Chief of Mission for IOM, said.

On June 9, another 92 migrants were also rescued through an IOM search and rescue operation; among them were 30 women and children.

More recently, 24 migrants were taken to Seguedine, where one died on arrival.

“Among the 23 survivors are migrants from Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. It was not clear for how long they had been walking in the deserts of central Niger.

“They had been in a group of 75 migrants in three different cars, eventually abandoned by smugglers during the journey north,” Loprete said.

IOM said it had recorded 52 deaths since it launched a new project “Migrants Rescue and Assistance in Agadez Region” (MIRAA) in April.

The project will last for 12 months, and aims to ensure the protection of migrants in hard-to-reach areas while also strengthening the management of migration by the Government of Niger, it said.

MIRAA is complementary to the larger initiative “Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism” (MRRM), which aims to bring together in one mechanism a wide range of services and assistance for migrants, including assisted voluntary return to their countries of origin and reintegration once they return.

NAN

‘I thought I was going to die’: Nigerian Jailed and ransomed in Libya

It was called “Morning Tea” – a brutal flogging with a hosepipe.

Every morning for four months, Seun Femi’s captors beat him at a makeshift prison in Libya.

“They would flog my head, my hands, my bum,” says the 34-year-old. “The guard would beat me until he got tired.”

Two of Seun’s fingers were broken during one of the brutal sessions. But the Nigerian says it could have been far worse. One man was beaten to death in front of him.

“I thought I was going to die in that prison,” he says.

Seun was one of the tens of thousands of West Africans who cross the Sahara Desert into Libya every year, from where they hope to be trafficked by boat to Europe.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates there are between 700,000 and one million people in Libya awaiting their chance to cross the Mediterranean.

It was always a dark and desperate journey but now appears to be increasingly dangerous as undocumented migrants fall prey to militias and criminal gangs in war-torn Libya.

Earlier this year, the IOM reported that African migrants were being sold by their captors in “slave markets” in the south-western Libyan city of Sabha.

It was in the same city that Seun says he was held with about 300 other African migrants for ransom.

“We thought the traffickers were taking us to a place to stay and not a place to lock us up,” he says.

Seun says a hunchbacked Libyan called Ali ran the makeshift.

It was a half-constructed building. The male migrants, mainly from Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, were separated into large rooms, each called a ghetto. Seun was held in the Nigeria ghetto.

In two of the ghettos, called Ghana and VIP (for very important person), the guards would extort a higher ransom in order for the migrants to be freed.

“We were packed on the floor like sardines when we tried to sleep,” says Seun.

Stranded migrants

There was little food but enough bottled water as otherwise, the migrants would die of thirst in the stifling heat.

The brutal business model was simple, says Seun. Guards with nicknames like “Rambo” would beat the migrants and then hand them a phone.

“They would let us phone our people once a day,” he said. “They would whip us while we were on the call so our families would get the message. We would beg them to send us money.”

On Tuesday, the Italian authorities said they had arrested a notorious human trafficker known as Rambo on charges of torturing and killing migrants but it is not possible to verify whether it was the same man.

Seun needed to a pay a ransom of approximately $500. It was to be deposited in a bank account in Nigeria. But he did not have the money. He urged his ex-girlfriend to sell his car.

“It was in bad shape. It took three months for her to sell it,” says Seun. “There were no buyers.”

The irony is that Seun, a taxi driver, had no money to repair the vehicle in the first place, which is why he decided to go to Libya

His ransom was finally paid last December. Seun thought he was free.

But then he was told he needed to pay a “gate fee” of approximately $50. He had no money. But a Nigerian baker who sold bread at the prison took pity on him and paid the fee.

“He helped me a lot by taking me out of that place – it’s bad, very bad,” says Seun.

Seun then paid the man back by working in his bakery for several weeks in Sabha.

Seun

He then pushed on to Tripoli but was detained by Libyan police earlier this year and held at a detention centre. He was repatriated to Nigeria in April.

Now back in Lagos, he has no work and rents a small dark room in one of the city’s sprawling slums. He is trying to piece his life back together.

