From humble merry-go-round groups, commercial sex workers in Nairobi now run several restaurants, boutiques and matatu business
As Kenya turns 50, commercial sex work is fast gaining ground. This has led to a high number of secret red-light districts across the country.
The country is now graduating into a “reputable” sex destination in Africa, competing against bigger markets like Brazil and Thailand, according to sex workers interviewed. If regulated, this could be the difference in Kenya’s budget deficit with the potential of Sh100 billion in revenue, they say.
The more reclusive a location the better the remuneration. Sarah Njuguna (not her real name), a retired commercial sex worker, runs several brothels in Mtwapa.
During her days, she would make between Sh18,000 and Sh23,000 a night mostly from white tourists at the Coast. The romps secured her nights in all the plush five-star resorts and a high end status that most of the country’s citizenry envy. She boldly adorns tattoos across her exposed chest, arms, thighs and legs.
She is full of tact, a principle for the trade. She claims to have enjoyed the sex, tastes of different wines, numerous dine offers, and the cruises throughout the pristine coastal areas.
“I don’t regret my lifestyle,” she quips.
An apprentice to sex work at 16, Njuguna explains that her mentor and friend Joan Wairimu (not her real name) succumbed to Aids a while back. Her words change to gasps and soon tears well up in her eyes.
“Wairimu was a cherished pal,” she begins. “She would frequently visit our home in Karatina with goodies and had tales of far-fetched glories in Mombasa. I was enticed to follow suit and make it like she did.”
Oblivious of what was in store for her, she followed Wairimu in an eight-hour journey to Mombasa. The reality soon dawned on her. She had all along seen her friend as a thriving Vitenge saleslady, but ended up in a lavish mansion that housed “human bats” – the sex workers.
She reluctantly stayed there but gradually, her allowance from Wairimu decreased, and she had to fend for herself. She too became nocturnal. Her shopping bag livened up to revealing outfits.
She regaled in the tunes of Wyclef Jean’s ‘Sweetest Girl’. She was the jewel amongst men out for night life. This was at a cost that reveals the ugly face of the job. She was quickly pushing fellow night stalkers out of business and they were unpleased. She would have to undergo tooth surgery to fix two silver incisors after being mobbed by a pack of fellow sex workers.
This served only to strengthen her soul and over the years she has amassed a fortune. A palatial home sits in her parents’ farm in her name. She is currently a real estate magnate, owning her own company. However, she is without a kid, a fate attributed to the countless abortions she had. Her affluence though reminds one of the benefits of commercial sex work.
Wairimu’s story is repeated miles way on Argwings Kodhek in Nairobi’s Hurlingham Area, by Nina Mumbi (not her real name).
She rented an apartment that houses a brothel serviced by foreign girls especially Somalis, Russians, Britons, Americans and Nigerians, some as young as 17 years. The fee is between Sh1,500 and Sh9,500. It has an affinity for high ranking government officials, reputable businessmen, and diplomats including their sons.
Mumbi attributes her costly clientèle to networks, cartels, and the age of the girls. Most of them are lured by the young girls. Mumbi accumulates between Sh55,000 to Sh60,000 after expenses on a weekly basis. She too has narratives of bad ordeals.
For instance, an enraged woman from across the road demands that Mumbi produce her husband. She further reveals that her spouse is a frequent guest at Mumbi’s brothel, has neglected his duties, denied her conjugal rights and does not take care of the family.
Caught in the melee, with guards trying to calm the angry stranger, clients ship out to avoid being nabbed. Eventually, the man walks out, his face dark with guilt. I learn that Mumbi is the “godmother of prostitution” with rings that tie seats of power officials and the police. She has at times had to offer her body and bribes to avoid arrest.
Elsewhere, Latema Road’s Somerset Building depicts a normal business premise. On the ground floor are shops, hotels and liquor stores. Pubs frequented by young people, mostly high school teenagers, line up first, second and third floors. Prostitution here is overt to the discretion of the police and county security officers.
Alibanus is the property manager and collects room service payments and rent on behalf of Liz Ndunge (not her real name) alias “Mama Sweetie.” The charges are as low as Sh150 for sex and Sh150 for the room. In a jungle of Swahili and English, Zippy Ikurunze, a Congolese refugee, explains, “Mama (Ndunge) nachukua pesa ya commission kutoka kwa kila mmoja yetu (I will collect commission from each one of us).”
She further reveals that Mama Sweetie recruits the girls herself to work and provides surveillance for the county askaris.
The business here thrives on cheap services and Alibanusnotes in slang: “Naweza fungua biz yangu kama hii nikiwa na capital budda! (I would start such business if I had the capital).” He further confides that his boss operates several bank accounts under different names.
Some brothels have now gone a step further and offer “instant phone call services” while others deliver services to any clients “door step”.
This comes with an extra cost as it caters for their transportation and nonsexual services like conversation and massage. An interesting and turning twist are the commercial sex workers “chamas” or merry-go-rounds with elected officials.
Members remit their dues at the end of their day – actually in the morning. There are penalties on those who don’t pay. Most of these commercial sex workers are single mothers and some students trying to raise fees.
One Juliana Wangui (not her real name), who supports an ailing husband, narrates how tough it is because the medical expenses are overwhelming. “I am in this because my husband is diabetic and we have got to take care of our two sons who are in high school, and a daughter who will be sitting for her exams in this year’s KCPE,” she says. “If it was not for this chama I don’t know how it would be for me and my family.”
Does her husband know about this? “Yah! He knows but he is too sick, and he needs that money and so are the kids.” Each member of the merry-go-round takes part of the cash on a given month and the rest go into the group’s account.
Members are now exploring new market opportunities. One Violet Akinyi (not her real name), who recently returned from holiday in South Sudan, talks of her new area of operation and the much she banks. “I still remit my returns but then, I do it on monthly basis as it is costly to do it daily.”
She goes ahead to joke amidst laughter. “I can’t wait for Somalia to stabilise in terms of peace. It is the next big market for our services.”
The groups also cater for medical emergencies, borrowing for family member expenditure and personal use. One such group has taken a loan and invested in matatus between Nairobi and Thika.
“With our pulled up resources there was no better way to invest our hard-earned money than to invest in that lucrative business,” says Njoki Gicheru (not her real name), the group’s financial secretary.
Benefits trickle down to their family members and subsequently to the Kenyan economy. This has seen the emergence of small and medium enterprises such as M-Pesa outlets to boutiques run by current commercial sex workers.
Members of the investment groups are beaten mercilessly when they refuse to pay up their loans. Officials say that there are no laws to protect sex workers, which forces them to take the law into their own hands.
The sex workers are hopeful the country will “soon” realise how they oil the cogs of the economy. Last year, they led a demonstrations in Nairobi demanding that the government regulates and taxes them.