Tuesday, 15th January 2019

In Nairobi’s blistering afternoon heat, a tabby cat lies lazily on a ventilation system, oblivious to its surroundings. In the adjacent building, Club Sabina Joy is open for business, it’s almost as dark as it would be at night, like it’s an ingredient to what’s being prepared. Red neon lights advertising beer brands as chairs are pulled up, , cigarette smoke clouds the air, hands clapping as greetings are exchanged, the ‘tsssst’ as beers are opened, and away from prying eyes, even though you can’t hear it, there’s the sound of the tear of condom sachets.

Franco’s ‘Non’ plays softly in the background, and my eyes wander from the repeat broadcast of the Manchester City vs Wolverhampton Wanderers game on the screen, to the patrons. It’s slightly past 2 p.m, and while the club isn’t filled, it isn’t empty either. People are engaged in what looks like normal conversations, as young girls in tight fitting dresses move around the spacious lounge, and with them, multiple eyeballs from men, most of who’ve come here to buy sex. There’s rooms at the back where for Kes 500, and with the agreed fee with your girl, you can handle your business for a short while before the door is banged by another who has business to attend to.

Sabina Joy’s entrance faces the bus stop serving the areas adjacent to Kenya’s largest airport, JKIA. The foot traffic outside the establishment is heavy, which means patrons of the establishment have a lot of judgmental eyes on their backs as they take the stairs. Across all major religions, Kenya is a largely conservative country. A lot of practices that are accepted in liberal countries are frowned upon here; homosexuality, sex work, atheism/agnosticism, actually, anything that goes against religious holy books.

On the table next to me, a well-dressed man; pressed shirt, clean shave, expensive phone, is joined by an equally smartly dressed woman. After a few minutes of conversation, she rises and is replaced by a stockier, seemingly older woman who must have bathed in her perfume. After a few minutes, they disappear from sight only to emerge about ten minutes later, the man looking winded and the lady like she only had an extended visit to the bathroom, not a hair out of place.

The man orders a drink, and I lean back, do the mandatory fist bump, tell him it’s my first time here and ask him how much it would set me back to have a good time. He looks at me like I just grew horns, and tells me it costs anything from five hundred to three thousand, depending on my bargaining skills, and how pretty and young she is. He has a wedding band on his finger, and he catches me looking at it. He shrugs, dismisses my quizzical look and I figure he needed to do what needed to be done. This is largely in line with an unspoken modus operandi in Nairobi; anything can be taken care of if you have the right amount, criminal records, feuds, court rulings, investigations and here in Sabina Joy, those pesky sexual urges.

Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist and creator of ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’, categorized sex in the physiological needs category, alongside food and breathing, although he lists sex solely from an individualistic perspective. With most people not having attained self actualization, sex is a master not a servant. While for those to whom sex is a servant, it is only a want that is attended to at their convenience, to those whom sex is a master, it dictates your life just like any need would. Sex, even when not bought, is expensive. There’s the planning, the execution and if things go wrong, and one is afraid to kill, the cost of raising a child that will forever be a reminder that one’s urges control them.

Prostitution is illegal in Kenya, a law strictly enforced by authorities and in a heavily-policed industry, both by legalities and morality you’d then expect the sex work industry to be on its knees, (pun intended). Not according to Vanessa*, a sex worker at the establishment who tells me, in between sips of Guinness she deftly hustled out of me and furtive glances, that sex work, and the establishments built around them, is thriving. She pays for her son’s school, pays for her bills and sends money home, from selling a service that many men sneer at in public, and engage in the dim lights of Nairobi’s brothel.

It’s not busy and our conversation reveals that she’s 29, and you can tell she’d still be attractive even without her heavy makeup. She’s heavy set, with an infectious smile, and a personality that ensures she gets more work than she can physically handle. She’s been in this trade for the last six years, since her father’s child walked out and all the jobs before this one paid peanuts and the men in power all wanted the same thing to make her earn better. She speaks fast, like she can’t afford to slow down her hard core sheng. She tells me she’s only here because she got into an altercation with the ‘madam’ at her last place, a drunken customer accused her of pinching his phone, and she refused to pay up. “I don’t steal, I only take what’s given to me”, she says while adding more lipstick to her lips, and smacking them together and making a lavender-shaped ‘O’. I nod genuinely, I want to believe her, that the rosary on her neck is proof enough that she keeps her hands to herself, literally and figuratively.

I ask, and she says she detest the touchy clients the most, “it feels like a bug crawling on your skin, a bug you can’t swat because you might go hungry if you do”. She never thought she’d end up selling sex as a means to survival, at the first ‘massage parlour’ she worked at, but the men paid better if you let them have their way with you, she looks into the distance saying this, like someone having to recount a nightmare. She adds that an important skill is to ‘smell’ money, to look up someone and quickly calculate how much to charge them, I ask her how much she’d charge me and she laughs and tells me, “hatuwezi kosana”, that we wouldn’t disagree. She’s a really nice conversationalist, I like her.

I want to ask her about male workers, and why there are only female workers here, but a group of men beckon her and she sashays to where they sit, with their big bellies and even bigger wallets I’m sure. About five minutes later, a waiter comes and collects her remaining bottle of Guinness, I know what that means and I take it as my cue to come back when it’s a lot busier.