He hopes to raise cash to buy a car and work as a taxi driver again. He wants to move to a better area so his young daughter can visit. He regrets ever setting out to Europe.

“The desert is such a dangerous place,” he says. “Many people died on the way. No-one should follow that path.”

Source BBC

Horrible lives of Nigerian girls trafficked into Italy

Disheveled, barefoot and bleary-eyed, the Nigerian girls are some of the first to walk off the boats. A dream realised; they arrive in Europe — though the scene is anything but romantic.

Caskets are carried off, carrying those who didn’t survive the two-day journey across the Mediterranean, from Libya to the Sicilian port of Palermo. Babies wail and those sick and burned from the effects of the gasoline mixed with saltwater stumble towards the medical tent.

The Nigerian girls are given a plastic bag containing a litre of water, a piece of fruit and a sandwich. They’re ushered to a vinyl tent for “vulnerabili” — the vulnerable ones.

For at least 30 years, Nigerian women have been trafficked into Europe for sex work, but numbers have spiked recently. In 2014, the trickle of a few hundred women a year grew to nearly 1,500. The following year, it increased again to 5,600. In 2016, at least 11,009 Nigerian women and girls arrived on Italian shores.

A Nigerian girl on the street in Italy

These women used to arrive on planes with visas. Now, they come the “back way” — the smuggling route that has developed across Africa to bring hundreds of thousands of Africans to Europe.

Women make up a smaller percentage of total African arrivals to Europe, and aid response for them has been slow and misguided. Although the International Organization of Migration estimates that 80 percent of Nigerian females coming to Europe are trafficked, aid workers have no way of telling those seeking opportunity from those forced against their will. They hand out flyers warning against trafficking.

Time is of the essence: If officials can establish trust, girls who have not been trafficked may be less likely to become ensnared in sex work once they are in Europe. And those who were trafficked are more likely to supply details that reveal that they have been trafficked, allowing the IOM to refer them to Italy’s national anti-trafficking network, or local prosecutors, who can help them get international protection.

In the best-case scenario, they are placed in a safe house run by nuns or an NGO, which is supposed to house them for up to three years and try to integrate them into European life with school and job training, with the goal of becoming independent.

That’s the ideal scenario — but it rarely happens. Safe houses are built for a dozen women — there aren’t nearly enough to take in the thousands of women arriving.

Traffickers know this.

Before leaving for Italy, Nigerian traffickers give the girls and women a phone number for a madam, and tell them to call as soon as they arrive. Madams are older Nigerian women, sometimes former prostitutes themselves, who have climbed the organisational ranks. A younger male is also involved, working for the madam by following, watching and accompanying the young women.

After arriving, the Nigerian women are taken with other asylum-seekers to facilities around Italy, built to house them as they await their documents. Teeming with people from Nigeria, The Gambia, Eritrea and elsewhere, many of whom have been there more than a year, they’re allowed to come and go, and use cell phones.

“Madams actually recruit inside the big immigration centres,” explains Tiziana Bianchini, who works for Lotta Contro l’Emarginazione, a Milan-based organisation with an anti-trafficking mission. This means that girls who may not have been trafficked run the risk of falling into criminal networks once they are in Italy.

Peace is one teen girl who, in 2013 at the age of 17, migrated by boat to Sicily and was brought to CARA of Mineo, the largest refugee camp in Europe. Located in Sicily’s eastern province of Catania, the centre, once an American military base, houses more than 3,000 men and women. It has become notorious for its dubious finances and for giving residents cigarettes instead of the payments they are entitled to under Italian law.

While she still lived in the camp, Peace stopped a Nigerian man on a street nearby, and asked to borrow his phone. She dialled the number she had been told to, and spoke to the Nigerian woman on the other line. Within days she was a sex worker. “Once you make the call, you’re off. You never go back to the camp,” she says.

I met her earlier this year in a small room in Sicily where church services are held, several months after she left the street.

