By Josaya Wasonga
Sex tourism is a monster with many heads, a dragon that cannot be slain in one fell swoop. Tonight is not my night. The clubs are empty. I guess it’s because it’s a Thursday. I’m headed to a local joint that is a favourite amongst Diani residents. My guide, Ali, swears that Beach Road, Ukunda is a tourism hot spot because it’s chock-a-block with lodges, boutiques, cottages, nightspots… you name it – from chic to downright cheap and nasty, all meant to be tourist magnets.
I’m club-hopping, hoping for some action… ladies-of-the-night kind of action, to be precise. I’ve been reliably informed that the evening’s proceedings usually kick off just after 9PM when the disco at this airy venue gets going. Then matters move onto Shakatak, also on Beach Road. We passed it earlier, but it was still quiet. We also passed Tandoori, a makuti-style tavern and another hot spot. It was blaring African music and several scantily clad women were perched on bar stools. Ali confirmed my suspicions that they’re prostitutes, gearing up for their night’s work.
When we arrive, the disco is deserted, save for five or so ladies seated in different places nursing soft drinks and sizing us up as I order a Coke and settle into a worn-out makuti seat. I look out over the windswept beach as the moon peers out from behind a swirl of clouds.
In the Zone
The fact that there are only small numbers of women in this establishment is deceptive. According to a recent survey by Solidarity with Women in Distress (SOLWODI) – a nongovernmental organisation that supports commercial sex workers and girls who are at risk, in the coastal towns of Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Malindi – there are an estimated 4161 sex workers in Msambweni district, which is where Ukunda is located; 5.9% of females of child-bearing age (15-49 years of age).
SOLWODI has broken down the area into four zones: Zone 1 stretches from Tiwi Bridge to Corner ya Beach, upper side, and their attention is focussed on a place called Meat Zone. Zone 2 stretches from Tiwi Bridge to Corner ya Beach, lower side, and the places on this stretch are African Pot and Ushagoo. Zone 3 stretches from Beach Corner to Mvindeni, upper side, and here the ones on their radar are Masai, Starehe and Juhudi. Zone 4 stretches from Beach Corner to Mvindeni, lower side, where establishments such as Tandoori, Shakatak, Manyatta, Kings Club, Willow, Rongai Weekend Pavilion and Famous are to be found.
The Digo are the original inhabitants of this area, but successive migrant communities and locals – people who have come to work in the hospitality industry and sex workers from upcountry among them – have turned this once sleepy town on the road to the Lunga Lunga border post, into a bustling pit stop for buyers and sellers of everything from flesh, to fresh ocean air.
Stepping into the Gap
Martha Samuel, a 34-year-old mother of two, who now works as a volunteer with SOLWODI, turned to commercial sex work after jobs in the hotel industry evaporated as tourism was one of the hardest-hit industries in the wake of the violence that followed the general election of 2007. Originally from Nairobi, Martha used to be a waitress.
“One night, some guys from Impact, a non-governmental organisation, were trawling the pubs, looking for ladies to help. That was a turning point for me. They took us to seminars and provided us with training. I’m now trying to do the same for other women.”
Gabriel Mukhwana, another volunteer at the Diani location, says that they are inundated. Sex tourism is a monster with many heads, a dragon that cannot be slain in one fell swoop.
Issues such as human trafficking and forced marriages at a very early age (espoused by many locals) often thrust desperate victims into sex tourism.
“Around here, when a child gets pregnant, the first thing the parents want is for her to get married. Sometimes she doesn’t even get married to the person who impregnated her, but instead to an older man. Desperation soon sets in and next thing you know the girl finds herself in the red-light district,” Gabriel explains.
Gabriel says when people notice children in their neighbourhood bringing home desirable items, usually purchased with proceeds from sex work, they start pushing their children to be like ‘so-and-so’, urging them to get what is euphemistically called a “sponsor”.
When confronted by situations where parents are the enablers, Martha and her colleagues are on thin ice. It’s not unusual for them to incur the wrath of these parents who think the volunteers are only out to slaughter their cash cows. As such there is a great deal of resistance to ending what has become a blight on Kenya’s once peaceful coast.
The trade ebbs and flows with the seasons. News spreads through the grapevine when large numbers of tourists arrive, and then so do the sex workers. For example, when a ship docks in the port of Mombasa, with a cargo of big-spending and fun-loving US Marines, sex workers – male and female -flood the town in the hope of getting their hands on some coveted greenbacks.
Then there are the cottages, which are the bane of volunteers such as Martha and Gabriel. Behind their steel gates and perimeter fences where the volunteers can’t enter as they can in hotels and pubs, sex tourism takes on different shapes, sometimes including pornography, sadomasochism, child abuse and even fatalities.
Gabriel feels very strongly about the fact that some parents go with their kids into clubs to fish for clients, some of these youngsters aged only 15. He also tells me of a local guy who regularly wife-swaps with a tourist; they trust each other so much that when this couple visits, the local couple are the only people they do “business” with.