Saturday, 19th January 2019

Manchester United plays Brighton & Hove Albion on the screen, as Christopher ‘B.I.G’ Wallace plays on the speakers. It’s 6 p.m and the club is louder, the crowds livelier and the noise means you wouldn’t hear the condoms being freed from their sachets even if you tried. Men who had work on Tuesday are free today, and they’ve come to have a good time, and the girls are ready! The dresses are even more audacious than the ones worn on Tuesday, more fleshy thighs on display, higher slits, more cleavage, gazes are held for longer, dresses so tight you can tell she’s commando.
Earlier, I noticed that apart from the frisk at the door, nobody checks to see how old you are and you can be all of thirteen with a man’s build and get you adult entertainment.

A vendor selling samosas and boiled eggs passes by, and I ask the girl seated next to me if she wants some, she declines but says she’d like Guinness instead. I figure that with Guinness being the most expensive drink, there’s money to be made by returning the unopened drinks and claiming money for them. Money is a love language here, and the more bottles on your table, the more smiles, winks come your way.

Today, I sit next to a group of guys that look like college students, their eyes roving around all the lithe and thick bodies on display. It smells like sweat, alcohol and debauchery, and in the darkness, one of them, forgetting to lower the brightness on hi phone exposes us to a pornographic movie he’s playing. The way his eyes roam the hall, he seems hell-bent on actualizing his dreams. A focused man that one. All around us, beer is flowing, and in the cover of darkness, winks from the girls elicit beckons from the mostly male-populated tables. I ask Aisha* who caters to the needs of the female patrons, are there no male attendants?

She looks at me with one of her drawn eyebrows raised, and I take it that nobody caters to women looking to get laid here. I ask her if she’d go with a girl, she laughs and she tells me that if the money was right, there are very few people she’d not go with. She calls me babe, and tells me that for two thousand, we can have a really good time. She’s smooth with her words, they all are, you wouldn’t survive a day here if your personality was flat. I tell her I’ll tell her later, and I can see her eyes almost roll into her head.

My attempt to strike a conversation with the college-age men is unsuccessful, they give me icy responses to all my questions. They come off as only focused on what brought them here; to handle their carnal desires. Around me, very few friendly banter goes on, like you’d expect in a nightclub setting, most men are on their phones, and the ones in conversation have their mouths cupped into the ears of women with brightly coloured manes, and even more colour-rich lipstick. Aisha scours the club with her eyes, adjusting her seat to move farther from me, as her sitting next to me lowers the likelihood that someone will call her and let her make some money.

With sex arguably the highest form of human physical and emotional intimacy, it features heavily on most people’s minds. Culture, state and religion’s control of with who, where and how sex is allowed to happen is to exercise power over those they count as within their control. Curtailing abortion, same-sex marriages, and paid sex ensures that sex is wielded as a political tool, equal to other civic actions like taxation and voting. Studies show that most of the societies and countries that demand sexual conservatism from their members, are less likely to exercise liberalism about other issues like gender wage equality, feminism, immigration and nationalism. Think Mugabe, think Museveni, actually most of the African leaders, and even in developed economies, think Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in America, Viktor Orban in Hungary. Dictating people’s sex lives is to wield power, and that’s why topics related to sex, like abortion, same-sex marriage and legalizing prostitution are factors that win or lose elections.

I ask Aisha who her most prominent client has been, and she refuses to divulge his name, only dryly offering that he’s a popular city preacher, who parks downstairs and asks for about five girls, who he pays really well. Most men come here to placate their sexual frustration, and with the subliminal anger, it helps that there is security that doesn’t tolerate anybody’s nonsense. “The men, they feel powerful when they come here, they can choose the kind of face they want, on a body they want, at an age that makes them feel important. I don’t really care about that, as long as they pay up, and they don’t take the condom off halfway, I really don’t care”, she says, before she heeds to the beckon of a man across the room.

There are a lot more people now, and the dj is playing faster-paced music, and on the dancefloor, and available spaces, bodies grind on each other, just as sensual as it would be between people romantically linked. It’s almost like it’s not transactional, but that’s what probably has the men paying even more. To feel wanted, to feel like they matter, to tend to the fire in their loins that the women in here came to put off, for a fee.

I finish my drinks, as more people pour into the club, ‘Alane’ by Wes is bumping on the speakers now. Men who need a service from the oldest profession in the world, most men who tomorrow morning will be in church, their hands raised in supplication, praying to their Deity for his grace, forgiveness and provision. Would legalizing sex work contribute to a better society? Less sexually frustrated people, legal protection for workers and clients, taxes from a hitherto untouched frontier. Are we burying our heads in the sand with the sex trade? Are our convictions, moral and religious blinding us? Or should sex work stay banned, and government steps up efforts to sanitize society? Reduce STDs, restrict pornography, strengthen family values.

There is a need for a wholesome, ecompassing, fact based conversation on sex work and the impact it has on our morality, liberalism and economy. The truth is there are a lot of people buying sex, whether in brothels, in Tinder and social apps, in university hostels, in homes, on the street, and there is an even greater need to solve the precarious situation Kenya finds itself in regarding society’s view of sex for sale.

Categories: Opinion

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