She’s an energetic, fast-talking, smiley young woman, whose youthful stature is nonetheless marked by a distinct confidence. She wears her hair up high, with a long braid hanging down her back, bouncing as she walks and talks in the glaring Sicilian sunlight.

Peace isn’t her real name — it’s an alias we agreed to use because she still lives in fear of her traffickers, or that she’ll be deported. Or of repercussions for her family because she didn’t finish repaying her debt.

Trafficking officials would call her a typical victim: She grew up in Benin City, in the heart of Nigeria’s poor, rural southwestern Edo State, a major source of trafficked sex workers in Europe. She’s the eldest girl from a large family — and older girls are the most likely to be trafficked. Her mother died when Peace was 16, and her father “was not caring.”

She decided to leave, feeling the pressure of needing to help her family financially, and escaping from a situation that was hurting her.

When a woman approached her, telling her she was beautiful and asking if she wanted to go to Europe, Peace agreed. She knew she’d have to work on the street, and she knew she would need to pay the woman 30,000 euros once she arrived in Europe. She completed what Nigerians call the “juju oath,” an animist, spiritual contract in which the girl agrees to be brought to Europe, and binds herself to her debt with bits of her pubic hair and blood.

The ritual is taken extremely seriously — and violation is considered justification for murder of a girl or her family.

“Back then, I just thought, f*** it,” said Peace.

Languishing in the camps

The lax oversight at these migrant centres has led to calls for a different response to migrant arrivals in Italy. The centres, which Italians call “welcome homes” and the people inside call “camps,” were Italy’s stop-gap solution to provide recent arrivals with housing as they awaited their documents or the result of their applications for international protection.

A process that was supposed to take a couple of months now lasts years, while applicants languish in overcrowded centres, often in the middle of nowhere.

“Italy was completely unable to create a national program to deal with the arrivals from Africa,” said Bianchini, explaining that the responsibility lies with understaffed and underfunded local governments, who end up outsourcing the oversight of these camps to private organisations, “making contracts with whoever.”

This means there is little oversight or transparency. Much of the staff operating these centres speak little to no English (nor French nor Arabic for that matter), the centres are overcrowded, and the people inside of them tend to be given little access to information on Italy’s legal system.

When I visited one centre, many people asked me if they should try to get to France. Rumour has it that it’s increasingly tough to cross the borders out of Italy.

“The Italian system of housing asylum-seekers is completely inadequate for victims of trafficking,” Bianchini added, noting that women in general, but especially victims of trafficking, require specific psychological and educational support that these centres are unable to provide.

Every so often, law enforcement officials in Italy decide it’s time for a sweep and deport Nigerian women back to Nigeria, where they run the risk of being re-trafficked.

“Forcibly returning the girls to Nigeria would be another heavy violence against them,” explains Sister Valeria Gandini, a missionary nun who eight years ago founded Palermo’s Street Unity, a group of lay and religious volunteers who visit the women on the street each week. “Sooner or later, they will meet the same people who betrayed them and brought them to Europe the first time around.”

Deportation rumours often spur more women to run away.

Impossible to pay

Another young Nigerian woman who ran away from her camp, only to wind up on the street, is Favour — again, not her real name. When I met her, she had a big, warm smile beneath a fashionable knit cap.

Like Peace, Favour is from Edo State, though from the more rural area, outside of the city. Before she agreed to seal the oath, Favour asked the woman who approached her if she was going to Europe to “do prostitution.” It was only once the woman assured her that she would be working in a shop that Favour agreed.

She was told the money would be easy to come by once she was in Europe.

When she first arrived at the madam’s house, Favour was exhausted. She slept for two days. On the third day, the woman said it was time to go to work.

In addition to the 30,000 euros she had to pay off, she would have to pay 80 euros a week for food, 250 euros a month for the rent, as well as the gas and electric bills. Favour was ready: OK, no problem. Just show me the shop, she said.

First, the woman took her shopping. They bought clothes that Favour says she “didn’t understand.” A few days later, the woman said she was ready for work. They took bus after bus, and then they walked. She found herself in the “bush,” standing on the side of the road. She was told to put on different clothes, clothes she had bought earlier with the woman, and that were now tucked inside the bag she had brought.