Martha tells me another story. “Recently, there was a tourist who was all over a guy from this area. He wears studs in both ears and we all know that he’s a male sex worker. He was dragging the local man to a car, saying that he’d spent a lot of money on him and it was time to pay up. The scene is changing. If a female sex worker is waiting for a client, and a male sex worker sits beside her, also waiting for a client, believe it or not, but the guy will probably beat her to it; male sex workers are in high demand.”
Drug abuse has also fuelled sex tourism, because it’s an easy way to get money for a fix. Victims are too out of it to take note of the vicious cycle in which they find themselves.
A request to interview the SOLWODI field co-ordinator in Malindi, Agnetta Gitau, meets with red tape. It’s my last day in Malindi and there isn’t much time. However, in her office behind Co-operative Bank, she tells me that I have to write a letter, which she must forward to her boss to give her the go-ahead to talk to me.
I email the letter from my phone. Then I send her two SMSs and call back twice, trying to hurry her along. Time is running out. But then Lady Luck smiles on me. I strike up a conversation with a man selling cold drinks. While we’re talking, a young local man passes by, holding the hand of an older white woman. We start talking about sex tourism.
The vendor tells me how the industry has turned Malindi’s fortunes around, and how some locals have also seen their fortunes change.
“Some of the beach boys have flings with older white women. Then they live on easy street. But they forget who’s holding the purse strings. I know of guys who have, plastered like hell, gone to the homes where they’d been living with their catch and started beating their white lovers and ordering them around. These sods only sober up after they get thrown out, and have to return to their old lives.”
Sex tourism has also brought in smarter players, mainly from the mainland, who mean business. One such person, the vendor tells me, is a very rich man who owns businesses in Malindi. He came from the mainland with his wife and two children. They had nothing, but then a tourist fell for his wife and the married couple agreed that she’d tell the tourist she was actually her husband’s sister, not his wife. The charade has been going on for years.
Over the past five centuries, Malindi has been betrothed to Chinese, Portuguese and Arab suitors, who’ve all come and gone, leaving only a few mementoes strewn around this idyllic place. The Italians are the latest in this long line of suitors.
The morning after I arrive back in Nairobi from Malindi, I finally get a text message from Agnetta. In a very long-winded way she tells me the interview can’t happen. Well, it’s too late anyway.
Talk of the Town
I take a matatu from the Likoni ferry to the north coast. A couple waves down our vehicle, sending tongues wagging.
“These are the people who are ruining our girls,” says a woman in the seat behind me.
Her companion concurs. We watch as the couple try to cross the busy road. They’re struggling because the man, who is white with thinning hair, is old enough to be the young black girl’s grandfather. She holds him up, steadying him; her face a mask. He walks unsteadily towards us and an uneasy silence falls on the matatu as they clamber in.
“Willing chick, willing chap,” the driver whispers while adjusting his rear-view mirror to get a better look at his new passengers.
Same Script, Different Cast
Dorothie Ogutu was orphaned at 13. She came to Mombasa in search of a better life, but ended up turning tricks in the red-light district when she was only 15 years old. That was 10 years ago, and she has now turned the corner in her life, but many others are not this lucky.
Nowadays, Dorothie is the Country Coordinator of African Sex Worker Alliance (ASWA), a project of the sex workers education and advocacy taskforce (SWEAT), based in Cape Town, South Africa. The initiative is being implemented in Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria and Malawi, although the latter two are not yet fully operational.
Dorothie’s core functions are building around human rights, giving a voice and a face to the sex workers’ many concerns, and training sex workers as paralegals. There’s a lot of unreported violence directed at sex workers and even when these violations are reported, they are rarely handled as serious offences and given the due consideration they deserve.
Membership of ASWA is open to all and they count people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities among their members.
Why Do It?
“Sex work is work,” Dorothie says, breaking it down for my benefit into outdoors, indoors, brothels and home-based sex work (where a moneyed sex worker drives to a rendezvous in her own car to meet a client). “And it’s becoming more and more common because these girls get rich and now they’re taking it to the next level.” But don’t think the industry is limited to tourists.
In a mnazi (coconut brew) den, the moonshine seller may have sex to boost her income. The business happens even in broad daylight and in public places. At a cafe in a popular area in Nyali where we’re chatting, around noon, Dorothie tells me that the place is also a sex tourism haunt, but that it’s mostly just the locals and local Wazungu who know this.
When a woman orders a Fanta Orange soft drink, it’s a code that she’s open to a proposition; she’s fishing for clients.
“I used to work in a cafe, but to make ends meet, I was also a sex worker. Women do it for different reasons – some do it for the money and then there are others who just enjoy having sex,” Dorothy concludes.
From Nothing to Something
Dorothie tells me that in the 1990s, Mtwapa, about 15km from Mombasa on the Mombasa-Malindi highway, used to be just another nondescript coastal town. However, today it has over 400 bars, pubs and lodges and it’s still growing… all this brought about, in large part, by the sex industry.
“There are tourists who can’t point at Kenya on the map of Africa, but they know where Mtwapa is. They arrive here and they just want to go to Mtwapa. People call it Sodom and Gomorrah, because it’s not unusual to see girls, barely in their teens, hanging on the arms of 50-year-old men.”
The town also attracts local tourists, such as university students from Nairobi. Some of them come to sample what the place has to offer, and there are even some who come to moonlight as sex workers. Dorothie says, “Some of the local communities have what I call Mzungu (white person) Syndrome. A Mzungu has money and will solve all their problems – that’s what they believe. Plus, some parents who work in hotels befriend tourists and bring them to their homes, in essence entrapping them. Some people around here are also lazy… not all of them, just some… and sex work is an easy way out.”
Club Casablanca, Dorothie told me, was the place to be if I wanted to cop a feel for the action. And it’s non-stop action at Club Casablanca as the place is situated on Mnazi Road, off Moi Avenue. Even on Thursdays! It’s a 24-hour entertainment spot, much like Nairobi’s Modern Green. Dorothie was right. Casablanca is…
I haven’t even taken it all in when I see her. A girl from my own neighbourhood. She’s bleached her skin, has a crazy Mohawk hairstyle, is standing tall in gladiator heels, rocking denim hot pants and a halter that weals a bellybutton ring, and she has on extra-large silver hoop earrings… but it’s definitely her. I remember her name. Our eyes meet. Twice. The second time we exchange a knowing look. Then she drags her companion – a lanky white guy in a T-shirt and cargo pants who’s clutching a Tusker like his liver depends on it – through a pyrotechnic display of strobe lights and smoke where grinding human bodies are grooving to the techno rhythms.
A Humphrey Bogart quote from the movie Casablanca, after which this club was named, echoes through my mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this girl that I’ve just spotted is thinking the exact same thing!
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) – www.africansexworkeralliance.org
SOLWODI – www. solwodi.de
“I can’t really remember my first client. I remember going on a double date with my sister. It was very awkward to have someone I didn’t know putting their hands all over me. It’s like taking mud and putting it on a white shirt! Eventually, after having a couple of clients though, I got used to it. I learned that I had to play nice even when I was not in the mood. It wasn’t about sexual pleasure; it was about food and money at the end of the day.”
Joyce* Source: African Sex Worker Alliance
“This is not a good life,” says Annie, “sometimes the men treat me badly. Sometimes they refuse to pay me and chase me away. Sometimes they do terrible things to me which I can’t even describe. The most horrible ones are the bouncers, who demand that I have sex with them before they allow me into the club where I could meet the tourists.”
Source: UNICEF, Author, Pamella Sittoni.
“What is most frustrating about this job is that one cannot plan ahead. It is such a de-humanizing job, yet the money we make is not enough to take care of our needs, let alone have some left over to send home.”
Fatma* Source: Daily Nation, “Poverty Leading to Prostitution”, 1999, Author, Njoki Karuoya.
Another UNICEF (and Kenyan Government) report found that:
- A least 15,000 girls in four districts on the Kenyan coast – Mombasa, Kilifi, Malindi and Kwale – were engaged in casual sex-for-cash.
- “These girls, aged 12 to 18 years, make up 30% of the total population of girls from these districts in this age range,” UNICEF said “A further two to three thousand girls and boys are involved in full-time sex for cash. Some of them are paid to perform the most horrific and abnormal acts.”
- At least 45% of the girls in the survey began selling sex for cash, goods or favours at only 12 or 13 years of age.
- More than 10% of girls involved in prostitution began transactional sex when they were younger than 12.
- According to the report, while many children are driven into transactional sex because of poverty, the high level of acceptance of child sex work in a significant group linked with tourism and beach commerce makes it relatively easy for children to drift into casual sex in exchange for no more than extra pocket money.
According to a UNICEF report (2006), indigenous Kenyans represent about 40% of the clients in sex tourism.
The same report says that only 35% of girls use a condom – the client may pay them up to five times as much to have sex without one.
Female sex workers, their clients and the sexual partners of clients made up 14% of new HIV infections in Kenya in the same year. (UNAIDS/WHO 2009)
A study of male sex workers in Mombasa, Kenya found that less than 50% of male sex workers surveyed consistently used condoms with their male clients. (Geibel, Scott/ Horizons/ Population Council 2008)
The mean age at the start of sex work is 21.8 years. (USAID/FHI 2002)
The mean weekly income from sex work was 1472 Kenyan shillings. (USAID/FHI 2002)
41% of women indicated that they had turned down a client when he refused to use a condom. (USAID/FHI 2002)