issue 252 - February 1994
The money market
Prostitution in Africa is becoming like prostitution everywhere else.
But it was not always like that... Oumar Tandia points to another
tradition and another prostitution altogether.
Prostitution, it is said, is the oldest profession in the world. And Africa is the birthplace of humanity. It would therefore be logical to suppose that prostitution has existed in Africa since the beginning of time.
Surprisingly, then, prostitution as it is known today – selling sex for money – only appeared in Africa at the time of colonization. Before then, everything worked on an exchange basis. Even prostitution was part of an exchange: for food, protection or just for presents. In many villages in Africa this is still the case.
And today’s sexual behaviour has to be judged in the context of such traditional norms. These vary considerably, even within one country. In Senegal, for example, you can find the diola woman, who often has one or two children before marriage, or the bassari woman, who sees it as her duty to spend the night with a guest in the village. In other ethnic groups throughout Africa the social system may be matriarchal, with women having greater responsibilities and therefore greater freedom in their lives.
But European-style, money-driven prostitution is now the dominant reality in Africa. To find out how the introduction of money into the sexual bargain – combined with the economic plight of the continent – has affected prostitution in Africa today, we should take a look at the life of a young woman called Hawa.
Hawa was married at the age of 14. Her husband worked in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, while she lived with her three children in a village about 325 kilometres away. He sent her occasional financial support but it was not enough to help her and her family survive three crop failures in a row, and one day she decided to join him. At the age of 19 this was her chance to discover the joys of the big town.
Her dream turned to nightmare as she took the first tentative steps into her brave new world. Her husband, she found, didn’t have secure employment. The arrival of Hawa and the three children simply made it more difficult to make ends meet. The final straw came when Hawa discovered that he had another child of 18 months, fruit of a liaison with a local girl.
When the divorce came through, Hawa trudged round the smart areas of town looking for work as a domestic servant. Then her youngest was struck down with tuberculosis. She turned to Marie, a sympathetic neighbour, for help, and one day Marie took her to visit ‘friends’ who would help her to buy medicines for her little girl...
One thing led to another, and Hawa fell in love with her first client. Pregnancy was followed by an illegal abortion. She finally obtained her prostitute’s ID card by sleeping with the local policeman.
In every big town in Africa there are thousands of people like Hawa. The majority of them only prostitute themselves because they can find no other way of earning money. ‘We are nothing but Khoosloman*. Like everyone else we try to bring a smile to the faces of our families... but no-one ever thinks of us,’ said one woman. Prostitutes are also subject to enormous pressure from religious culture, whether Islamic or Catholic, which seeks to prohibit prostitution and forbid unions outside marriage. In this way they try to ensure that patriarchal infrastructures remain in place.
The situation of prostitutes in Africa reflects the economic situation of the whole continent. The crisis which has marked the recent history of Third World countries has had serious consequences for their peoples. Whole swathes of the population have been installed in the informal – and unstable – economy and have become part of that sector of society which only just manages to get by.
So would prostitution disappear if the economic climate improved? Certainly not in the foreseeable future, and anyway eradication is not the issue. The urgent issue today is to ensure that prostitutes in Africa can avoid the many risks and potential tragedies that face them. These risks have been heightened by the menace of AIDS. As one woman put it: ‘AIDS has made everyone afraid... it has made our lives more difficult. We are losing more and more clients.’
In many countries in Africa prostitutes are coming together to try and discuss these problems. In Senegal, for example, our organization, ENDA, has formed a group to arm prostitutes with the tools which will enable them to educate others about safe sex. Similar debates are taking place throughout Africa – in Cameroon, Zaire, Uganda and Mali. For the first time recently, prostitutes from different African countries were able to meet at a conference in Cameroon and the idea of a pan-African organization of prostitutes was born. It has yet to happen, but it might provide a way forward for people like Hawa.
Oumar Tandia works for ENDA (Environnement et Developpment du Tiers-Monde) in Senegal.
* Khoosloman is a wolof word meaning ‘a poor person struggling to survive’.
The lipstick has been put on. My mouth should now stand out from a distance. One more last check to make sure. Eyes look clear and very alert. The shiny patches have all been covered.
My hour-long ritual has come to its conclusion. Tonight is the night, not unlike any other. Not too cold, just a wee bit overcast. Maybe a small crop jacket, it’s enough. All set, ready to move. One more last glance for good measure. My mask is firmly in place, the wall is up.
Driving to my destination for the night, I push the nagging worries of the day away. Feelings all gone, just a shell left. Ready to be anyone’s fantasy or thrill.
I step from my car and am bombarded with the sounds of the city night. Same people here tonight as last night. I take my usual pew, smile at automatic intervals to tempt the passer-by. I am a seller looking only to make a living. Idle conversation with others in the same line as me helps pass the slow hours that seem to drag. Finally, a client who has enough coin. Terms discussed, money changed hands. The mask has not wavered throughout this job.
Back at the familiar cafe on my familiar pew. Richer now than I was a few short minutes ago. My mask has done its job once again. Come away from this interlude with no major dents or scratches. The empty feeling I can push away, just block it out and think of the money.
Had enough tonight and ready to depart. My purse is full from tonight’s escapade. No hassles, just a bit weary. My mask is coming unstuck the closer to home I get. My lipstick has become dry and the foundation has gone blotchy. Soaking in a hot bath has become my number one ambition. Just to feel the hot water against my work-sore body is absolute bliss. Feeling the water makes the barriers slowly subside, my mask also fades away within a moment.
All the falseness gone, I find myself again. My night-time personality has been safely put back on the shelf until it is needed on another night. When I look in the mirror just before bed I don’t see the work self that so many other people know. I just see me. No masks – just me. I am a normal human being; I haven’t got horns or hooves. People see me as just a street worker. I am not real. I am looked down upon by people that don’t know; they think I’m dirty and carry diseases, but I don’t. Just because I work on the streets doesn’t mean that I am any different. My job is a job, it’s not me. Maybe one day people will understand this.
The Mask is taken from Siren, the magazine of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective.