Malaba sex workers 'deprived' of clients by Kenya-Uganda project

Say since the launch of the One-Stop Border Point, truck drivers don't need to stop at Malaba Kenya, 'most dock on Ugandan side'

In Summary

• Presidents Uhuru's and Museveni's One-Stop Border Point blamed for declining business for sex workers and others at the border towns. 

• Workers under umbrella 'Busia Survivors' want the government to legalise commercial sex trade to 'allow them to educate their children'. 

Long distance trucks line up along the Amagoro-Malaba Highway as they wait to cross the border to Uganda
'HARD TIMES': Long distance trucks line up along the Amagoro-Malaba Highway as they wait to cross the border to Uganda

Sylvia Mwania (not real name), 23, pensively sits at the veranda of her ram-shackled single room in the border town of Malaba.

It’s 10am and she is pondering how she will pay her landlord Sh500 he regularly picks from the light-skinned sex worker and her seven colleagues who operate in Malaba. 

Business for her has for the last two years been shrinking due to harsh economic times and she is considering shifting base, possibly to Uganda, as she runs out of survival options on the Kenyan side of the border.

Mwania, who arrived in Malaba courtesy of a female friend who had promised her a hotel job, easily opened-up when the Star approached her for an interview.

She recounted the tribulations the workers undergo in their daily schedules that involve luring clients to their rooms for sex after which they are paid anything between Sh100 and Sh500 depending on individual customer capability.

She said before she joined the sex trade, she used to see her friend with a lot of money "whenever she visited us in the village".

“She would buy expensive clothes and had a good phone, and I would inquisitively ask where she acquired the money she used for buying the items."

It’s then that Mwania agreed to accompany her friend to her ‘workplace’. That was back in 2017. They arrived in Malaba late at night from Kajiado where she lived. 

All along the over 400-kilometre journey, her associate called people Mwania later learned were her clients. 

It never rang in her mind what lay ahead until she arrived at her friend’s room that night.

Minutes after arrival, two men joined them. Mwania recalls words her friend said that she says remain glued in her mind, "Never worry, you will wake up with money tomorrow morning.”

That was the night Mwania first had sexual intercourse in exchange for money. She presently does her 'job' in her own cubical in the same building. 

Project's downside

Mwania is among the hundreds of sex workers operating in Malaba town complaining of hard economic times.

She said the first year of her operation was smooth as business boomed in the border town until last year when President Uhuru Kenyatta and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni officially launched the One-Stop Border Post in Busia; an investment aimed at easing the movement of goods and manpower across Kenyan borders.

The OSBP arrangement combines the traditional two-stop border posts into one and also consolidates other border control functions in one shared space.

With its implementation, trucks ferrying goods from the Port of Mombasa, once cleared at the Coastal town, do not necessarily have to stop for clearance at either Malaba or Busia while crossing into Uganda.

OSBP was created to cut the transportation time by saving up to a third of the time previously taken to ferry goods.

The development, Mwania said, has scaled down their business as trucks crossing into Uganda and destined for Kampala, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan park in Malaba on the Ugandan side. 

Malaba Kenya has no functional parking bay for heavy commercial vehicles. “Most of our clients are truck drivers and they spend time in Malaba, Uganda,” she said.

The absence of the drivers, who are among their top customers, has directly negatively affected their business, she told the Star.

Most of her colleagues, she said, cross into Uganda in the evenings “to catch up with life there”. With only a few truck drivers taking time to have fun in Malaba Kenya, most of her coworkers have found comfort in Uganda. 

She also said some sex workers have been forced to relocate to towns in Eastern Uganda such as Mbale, Tororo and Jinja as hard economic times continue to bite.

Not the only business affected

Operators of guest houses in Malaba openly expressed dissatisfaction with the way business was dwindling for them.

Gladys Nakakande, a Ugandan working as a front desk operator at a guest house along Omudeck Road, said business had drastically declined.

“Things have really changed since the introduction of the One-Stop Border Post last year as very few people make a stopover at the border to relax and rejuvenate a little before proceeding with the journey to other parts of East and Central Africa,” she said. 

"I receive less than five clients a day. The rate of my stock turnover is poor because the business is dying. Managing water, electricity bills which are very key amenities in this business at the moment is problematic. In fact, we are contemplating closing down and maybe going back to the village and do millet and cassava farming.”

Her business is heavily reliant on sex workers whose customers spend time at the guest houses. Any strain in the sex trade in Malaba directly spells difficult times for her.

She said kiosks that had been erected by locals who supplied fresh vegetables to the lodges have closed shop due to dwindling numbers of clients.

A spot check done by the Star showed that most fast-food joints built near guest houses at Malaba’s backstreets have shut down as guestrooms struggle to survive.

The same goes for Stephen Imaidoi who used to rent out his ten rooms to long-distance truckers every night.

“There has been a serious drop in business. My beer stock has remained intact for a long time,” he said.

“My guest house rooms are ever empty, no clients at all. Previously, I used to receive more than 20 visitors. Besides staying in rooms, they would drink and order food. If things continue this way, I may close down. I am also unable to pay my workers.” 

Commercial sex work is rife at the Kenya-Uganda border and last year, the twilight girls based in neighbouring Busia town complained low business following the introduction of the OSBP in February.

Most of the clearing and forwarding agents who work alongside long-distance truck operators have been left jobless. 

The agents appealed to the government to review customs regulations so that they don’t lose jobs because of the border-point.

The sex workers under their association Busia Survivors said most of their clients have shifted because the Ugandan government has 'business-friendly policies'. 

Their programmes manager Carolyne Kemunto appealed to Presidents Kenyatta and Museveni to support business along the border for the economy of both Busia and Malaba to flourish.

This, they argued, has denied Kenyans the opportunity to grow economically. They also want commercial sex work legalised, arguing that it will give them an opportunity to earn money and educate their children since most of them are single mothers. 

'Not all sex workers have HIV' 

Official data shows that Busia county has approximately 3,000 commercial sex workers.  

Busia and Malaba towns, according to the 2017-22 Busia County Integrated Development Plan, recorded the most cases of prostitution in the county due to the presence of truck drivers. 

The county’s HIV/Aids prevalence stood at seven per cent as at 2013 but the latest data from the National Aids and STI Control Programme estimates it at 6.7 per cent, indicating a 0.3 per cent drop.

The fall was attributed to a combination of strategies which also involved increased HIV testing. Mwania said not all prostitutes, as perceived by the public, are HIV positive.

Busia’s subcounties with the highest HIV/Aids prevalence are Budalang’i (8.2 per cent), Matayos (8.0 per cent) and Butula (7.7 per cent).

Edited by R.Wamochie