“Working on the streets is becoming more and more of a risk, these men now they do not want to use condoms, I have lost count of how many of them just in this past month have forced themselves in me without protection, luckily I am now experienced enough to push them off, 6 weeks ago one punched me in the face, trying to hide the mark from my little daughter was impossible. The trouble with the brothel is the huge amount from your fee you have to give to the owner but right now it’s this or begging and I will do anything to ensure my daughter does not grow up in the slums like I did, I’m not doing this job to give her all the riches in the land, it literally is the basics of food and shelter, without this income we will be homeless.” ~ Serena
I call Serena’s number and instead of a hello I hear her giggling away, apparently she has just witnessed three of her fellow sex workers get into a fight over a prospective white client. In the end he was so put off by this that he drove away.
Foreign goods always seem to trump Made in Kenya, like with the MP’s patriotism is forgotten about when it comes to money!”
We begin by talking about the fact that no mainstream Kenyan publication was willing to publish my first interview with her and as expected she has a scathing response to this.
“The media will only ever write about sex workers in two ways, if it’s scandalous or if there is something related to HIV/ AIDS or the impact of our activities on the economy, otherwise they do not care because we are fourth class citizens. Even when a sex worker is murdered or a body found, do you think the police go out of their way to investigate? Will the media ever fight for a sex worker who has been beaten up, raped or killed? Never, the most disgusting thing is most of those in the media, in the police force, and in Government all use our services be it through picking us up on the street, going to brothels or using escort agencies.”
She goes on to tell me that in her 10 years of working in the sex trade she has lost count of the number of her colleagues who have gone missing or been found dead. Yet she can count on one hand the number of these cases that made the national press and just how quickly their names are forgotten
“their case files are left rotting just like their bodies.”
She herself has been forced to give oral sex to a police officer when trying to lodge a complaint, been thrown in prison and then allowed out after 4 officers had their way with her and been touched inappropriately by Doctors, security staff and Government officials when she has approached them for help.
We move on to discussing how business has been over the last few months, she begins to giggle and exclaims,
“The Kenyan sex trade and the sex workers are taking advantage of globalisation. On one hand we a tourist attraction in itself on the other hand many of us are taking advantage of crossing borders into our neighbouring countries, see how entrepreneurial we are?”
Uganda and Tanzania were always accessible markets for sex workers who wanted to broaden their client base, often when things went quiet in Nairobi they would go seek work in these countries. As South Sudan has become more peaceful many Kenyan sex workers are heading in that direction, this is more out of necessity than choice.
“Unemployment and poverty in this Country is like a disease, it is killing us slowly, the Government and NGOs are the doctors and they know that rather than prevent or cure it they will keep just putting medicine on it and make a profit. For this reason many women and men are getting into sex work, competition is becoming fierce and in order to be able to eat we have to look outside of the country and in rural areas.”
The market in Nairobi revolves largely around International tourists and ex-patriots including International NGO workers. The allure of black skin according to Serena is something which attracts many European and American tourists, however many of them are ashamed of this fetish and some of them have been honest enough to tell her that they would never be “caught dead with a black girlfriend.” Therefore picking up a sex worker is their opportunity to live out their fantasy and enjoy their holiday,
“The South African’s and American’s in particular, I am the girl too dark and ugly to take home to their mother but too beautiful and seductive to not take to bed.”
For this reason she believes that sex tourism is one way in which the Kenyan economy would gain a boost, this conversation of course takes us on to the subject of the state of the country.
“This Continent, it’s all about ego’s, the President and Vice President are too busy trying to show how big they are by fighting with the ICC, our opposition leader Raila, is trying to soothe his ego by continuing to claim that the elections were fixed against him. Our neighbours, Museveni of Uganda, over twenty years he sits on the throne as if it’s his father’s house. The men I have slept with, from the poor taxi drivers to the MPs, to the business magnates their self esteem is so low that they make themselves feel strong and powerful by convincing themselves that their real payment to us is giving us pleasure during sex, which they never do. Then their wives and girlfriends to fix their own low sense of worth never blame the men, only us prostitutes.”
