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One of the stories in A Fragile Hope, my collection of short stories, is titled ‘London slaves’. It’s a satire, and when I wrote it eight years ago, I had no idea there were real slaves in London.
The recent discovery of three women who have been kept as slaves for 30 years has shocked Britain and reminded us of the extent of modern slavery.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade might have ended in the mid-19th century, but there are 4,000 slaves in the UK today. It’s not quite the same as toiling in a cotton plantation, but enduring abuse in a basement or illegal factory is still horrific.
Many are asking: How is it possible that in this day and age, someone can keep slaves without anyone finding out and doing something about it?
Yet, only a couple of weeks ago, an elderly Asian couple were jailed for keeping a young woman as a sex slave in their basement for years. It seems like every other day, there’s a similar story in the news.
An unsuspecting young woman is brought over from a poor country to promises of a good life, marriage and what have you, only to find herself working under slave-like conditions, or being forced into prostitution.
The scourge of human trafficking, the desperate urge to escape persecution and lack of opportunity, the willingness to trust snakeheads with one’s life, and the vast amounts of money at stake: all these often lead to the sad realisation that the streets of London aren’t paved in gold, any more than they were in Dickens’ day.
But lest we conclude that the victims are always poor Africans and Asians, it is worth noting that in this latest saga, one woman is Irish, the other British, and the third Malaysian. No doubt we will soon know what really transpired.
In the meantime, the country continues to engage in the soul-searching that follows the discovery of horrific crimes.
Everything always seems right, deceptively so. The Ohio bus driver, who imprisoned three women in his house, seemed to neighbours like a regular guy.
Women who have recently been found to have murdered their children in the UK didn’t necessarily look like monsters.
Doctors notice unexplained injuries. Teachers see a hungry child rummaging in the garbage bins for food. You would think, hang on, this is not normal behaviour, maybe something untoward has been happening to this poor child.
Authorities knock on doors, but are fobbed off with flimsy excuses which, shockingly, they accept, and before you know it, another child is found dead.
And everyone is shocked. How could it have happened? Why didn’t someone do something? What about all those records? Is it pure negligence or was someone afraid to probe further in the interest of maintaining a respectful distance?
Everyone is caught up in the rat-race and can’t be seen to be prying. You can always retreat to the surreal world of soap operas like Coronation Street and Eastenders, which nostalgically harken back to a time when everyone knew each other, regularly congregated at the local pub for fine ales and warm banter.
Even though they didn’t always get along, but at least they knew each other and looked out for each other.
The current reality is slightly more nuanced.
Sure, we’ve lively neighbourhoods where people genuinely show good old-fashioned camaraderie. Society in the modern city is not dead, but sometimes you wonder: What could be chipping away at the soul of society?
Prof Kamoche is an academic and author based in the UK. His most recent novel is Black Ghosts. (Ken.Kamoche@nottingham.ac.uk)
– Daily Nation