“Living half-way” - Former Sex Worker Speaks Out

Esther Achola - "I am voice to reckon with."

Where should I start? I was in the industry for years. The main reason myself and most girls start sex work is because of poverty. I was an orphan at a young age. I had to drop out of school to support my 5 siblings. When I reached 18 years old, I had no other way. I started working at a salon, but the income was too little. At the end month I would get 1,000 KSH a month. So, I just woke up one day and took a bus to Nairobi. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was young.

I stayed in a guest house when I got to Nairobi and met a Rwandan girl. She would leave at night and come back the next day at 6am with lots of money. More than I had ever seen. I was wondering where she got this money. And she showed me.

We just went to a bar in Westlands, a wealthy part of Nairobi. Girls just sat there, every age and type, even university girls. You just sit there, and if someone comes and likes, you start negotiating on a price. It was a very popular place called Bavaraia – owned by a German man.

This was the only way out of poverty for me. I had no degree, no experience. I was straight from school. So when you sit with other girls, you find a lot of reasons why they are pushed into sex work. There are many paying for university fees day by day through sex work.

It was very risky. You don't know who you are going with. They buy a few drinks and they often don't want to stay at the guest house to have sex, so you have to go to their place. One girl was taken, and we didn't see her for two days. We didn't know what happened. Was she now rich or dead? After a few days, we found out she was nearly dead. The client, after finishing with her, left her in the forest and she was attacked.

Many of these girls have STIs like HIV, but can't tell anyone. Sometimes you think you have just one client, but then find a whole house full of men, and they rape you or start using objects inside you. But these girls are desperate. They have sick family members and have no other option. You are living half way. You don't know what can happen tomorrow.

You can't work on the streets in Nairobi, because you can be taken by the municipal council. They grab you in a small white pickup, and they take your money and force you to have sex with them so you don't go to prison. You have to do what you have to do to save yourself. Once the municipal has had its way with you, you have to start over at anytime of the day and you get more and more desperate. So women gang together in safer places like hostels and brothels that charge you on commission.

If you get a client in a brothel, the manager takes at least half the money. Clients call in, then come inspect the girls, then pick one. Because of the high commission, most girls seek to do it on their own in more risky situations.

I eventually came back to Mombasa to see my siblings, and I found out I was pregnant.
I was forced to stay out of sex work. But as soon as I had the child, I went back to FSW in Mombasa, even before my son was one year old. I had to leave him alone in the house and lock the door.

That is when I met a rich German man. He just spotted me in a bar. Because I was still breast feeding, he was very attracted to my large breasts. We went to his place. After taking a shower I tried to hide it, but he saw my milk coming out. He asked me, “Do you have a small child?” I said “He is four months.”

Then he just gave me money and didn't do anything to me. He gave me enough money for a month’s worth of food and rent, packed for me some food from his fridge and dropped me off at home and gave me his number and told me to call if I needed anything.

I paid rent and bought food and stayed with my son for a whole month and didn't go out. That was the longest time I had been with my son.

I lost the number of the German man and he never came back. So, I started going back out.

This is when I met another white man at a club called Tembo owned by a German. He was a Netherlander, a young boy, 28. When we went back to his hotel he asked me “why are you doing this, you are so beautiful?” and I told him about my son. I told him everything.

That is when he said he won't pay me for sex, but would help me with my son. But I didn't trust him. I knew he was so drunk, that I could steal what he had. By good luck, he blacked out, but I was afraid to steal the money. I couldn't sleep, so I just waited. When he finally woke up, he gave me some money and asked for my number. I gave him my neighbor’s number because I didn't have a phone.

That next day he called me in the afternoon. He was in the taxi coming to the place where I was living. I was in a small room in Mtwapa outside Mombasa. He came and he stayed for two weeks in my place. I had nothing but a mattress. He bought for me a stove, plates, cups and other things. So that was it.

Then he left and promised to take me back to Netherlands. He bought me a phone, but it was lost. And I never heard from him again.

Then I met another German man that was teaching salsa. So I started practicing and dancing at the hotel. He would pay us to do shows at hotels. But the money was too little, and he was forcing us to sleep with him. So I left and went back to sex work.

But I knew I wanted a way out. A friend tried to recruit me for working with a non-profit NGO called ICRH. But because I was older then than most girls, I was excluded. I gave up, and started doing some work at a cyber-cafe at about one dollar a day.

But then one day the NGO made an exception and allowed me into their program.
We were 150 girls they interviewed. After the interview we were to get a letter if we were accepted. After one week I got my letter. I was excited, but hesitant, feeling like 'let's see what is next?'

In a few months I was chosen as the group leader of 40 sex workers. I don't know what they saw in me. After that first experience I never stopped. I sought out trainings, more and more: counseling, business, entrepreneurship, computer skills, family planning, STIs (HIV and Malaria prevention), and as a paralegal.

This changed everything.

Today: I am supporting my children. I am voice to reckon with. I've been an advocate for hundreds of women. I have gone to court to defend women who have been raped.
I've been asked to consult with international organizations. I've mobilized over 420 vulnerable women for counseling, HIV trainings, and reproductive health, sexual violence.

The Rwandan girl that brought me into sex work died from HIV. I've lost so many friends in the process. Sadly there are few organizations trying to reach the tens of thousands of sex workers in an industry here that is still growing rapidly. There are gaps that need to be filled. While the work being done is wonderful, it is not enough. Hard core sex workers are generally not affected by any of these ongoing programs.

NGOs are only dealing with younger sex workers. Yet sex work doesn't have an age limit. The older sex workers who have been doing it for 20-40 years are often the ones getting the younger girls into the industry. They know the sex work industry in and out, and targeting them is one of the ways we can really help.

There is no simple solution. We must understand the reality of what is going on and have real alternatives in place. I don't kid myself that any of this is easy, but this is my life's work to be there to help women just like myself.