Prostitution goes Digital
Prostitution became a more lucrative business during the Second World War when there was a soldier boom in the country.
The woman is posing in front of a purple backdrop where, on her right, there are the words, “Nairobi Call Girls” with a phone number beneath that for contacting her. On her left is a poster of yet another curvaceous woman in white bikini bottoms with arms crossed over her naked chest. “Escorts Kenya” and a phone number are written next to her curvy waistline. Her eyes and nose have been cropped; leaving upturned glossy lips and a shy but knowing smile. This is the homepage of Nairobi Raha, one of the more famous prostitution websites in Kenya.
It was a speedy change globally with the invention of the internet – letters that took days became emails received within seconds, acquiring and preserving information became easier as gaming and entertainment became more advanced. The internet revolutionised communication. And Kenya’s prostitutes seem to be catching on as they are swiftly moving their trade from darkly lit street corners to their computers, more secure premises where they are cashing in big.
History of Prostitution in Kenya
Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession – from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and the Roman Empire, where it was an organized – and tolerated – trade. It was believed that, to prevent greater evils such as sodomy, masturbation and rape, prostitution was necessary. Even Saint Augustine, who was the bishop of Hippo Regius, present day Annaba, Algeria, in 420AD, held that, “If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts.”
In Kenya, however, prostitution is illegal, despite having been in existence since the colonial period. During that era, there were two types of prostitutes: Watembezi and Malaya. The first, named from the Kiswahili verb for ‘to walk’, was when prostitutes would solicit men in any public place. In the other, Malaya, the women operated indoors, renting rooms and waiting for the men to come to them. Watembezi earned more money, as they didn’t have the overhead cost of housing. But in 1922, after the colonial government imposed a curfew from 6pm to 6am to curb crime, most Watembezi turned to Malaya prostitution, as they could not operate after dark. It seems to have been a lucrative business, as women from agricultural districts surrounding Nairobi came to the city in droves in the late 1920s to sell their produce but, after a while, stopped going back home because of the money they made from prostitution.
Prostitutes earn more money online than they do on the streets and they also find the internet a much safer playing ground as it keeps the police at bay.
The area around River Road in the Central Business District (CBD), even back then, was a dangerous place, and businessmen with cars looking for Watembezi pioneered the “Pick and Drop” culture of modern day Koinange Street. The pick-up would be done along Government Road – now Moi Avenue.
With the progression of years, the fee charged also rose – according to Luise White’s The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, “In 1914,the prostitution fee had been 25 cents, but by 1923 the prostitutes were charging KSH 1.50.” In 1927, due to the danger on the streets of Majengo, where Watembezi mostly operated from, clients moved to Danguroni, a more secure housing area adjacent to River Road, where the Malaya had settled.
“But competition between the two areas became so stiff that prostitutes in Danguroni introduced Wazi Wazi, which can be translated loosely as “out in the open”, a new way of prostitution where they would take chairs and sit outside their rooms to scout for clients.” Unlike Malaya, Wazi Wazi only took place during daytime hours, with most clients being from the railways, at the time, the country’s biggest employer.
Prostitution became a more lucrative business during the Second World War when there was a soldier boom in the country. Prices shot to KSH 30 and some of the more business savvy women bought land in Eastleigh. The completion of the Eastleigh Royal Air Force Base also transformed the area and brought about the integration of Malaya and Watembezi prostitutes, as the area developed into a business hub. After the War, in 1947, the Italian prisoners of war became targeted clients and brothels started emerging. It seems that prostitution in Nairobi was spiralling out of control as, by 1950, prostitutes were moving to the memorial hall in Pumwani after men were banned from going in search of the women.
After Independence, however, prostitution went back to its original home, the streets. Currently, Koinange Street, in the centre of Nairobi, is known as the industry’s hub. After businesses close for the day, hawkers take over the street sides. Then, around 11pm, they are replaced by prostitutes hiding in the shadows. In the dark of the night, they engage in running battles with police who are intent on bringing prostitution to an end. A conviction will lead to a heavy fine or years in prison. But, thanks to the internet, more and more Kenyan prostitutes are giving up their spots on the sides of the streets for a more lucrative business online.
From the Streets to the Net
I was introduced to Angela* by Sue*, a prostitute and online blogger for Nairobi Nights, which publishes her escapades on the streets of Nairobi. Sue was not interested in being interviewed, telling me that she likes her anonymity and prefers to share her story online rather than in person, but she did put me in touch with Angela. The first born in a family of five, Angela knew that college was out of question even before completing high school. Her mother, a second hand clothes trader at the Kongowea market in Mombasa, could barely afford the secondary school tuition for her children from the money that she earned. So, in 2011, after high school, Angela joined her mother‘s business to provide for her younger brothers.
But one Saturday evening in 2012, as she was coming from a public beach in the South Coast, she met Elizabeth*, a former classmate. After almost a year selling clothes, Angela knew enough to tell that Elizabeth’s were expensive, along with her shoes and handbag. “I told her that I sold clothes with my mother and that she should come promote me one of these days.” When she enquired about what her friend had been up to since they finished school, Elizabeth became hesitant. With a little cajoling, however, she opened up. It was late, almost 7pm, but they went for a walk along Mama Ngina Drive, a popular picturesque seafront public park, as they talked. “She told me that she earned more than KSH 1,000 a night as a prostitute.”
Historically, prostitution in Kenya was divided in two: Watembezi stood on the streets searching for clients while Malaya rented rooms and waited for men to come to them.
Elizabeth earned more money in an hour or two than what Angela earned after spending the whole day in the sweltering heat at the market. Elizabeth’s roommate had moved out the previous month, so she offered to teach Angela the ropes, if she was interested. “I thought of all the possibilities: my own room, a chance to earn more money and save to go back to school and a better life for my siblings.” A month later, Angela informed her mother that she’d gotten a job as a casual worker in the South Coast and that she’d be moving out.
Within five months, her negotiation skills were almost as good as Elizabeth’s and she was earning that coveted wage of KSH 1,000 for a night’s work. Then last April, after their night shift, Elizabeth got a call from their colleague about a job that didn’t require them to work on the streets of Mombasa.
“There are dangers to being a prostitute,” Angela tells me. “When one gets to the client’s house, he might renege and pay less money than we had agreed on. At times the police will take all the money we have worked for the whole night so they don’t throw us in jail. And you might get a client who is into weird fantasies that involve animals.” Thus, Angela was ecstatic when she heard about the opportunity.
The two women went to Nyali, where they were introduced to Dominik, a German national, who was to be their boss. One of the house’s five bedrooms was a computer room where the girls were to work. Angela, who wasn’t computer savvy initially, became one of Dominik’s best employees after learning the basics.
He ran a tight ship, using one of the bedrooms and leaving the other three to the 10 girls who worked for him. It was a small operation, but more than enough to run a website catering to the sexual needs of clients living within Mombasa. “We would chat up the men through a webcam, and if they liked what they saw, they would pick us up and pay Dominik, who after taking his cut would pay us.”
This, Angela says, was a much better way of earning money than going to the clubs – like the infamous Casablanca – or standing in the streets to look for clients. “They came to us and that worked perfectly for me.” But, after a crackdown by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) last year in the Nyali area, Dominik fled the country and left the girls to fend for themselves. Angela, who had been steadily saving money, moved to Nairobi.
Other than websites, social media has also become a platform for prostitution in Kenya. One notorious example is Campus Divas for Rich Men, a Facebook page dedicated to female university students looking for wealthy men. It was shut down in September 2012 after a public outcry when many radio talk shows dedicated entire mornings to it. Some of the photos on the page were of women posing naked or semi-nude with raunchy status updates and their phone numbers, which rich men were supposed to use if they wanted ‘a good time’. From 3,000 likes, by the end of the first week, the page had garnered 45,000 after it started to get media attention. By the time Facebook deleted the account, it had more than 60,000 individual likes. However, the page is back again, and even though it doesn’t have as large a following in its re-launch, there are still photos of pouty-lipped women accompanying updates like, “Shiko is 21, she claims to be great in bed. If you got cash, inbox [the
“Life in campus is hard, especially when you are in a public university like me,” Dorothy* tells me. “I do all my negotiating online and my clients pick me up from a designated spot. I prefer [the internet] because it offers privacy,” she continues. But as more prostitutes turn to the web, competition is growing. “Here you have to make a first impression, so your profile is what will sell you,” Dorothy insists. The internet gives the 23-year-old freedom to work during the day, a reality she is grateful for. She doesn’t have to wait until night time, when she can be cloaked in darkness, to make money, so on days when she doesn’t have class, she’s looking for clients online. “There are so many websites around, and Kenyan Facebook pages, like Dirty Sex Talk/Chat and Hook Ups, [are] where I can make easy money.”