When it finally dawned on her what she would have to do, Favour cried. She cried all day, and for many days she refused to work. When she went home with nothing, the woman would beat her. After some time, she felt she had no choice, and she gave in.

In Palermo, women and underage girls like Peace and Favour work the streets among the trees lining the busy road of La Favorita, or along the trash- and urine-ridden streets around the port.

They are there six nights, or days, a week, depending on their shifts. As the months get warmer, the clothes get skimpier: see-through tights that reveal a lacy thong, shirts open to reveal naked breasts. They wear wigs directly from Nigeria that cost 20 euros each. Blessing (not her real name), a woman of tiny stature and boundless energy who works on a Palermo street, shows off her fake eyelashes, which can stay on for several weeks

Peace now shares an apartment with an Italian woman whom she helps around the house. In her room, she brushes her hair, smiles often and laughs a lot. She is candid but guarded about her experience working on the street.

“It all depends on the client,” she says. “Sometimes, those clients don’t even want sex so much as they want company, and with them, you try to be jovial, you make them laugh. But then there are the clients who don’t want to pay you, the clients who are aggressive. Those are the bad clients.” Peace can talk about it without showing too much emotion, but she is reluctant to go too deep. She would like to go back to Nigeria eventually, but for now, she feels pressure to make money, either for herself or her family — she wasn’t clear.

Favour’s experiences were worse. Once, a client knifed her. Another time, two men who approached her gave her a bad feeling. “Via,” she told them. “I’m not working tonight.” “You must,” they replied, before slapping her and dragging her into a room in a local train station. She cried a lot as she told her story. When she came to, she said she asked the first person she found to bring her to the hospital.

After that, she decided to get out.

Getting out

The Street Unity group in the town where she was working had been asking her for months if she wanted out. Street Unity groups, like that established by Sister Valeria in Palermo, approach the girls offering medical support, and in the case of the religious groups, prayer.

The Nigerian women are extremely religious (there is no one in Nigeria, Peace once said, who can honestly say that they don’t believe in God), and prayer is often a source of bonding. Once the connections have been established, the groups can be a way off of the street — a difficult and uneasy step.

Sicily has a 22-percent unemployment rate, high even by Italian standards. The only jobs available to Nigerian women are in cleaning or taking care of the elderly or children. But these jobs require Italian language skills, and they don’t come with guarantees of good payment or treatment.

As Sister Valeria sees it, “the women who are victims of trafficking, who have been forced into sex work for years, who are in the end destroyed, physically and psychologically — what future can they have here?”

Against all odds, Peace one day decided she would leave. It was a scary decision, because of the juju oath she had made back in Nigeria. Article 18 of Italy’s Consolidated Immigration Act provides protection and temporary residence permits to victims of trafficking who denounce their traffickers or madams, or who show visible signs of being in immediate psychological or physical danger.

But Peace, like many of these women, refused to take this route. Denouncing her madam or her trafficker would be the biggest violation of her oath. “I’m protected, in Europe,” she explains, “but I have to think about my family.”

Back in Nigeria, it would be easy for them to be killed or badly hurt. And, there is the fear of going crazy. She talks about her friend, Mary, who convinced a whole group of girls to denounce their madam. Mary has since gone “totally wacko” — a problem, Peace explains, that is not psychological but spiritual, linked directly to the effects of the juju oath.

Peace and Favour are moving on with their lives. Peace attends classes in Italian, sewing and cooking. She sings in her town gospel choir, and helps organise meetings in her church’s community, where she leads discussions about work opportunities and community empowerment.

Favour lives in a safe house in northern Italy. She is also taking Italian classes, and the operators taking care of her are working hard to find her job opportunities so she can be independent one day. Peace says she’s thankful for her experiences. She feels she has grown, and says it’s for this reason that she does not think of herself as a victim (though she admits that she can say this only because she is no longer on the street).

Favour, for her part, calls herself “a very big victim,” but she is looking forward, too.

