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February 23, 2019

Inside the world of sex work

It is illegal in Kenya, yes. In what could be regarded as a devolution of services from the central business district, Vivian and Shiko are in the business of their own. The two have poured onto the streets as sex workers in the City of Nairobi to ply their trade, which they also do on phone.

The two women have been in the business for years now,  and they have come out to speak about the struggles they go through to make their ends meet.

While most of us would rebuke what they do, they narrate their story beginning from why they opted for the job.

“Commercial sex work is work like any other job because when you have kids, and you have house rent to take care of, there is no way you can just sit and expect money to come by your door,” Vivian said.

She narrated her journey and how she settled into being a sex worker.

“I lived in Nairobi for two years looking for employment but to no avail. I sold muguka (miraa) and even worked as a bar maid. Working as a bar maid is what really triggered me into doing sex work because I used to work at night and sometimes, I would go home without even a coin to buy food. Nikaona it’s like my boss was taking me for granted. I started getting clients from the place, which to some extent was feeding me, and that is how I realised it was not a bad job. That is how I started sex work,” Vivan said.

“Right now, I can afford to pay house rent worth Sh20,000 and even educate my kid as a single mum.”

The duo believe that for one to be employed in Kenya, you need to have a godfather, which they did not have, despite efforts to look for a better and decent job. 

They opted to have their own business that does not require any ‘capital’ other than your body, but “lazima pia ukue umejitambua by carrying your condoms for protection”.

There is a difference between sex work and commercial sex work, and they (Shiko and Vivian) explained it.

“We are now commercial sex workers but we started it very low because for one to get to where we are, you have to go through so much. Harassment by city council, sometimes the clients deny you your money and even at times you are beaten up.”

So how do they get their clients?

“When you are in the street, you become a random sex worker, who can be picked by anyone. But you have your regular clients who call you to their homes or any place, so long as it is fit for them,” Shiko said.

“You also have your boyfriend so you will be forced to go in a different junction away from where you live.

“My boyfriend knows that I am a sex worker. We have been together for six years now and he is okay with my work. Si hii ni kazi kama zile zingine?” 

However, Vivian does it in secret because her boyfriend is taking care of his kid after his baby daddy abandoned her child.

“He knows I am working but as a bar hostess,” she said, adding that if her boyfriend knows what she does, he would not be happy. 

“I am sure he will cut all the support he has been giving me, so I do it under his knowledge. But even without him, I can still manage to take care of my child.”

What are the problems of being a sex worker? Vivian said:

“Just like any other job, ours too has challenges. Sometimes you fall sick, with the common diseases being sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And when you go to public hospitals, the nurses want to expose you to the other nurses to come see you. In your hood, you are not respected once people know your are a prostitute. 

“In school, your child will be humiliated by other children and even the teachers. Another place you face humiliation is in the church, where the pastor will major their topic on you.

“Apart from that, there is harassment with your clients. Sometimes they do not want to pay you. The Kanjos, too, harass you a lot.”

They say their family members also know the kind of jobs they do in Nairobi.

Shiko said: “Part of my family knows what I do because there is an organisation called Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme that deals with helping the adolescent girls and women who usually have sex with multiple partners like us here. 

“In that organisation is where we go for HIV testing, and if found negative, they give you PEP to protect you from getting HIV infection, ARVs if you are already infected and even counseling sessions. This organisation really helps us because sometimes it is really hard for us sex workers to the extent we feel like committing suicide. We like it because there is more privacy with our work.”

How much do they earn?

Vivian said, “For me, this job has money, and even the Bible tell us to use what we have. Per day I get to earn myself about Sh5,000 or even more. I think I am so much better than that person who just stays in the house physically fit but does not want to work. I save a lot.”

Shiko, on the other hand, says:

“In my bad days I get like Sh10,000, because it all depends on where you are located.”

Would they ever get enough of that and stop being sex work and start their own business?

Vivian said; “I can’t stop being a sex worker but I can open a business, and give it to someone to run it. Job ishikishe mahali pengine but mimi niendelee na hii yangu. Like I be the boss of my job. When it’s down and when it’s booming, I will be okay.”

Shiko said: “I have so many jobs running but I can’t honestly. I can’t leave the job unless when time will tell. But for now, I am not leaving it.”

How do they still manage to be sex workers in Kenya, yet it’s illegal?

“Yes, it is illegal, but we are fighting so much for it to be legalised because there are many people who are jobless in Kenya and they need to feed their children. We are not ready to get married. If it is not business, I am not ready to have you as a man.”

If you thought that it is only women who are in the business, meet Mama G, as he calls himself, a male sex worker and a gay.

The name was given by his friends because of the work he has been in for the longest time now, and he has come out to speak about his homosexual life as well as being a sex worker.

He says men are shy from revealing to the world that they are sex workers.

Well, he was the first Kenyan to speak for them and to advocate gays rights.

So how did he find himself in this job as a male sex worker?

“Like any other job, sex work is also work. As Mama G, who earns a living from sex work, I take it seriously, and despite people giving me other options, which I don’t take because I appreciate my work so much and therefore I searched for it, kazi hutafutwa haikutafuti. For the past eight years, I have been a sex worker and getting my earning from that. A good earning, indeed.

How is it as a man?

“The job pays a lot. We can’t just go on the street and parade there like the women do and say that we are sex workers. So what we do, we use social media to reach our clients.

“We have gay sites where we meet our gay clients and we also have gay clubs.”

When did he discover that he was gay?

“It is hard for one to just reveal yourself that you are gay. I used to be attracted to fellow men, though I hid it because of my background as an African, more so a Kenyan.

“I did that but it reached a time that I could no longer hide. I am a sex worker and happily married with my man in the house.”

Let’s talk about his family and whether they know about him being a gay and a sex worker.

“I have not told them about it but I think they know because it is on social media and I have done some interviews on local TVs here in Kenya and they saw me then. The fact that I am their breadwinner, I think that is why they cannot ask me about it.

Before him, few men have come out to speak about their unorthodox orientation. Mama G said most of them fear being killed or even discriminated against.

“Being a male sex worker in Kenya and Africa is challenging because there is discrimination from the society, and you may end up even being stoned or even killed,” he said.

“So we hide so that we are not discriminated against. Some say it is a taboo but the truth is, sex work and homosexuality is real, and it is not a foreign thing like many people may think. Myself I have not travelled out the country and I’m gay.”

How has his life been affected?

“This job has really affected me. For instance, going to church becomes a problem because you cannot be allowed in or even be allowed to associate with churchgoers. People discriminate against you and they do not want to be associated with you. They think it is a disease like Ebola or any airborne disease, and they do not even want to shake your hand.

“I was brought up from a humble background, where I used to go to church, but being that I wanted to live my life, I became an outcast to the society.

“I have since made new friends, because those I had in school left me because they knew I was gay even in high school because I was suspended several times.”

He hopes to have kids in future, but he says he cannot change his work because he is comfortable with it.

However, he does not wish his profession on others. “I do not advise young people to join sex work,” he said.

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