When she moved to Nairobi, Angela signed on to Nairobi Raha after taking new photos and creating a new profile and, just like with Dominik, she pays the administrator a percentage of what she earns from her clients.
Mostly, anything these days is just a phone call away. If there are services like Dial-A-Condom, where protection is delivered to your house if you’re living in Nairobi and its environs, then why not Dial-a-Prostitute? And, with the internet, possibilities for the prostitutes abound as they can also get clients who aren’t in their environs.
A Global Business
Patricia* is a mother of one who, being on the heavy side, looks even shorter than her 5-foot-2 frame. Her son is about to join preschool and she has been saving to enrol him into a private institute. “Prostitution is a business like any other,” says the mother, who has a higher diploma in business administration. “This is so much better than working the streets. There are days that I can make KSH 8,000 just by sitting in front of my laptop.
“I am on various chat sites, where the men prefer women with meat on their bones,” she says jokingly. Her favourite, and the leading one in Kenya, is ChatHour, whose motto is, “For Kenyans into random sex hook ups, no strings attached.” Becoming a member is easy; create a profile and simply upload your photo. Both male and female prostitutes leave their phone numbers on their profiles, so the administrator doesn’t even get a cut from the money they earn. However, Patricia’s favourite clients, who she video calls on Skype, are from Germany. “We arrange for a time at night when I’m free and the thrill of it is that this person is on the other side of the world, so there is no unnecessary groping.”
However, this ease for the prostitutes has also made sex crimes easier to get away with. In January this year, the Philippines made international headlines after the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed details of online child prostitution. With about 100,000 child prostitutes in the country, the internet now seems to be fuelling the trade CID crackdown on the Coast led to arrests of paedophiles who’d been streaming videos of the kids online. In cities like Asheville and Philadelphia in the US, police, in a bid to burst prostitution rings, respond to advertisements on websites such as Craigslist where prostitutes are listed on the site’s “adult services” section.
The Government’s Battle
Peter Muhono is a member of the CID’s Computer Forensics Unit that examines digital media with the aim of identifying and analysing recovered information. Muhono had been part of the team that brought down Dominik and recovered 15 computers that were being used to upload videos that the women had shot.
“In the past year, the online prostitution ring has grown bigger,” Muhono states, obviously concerned about the impact. Perhaps more entrenched than any other location in the country, the Coast has developed a well-deserved reputation for a blossoming prostitution business, both traditional and online.
Prior to being transferred to the Nairobi office, Muhono was involved in a raid of affluent properties in Nyali and Mtwapa that led to the arrest of close to 50 women who were involved in online prostitution. “The crackdown at the Coast is still on-going, as this practice is common, even in the South Coast and Malindi.” Organised prostitution on the coast is often directed by questionable European nationals, especially from prosperous nations like Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
Muhono says that his department can only do its work if it is able to obtain viable evidence. “This is what will be used to prosecute the prostitutes.” But this is proving to be difficult, as the trade is moving from the streets to the comforts of the prostitutes’ homes, where there is, of course, increased privacy and discretion.
On the one hand, making money has never been easier, with all nationalities of prostitutes seeking a global platform. The move to the internet also means that they engage sexually with fewer clients, thus reducing the risk of getting infected with communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS. And chances of encountering violent clients have also reduced significantly as, being worlds apart, their customers mostly derive their pleasure from watching – and listening.
On the other hand, as much as the internet assures the prostitutes of privacy and safety from the long arm of the law, the police now have to work twice as hard to curb prostitution. This means more efficient technology – which of course translates into spending more money – will have to be introduced if authorities are to catch sex workers in the act and have a shot at bringing down the illegal trade.
Interestingly, the question of online prostitution’s legality is yet to come up. Technically, prostitution is defined as engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment, but the reason so many women are flocking to this new version of the traditional trade is that it doesn’t actually involve any contact – except, of course, for the cases in which women find clients online and physically meet up with them. A debate that is yet to start in Kenya is whether or not cyber sex deserves the same prostitution label as actual, in person sex. As cyber prostitution reduces various risks for the women and the unsavoury night-time scene of streets crawling with skimpily clad females, the main point that keeps it illegal is the moral implications. But as Kenya slowly becomes more open in sexual matters, are we heading to a point where this online trade might just become legalised?
In the meantime, as more men and women of the trade familiarise themselves with the internet, the number of prostitutes lining streets like Koinange continues to diminish. And the oldest trade since the beginning of mankind is rapidly growing into a booming online business in Kenya.
*Names have been changed