* Maggie Neil is a writer and researcher based in Italy, focusing on trafficking and migration thanks to a Fulbright research grant. She reported this story with the assistance of The Fuller Project for International Reporting.

I acted as a man to get work – until I was accused of rape

Pili Hussein wanted to make her fortune prospecting for a precious stone that’s said to be a thousand times rarer than diamonds, but since women weren’t allowed down the mines she dressed up as man and fooled her male colleagues for almost a decade.

Pili Hussein grew up in a large family in Tanzania. The daughter of a livestock keeper who had many large farms, Pili’s father had six wives and she was one of 38 children. Although she was well looked after, in many ways, she doesn’t look back on her upbringing fondly.

“My father treated me like a boy and I was given livestock to take care of – I didn’t like that life at all,” she says.

But her marriage was even more unhappy, and at the age of 31 Pili ran away from her abusive husband.

In search of work, she found herself in the small Tanzanian town of Mererani, in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro – the only place in the world where mining for a rare, violet-blue gemstone called tanzanite takes place.

Image captionMaasai herders first discovered tanzanite in 1967 – it’s now one of the world’s best-selling gems but is in limited supply

 

“I didn’t go to school, so I didn’t have many options,” Pili says.

“Women were not allowed in the mining area, so I entered bravely like a man, like a strong person. You take big trousers, you cut them into shorts and you appear like a man. That’s what I did.”

To complete the transformation, she also changed her name.

“I was called Uncle Hussein, I didn’t tell anyone my actual name was Pili. Even today if you come to the camp you ask for me by that name, Uncle Hussein.”

In the tight confines of the hot, dirty tunnels – some of which extend hundreds of metres below the ground – Pili would work 10-12 hours a day, digging and sieving, hoping to uncover gemstones in the veins in the graphite rock.

“I could go 600m under, into the mine. I would do this more bravely than many other men. I was very strong and I was able to deliver what men would expect another man could do.”

Pili says that nobody suspected that she was a woman.

Media captionPili Hussein tells Outlook’s Matthew Bannister how she succeeded in becoming a miner

 

“I acted like a gorilla,” she says, “I could fight, my language was bad, I could carry a big knife like a Maasai [warrior]. Nobody knew I was a woman because everything I was doing I was doing like a man.”

And after about a year, she struck it rich, uncovering two massive clusters of tanzanite stones. With the money that she made she built new homes for her father, mother and twin sister bought herself more tools and began employing miners to work for her.

And her cover was so convincing that it took an extraordinary set of circumstances for her true identity to finally be revealed. A local woman had reported that she’d been raped by some of the miners and Pili was arrested as a suspect.

“When the police came, the men who did the rape said: ‘This is the man who did it,’ and I was taken to the police station,” Pili says.

She had no choice but to reveal her secret.

She asked the police to find a woman to physically examine her, to prove that she couldn’t be responsible, and was soon released. But even after that, her fellow miners found it hard to believe they had been duped for so long.

“They didn’t even believe the police when they said that I was a woman,” she says, “it wasn’t easy for them to accept until 2001 when I got married and I started a family.”

Pili Hussein

Pili

Finding a husband when everyone is accustomed to regarding you as a man is not easy, Pili found, though eventually, she succeeded.

“The question in his mind was always, ‘Is she really a woman?'” she recalls. “It took five years for him to come closer to me.”

Pili has built a successful career and today owns her own mining company with 70 employees. Three of her employees are women, but they work as cooks, not as miners. Pili says that although there are more women in the mining industry than when she started out, even today very few actually work in the mines.

“Some [women] wash the stones, some are brokers, some are cooking,” she says, “but they’re not going down into the mines, it’s not easy to get women to do what I did.”

Pili’s success has enabled her to pay for the education of more than 30 nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. But despite this, she says she wouldn’t encourage her own daughter to follow in her footsteps.

“I’m proud of what I did – it has made me rich, but it was hard for me,” she says.

“I want to make sure that my daughter goes to school, she gets an education and then she is able to run her life in a very different way, far away from what I experienced.”

Culled from Bbc