Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in the International Drug Trade

Image of Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in the International Drug Trade
Release Date: 
December 2, 2010
Seal Press
Reviewed by: 

The news is full of horrific stories about Mexico’s war with the drug cartels and the traffickers’ internecine rivalries that have resulted in thousands of deaths.

The U.S. continues to struggle in Afghanistan with a stubborn insurgency and the thriving opium poppy industry that finances it (ironically, supplying heroin to American markets). Some reports have emerged about the drug trade’s influence in West African governments and militaries.

But the story that has been untold is the way that women are deeply involved in the global narcotics trade, especially in Africa, and becoming involved in growing numbers. Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in the International Drug Trade tells the fascinating and heartbreaking story of the underground world where women are important participants in the business, and not just as couriers or “mules” with swallowed packets of product.

It is primarily the story of two African women, both in prison, who lost everything in the trade: Mary, a Liberian drug courier with a college education; and Pauline, an Ugandan wife, mother and greatly feared cartel boss. The tale of their different paths to ruin is told by a gifted storyteller, whose own personal story is a third strand in this intricately woven book that reads at times like a heart-thumping thriller, at times like a wise analysis in an upscale journal, and at times like a poignant memoir. Ms. Angel-Ajani’s ability to combine and transcend these genres makes this a uniquely eloquent read.

Ms. Angel-Ajani brings a deeply personal perspective to the work—she is the daughter of a drug trafficking father and an accomplice mother. She understands prison life and the effect of crime on families. Besides this, she brings the empathy and insight of a literary novelist in developing her “characters,” while verifying all stories like a good journalist should.

An academic with a Ph.D. in anthropology and a trained expert on women and organized crime, Ms. Angel-Ajani spent many years interviewing Mary, Pauline, and 40 other women from all over Africa imprisoned in Italy’s notorious Ribibbia Prison; she had remarkable access. She reconstructs her interviews and observations in the same artful way that Truman Capote accomplished in his “nonfiction novel” that dealt with crime and prisons, In Cold Blood.

Like a rich literary novel, Strange Trade presents intimate, intricate portraits of characters who are deeply motivated in their own individual ways to risk everything in this dangerous world. They survive civil wars, endure poverty, mourn over lost families, arrange drug shipments, and even kill.

The dialogue is cinematic but never melodramatic. And like the equally fine work of investigative reportage (or anthropological study) that it is, it tells the story in a way that never panders or condescends, never judges or, on the other hand, idealizes.

Still, the aspect of the book that felt most compelling was the developing story of the storyteller herself. Narrative nonfiction is an act of self-disclosure and self-discovery, and along the way Ms. Angel-Ajani is forced to face her own personal history and come to terms with how that history defined who she is. This is always the surprise and possible danger in writing autobiographically: that in the process, the writer-self interrogates the true self, peeling away all the fictions we have told ourselves for years and getting at our own deepest motives. Maybe it’s why we read them. When we read about another person’s inner journey, we embark vicariously on our own, and seeing the world through another’s eyes for a while—whether it be the drug trafficking women’s or the author’s—we see ourselves anew through our own.