Her voice takes on an aggressive tone as she begins to describe the recent failings of those in power.
“This year there have been some major occurrences in the country, the Governor of Nairobi Mr Evans Kidero slapped in public the Nairobi Women’s Representative Rachel Shebesh, where were the clergy, the President, the First Lady to condemn this? These people all preach about ending violence against women, yet when a prominent politician does something like that none of the open their mouth?”
She particularly criticises the array of religious leaders, pastors and spiritual healers in the country, many of whom boast a huge following. In another fit of giggles she says
“The one thing they do to save themselves from hell is probably the thing they will end up in hell for, being self appointed spokespeople for God.”
In a more sombre mood she goes on to the subject of the Westgate terror attacks,
“Do you know we still have no answers on Westgate? No answers just dead bodies. It is exactly the same for the fire at the airport, not even a question on how this country does not have enough fire equipment which means that an airport burning down was dealt with through the use of buckets. What will such a Government do for us? Then they want to reform us sex workers, can you offer us jobs? Can you create a functioning society and economy so that we do not have to be opening our legs to be able to feed ourselves basic food while you dine in hotels?”
Her irritation with the new Government proves to be valid as talks about how rise in the cost of living has led to her spending more time on the street, working with a pimp, on the books of an escort agency and where possible spending time at a well known Nairobi brothel. Her description of her current routine sounds both harrowing and a testament to how committed she is to provide for her daughter and family. She now works through the night, comes home in the morning to see her daughter, then spends her afternoons seeing clients for ‘lunch time rendezvous’ or hoping to be picked up in the busier areas of Nairobi. Then she leaves home again to work through the night.
These days she is working what she calls her ‘Beyonce look’, long blonde hair extensions and ‘bootylicious tight jeans’ A favourite of a client she is seeing this evening, who not only pays her for sex and takes her to the best hotels and resorts in the country, but also shares with her things which secretly go on in Government and in the corporate world along with stories of his marriage;
“Some of us say we should charge extra for providing therapy to these men, most of those that access us through an escort agency want someone to listen to their wife related drama’s.”
After the numerous times of being beaten, raped and subjected to other forms of abuse by clients who picked her up from the street or in a brothel, Serena was relieved to be getting more work through an escort agency. However, due to ageism work from the escort agency has thinned.
In a sickening account she explains how so many men over the age of 50 specifically ask for escorts under the age of twenty one;
“All these big men, with their shiny cars and high standing in society, they want to sleep with the girls that are young enough to be their daughters. I have been in this trade since the age of sixteen, at that time I was working on the streets, they would treat you like a daughter, talking to you in that way before f****** you in the most aggressive way.”
As our conversation ends she asks if I have found a boyfriend since we last spoke, before I can answer she bursts into a fit of giggles,
“Remember, lip gloss, sway your hips and smile, never depend on him for money and if he ever makes you cry, the sign of that first tear, leave. I know, love advice from a Malaya, what a joke!, but in my line of work you are so deprived of respect that you encourage those around you to never stay in any situation where it gets taken away. I know another revelation, this time, tell your readers that yes, us prostitutes do know a thing or two about respect, it’s some of them with their judgements on us who have none for themselves or others.”
As with the end of every phone call we have had, she laughs and hangs up.
Samira Sawlani is a UK based writer specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories set in Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani
- A conversation with a Kenyan Sex worker – Part 1 (mediadiversified.org)
- British Soldiers face questions over Kenyan Prostitute Murder
- Bias against sex workers in health facilities in Kenya
- Kenyan Prostitutes in South Sudan
- Kidero and Shebesh, The Slap heard across the nation
- Kenya: Bias Against Sex Workers holds back HIV/ AIDS Campaign
- Double Standards: Criminalising sex work in Kenya