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Sometimes I think back to when I was Innocent – literally. My name was Innocent Uwaifo. I was born to a single mother who loved me in ways that I probably cannot begin to describe. Sometimes when I feel unseen and unloved, I think back to the cherished memories of my mother and I feel safe. She gave me everything I needed and more. For that, I’ll always be grateful. When I was 5 years old, she met this man who put on a big show about loving her and yet somehow, could not bring himself to love me. My mother threw him out the moment he laid his hands on me. When I was 6, she took shifts from her stall in the market to knock on doors in wealthy neighbourhoods, asking if they needed any help whatsoever. I only found out that she was doing that to buy me a new pair of shoes for school. She would give free foodstuff to female Corpers to take me after-school lessons and guide me through my homework. When I was 9, she asked me what I wanted for my 10th birthday and I told her that I wanted to travel. I knew she tried her best to see how I’d be able to visit Lagos but it just did not happen and I could tell that she was extremely disappointed. I could see that she still had plans to ensure that I travelled. That was my mother; a go-getter.

She finally had her wish fulfilled in the year when I turned 12. She had been ill and I could tell that this was not one of those sicknesses that would go away with rest. Her soul was tired. She was wheezing and sometimes, coughing out black substances. She was really sick. I was so worried about her and even volunteered to drop out of school to take care of her but I remember her saying, “I’ll always be here when you come back. You can come and take care of me after your classes.” So every day, I would race home once the bell rang.

On this fateful day, I got home and saw another person’s pair of slippers at the door of our house. My heart skipped a beat because I thought my mother was dead. As soon as I burst into our one-room, I saw my mother and a young man and became even more confused. I had never seen him in all my life.

“Innocent. Welcome. How was school?” she said

“Fine mama. Good afternoon sir” I said, looking at the man. Something about him made my skin crawl.

“Innocent, this is uncle Godspeed. He is your father’s younger brother”

That information was too much for me. My mother never spoke about my father. But now, here was his younger brother?

“Okay ma” I whispered.

“Remember when you were just about turning  10 years old and I asked you about what you wanted for your birthday? You said you wanted to travel?”

“Yes mama” I replied, unsure.

“I knew that not only I heard you, God heard you too.” Mama paused and smiled. “That is why he brought Uncle GodSpeed here”

“Okay mama”

“Your uncle is a good man. He has always been. Even in my spirit, I can feel it. So he will take you with him to Lagos and then later, you will be able to go to America to school.”

I cannot describe the flood of emotions I felt at that news. I was confused, happy, worried, ecstatic, unsure, scared…

This was the cue for Uncle GodSpeed (or as he is now called, ‘Speedo’). He said, “My angel, this is what I do. I take promising young girls from places like this that don’t give hope, and I give them hope. I had a dream and in that dream, someone in white told me to stand up now now and go to Benin city and take my niece; to give her hope.” He brought out a brown face towel and wiped his face. “I believe this was God. Or maybe a messenger from God. His face has shined on you, my dear. Praise God!”

The next 2 days went by in a blur. I did not have much to pack but I had a lot of tears to cry for mama. I begged her to come with us but she said she couldn’t. She said, ‘Don’t worry, when you visit with your American Dollars, I will be here”

I heard that mama died 10 days after I left. But I did not find out until 5 years later. And now 10 years later, I don’t even know if I am still my mama’s daughter.

“Hi. My name is Candy Benedict. I have just 20 minutes left on my shift tonight but if you know what you’re doing, you can make it count.” I say to an ogling passerby in my tight neon dress on the cold streets of Catania, Italy. The last time I went to school was that day 10 years ago when I ran home and saw a different pair of slippers at my door. Speedo is obviously not the person my mother thought him to be. I have travelled indeed; travelled through cities and towns; travelled through the rough hands and unprotected bodies of men old enough to be my father.

I am no longer innocent. I am candy.

Today, as we remember the millions of girls and children trafficked around the world and in particular, our nation Nigeria, we implore:

  1. The Nigerian government to double its efforts in protecting these vulnerable groups.
  2. Schools and the Ministry of Education to include the topic of modern slavery in the curriculum in order to further enlighten children on what to look out for.
  3. You to educate and enlighten parents and families on the realities and dangers of human trafficking.

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