The evolving times have seen practitioners of the world’s oldest profession change tack to retain their client base in a move that has put the country’s moral fibre to the test.
While it is still common to see commercial sex workers braving the cold nights to solicit clients on the streets, some have taken prostitution to the suburbs where they either rent houses and get customers on the internet, or use barbershops and massage parlours as a cover for their businesses.
And business is booming, if a week-long patrol of some of Kenya’s populous towns and neighbourhoods by the Nation is anything to go by. On the internet, some websites purport to offer escort services — men or women who pose as dates — while in reality they are a one-stop shop for prostitution.
All the websites we visited are open to anyone with a phone or computer with internet connection. This means that anyone of any age, even minors, can easily access the websites and their vast database of service providers.
Social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram are increasingly becoming solicitation points. In Mombasa, police last week arrested two women suspected of engaging in prostitution in Kisauni.
One of the women was injured after a client attacked her in an apartment she had rented for her work. Officers from Junda Police Station stormed the house and arrested the two women. Brothels have sprung up in Nyali and Bombolulu, where a client was stabbed by a sex worker after he refused to pay for services.
“The incident caused the community to turn against them (sex workers), saying they have caused problems in the area. An eviction was initiated by the youth and that’s when they injured one of the sex workers,” said Ms Mariline Laini, the executive director of Nkoko Iju Africa, an NGO that deals with issues affecting sex workers.
Prof Halimu Shauri, a sociologist and lecturer at Pwani University, says the fact that prostitution has been creeping into residential areas over the years is worrisome because it has become so deeply entrenched that it will be difficult to root out.
“For boys, it will be hard to tell them that they should settle down with one partner, yet they see men walking into other houses to pay for sexual favours. For girls … you tell them that they should be faithful to one man, then they see one woman sleeping with even 10 men in one day,” Prof Shauri said. The effects of Covid-19 on the economy have likely led to an increase in prostitution as people look for ways to put food on the table following job losses, he added.
Aside from the economic effects of Covid-19, Prof Shauri argued that the spaces where prostitution mostly thrived — bars and streets — are off limits during curfew hours from 10pm to 4am, hence more people are inclined to continue the business in houses while soliciting clients online.
Barely a decade ago, Kilimani was one of Nairobi’s most wholesome neighbourhoods, sought after by well-to-do city dwellers looking for a nice, quiet and friendly suburb to raise their families. Today, Kilimani is still sought after, but by a different client base.
Wood Avenue looks like most other parts of Kilimani. Harmless, serene, clean, peaceful. But some of the walls conceal lurid happenings. Just a few metres off the Ngong road turn into Wood Avenue is a red and green neon sign that reads “massage and barbershop”.
By night, the neon light stands out. The business has no name, other than the services advertised on the neon sign. The two-storey building that hosts the barbershop and massage parlour looks harmless enough and doesn’t draw much attention.
But the business attracts the patronage of men with big wallets, based on the vehicles we saw drive in and out of the compound. We parked our vehicle opposite the massage parlour. Before we could settle down and plan our entry strategy, a black Toyota SUV with a United Nations number plate stopped at the gate.
A guard dressed in green greeted the driver before checking the vehicle’s boot and back seat before letting it into the compound.
A few minutes later, a white Mercedes Benz SUV goes through the same routine. Shortly afterwards, a black Mercedes Benz saloon and a white Range Rover follow suit. Behind the walls, the line between massage parlour and brothel is very thin. For Sh2,500 one can get a massage and later negotiate for sex.
We counted at least five women in the parlour. During our initial visit there last week, the women were dressed in short, tight yellow dresses, presumably their uniform. On Sunday, the uniform’s colour was pink.
“For just a haircut it will be Sh500. For a massage it will be Sh2,500,” one of the women told us when we enquired about the services offered. But there is a group of special clients who can access sexual services for fees upwards of Sh10,000.
We called the same establishment the following day posing as personal assistants to a VIP seeking to pay for sex. The woman on the phone said it could be arranged depending on what the client wants.
She, however, recommended that the client visits the massage parlour in person to discuss details and rates. At 7.45pm, women are lining up along Wood Avenue. They have come to secure clients before the curfew starts.
“I have two children at home, and they are both adults with national identity cards. But they have no jobs and we cannot sleep hungry. We live in Uthiru, but I come all the way here because business is almost guaranteed. I always pay my rent and bills on time. I also buy food for me and my sons,” one of the women says when we stop to have a chat.
A few metres away, we stop to talk to Shamim. She lives in a two-bedroomed house in Embakasi with her three children, but commutes to Kilimani every evening. Shamim also pays her rent and bills from selling her body on Wood Avenue.
“I have been doing it for a few years. Occasionally I find other jobs and leave the streets. But now with Covid-19 coming with lockdowns, where will I get a job? I have to eat and so do my children. At times that means paying the police on patrol Sh2,000 to stay on past curfew but I will recover it on the job,” she said.
Brothels disguised as massage parlours are not the only innovation that industry players have come up with. In the same suburb, several women have rented apartments for the sole purpose of prostitution. Other areas where apartments have become sex dens in Nairobi are Westlands, Parklands and Nairobi West.
Prostitutes solicit clients on social media platforms and websites. Advertisements on websites visited by our team indicated that for as little as Sh1,000, one can buy sexual favours. In Jua Kali estate, Kakamega town, the trend of renting houses for prostitution has caught on.
Directly opposite the populous estate is a building that offers accommodation. Several women book rooms for days, then line up outside to attract men.
“I do this for livelihood as I have no other source of income,” one of the women we spoke to said. Kondele in Kisumu has always been synonymous with protests and riots. The suburb has now become one of the most prominent red light districts in the lakeside city. Considered a 24-hour economy, Kondele plays host to clients in dingy shanties and old buildings that have been converted into rooms for hire. For as little as Sh50, sex workers offer their services to clients who patronise their business day and night.
The growing competition has forced a number of sex workers to camp on main roads leading to the area in broad daylight to catch clients.
Red light zones
In Busia County, Malaba, Munyiri and Sofia have become synonymous with the trade. In Bomet, residents are unhappy with the growth of prostitution and fault the authorities for doing little to put a stop to it, despite the fact that the road to Governor Hillary Barchok’s office is one of the biggest red light zones.
In Kisii town, Gusii Plaza Street, Kagwanchi, Capital roundabout and Kisii Referral Hospital roundabout used to be red light zones. But a county government crackdown on sex workers operating during curfew hours has seen some of them quit.
A 29-year-old sex worker in Migori told our team that the nationwide curfew has dealt a blow to prostitution in the county. Some sex workers opted to take clients to their houses, but this has led to many families breaking apart.
In Migori town, the rate at which children are getting roped into prostitution has become a cause for concern. The most affected areas are Oruba, Apida, Nyasare, Banana and Pand Pieri neighbourhoods, which host thousands of low and middle income earners. Coupled with drugs and substance abuse which is prevalent in the slums, there are rising fears that more teenagers risk engaging in child prostitution.
The government’s Kazi Mtaani initiative, which gave casual jobs to many youths, also helped slow down prostitution in the town. But plans to suspend the initiative have raised fears that many girls will be lured back to the streets.
Reporting by Mohamed Ahmed, Benson Amadala, Victor Raballa, Vitalis Kimutai, Derick Luvega, Benson Ayienda, Ian Byron, Nasibo Kabale and Brian Wasuna
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