Nairobi Night’s Watch
As the night gathers, Nairobi looks like the picture you can see…….bathed in the colour of dreams……grey-blue shadows at dusk…….an unreal time when everything seems possible and yet…….a moment later the darkness comes and the night’s watch begins………
Every city has its rhythms and although I have lived in many cities around the world, Nairobi is now one of my favourite places because it has that rough edge to it’s finery, an unpredictable, hectic and often mysterious rhythm that I recognise in Lagos or New York and Brixton in London before it became a bourgeois enclave. But it takes some time to get used to, and for some of us who lead such cloistered lives, the mystery of the city remains.
Five years ago I lived on a popular street in Kilimani, which looks very middle class by day…..but as the darkness sets in, street girls would gather by the roadside, sometimes so many that I began to ask friends to help me understand what was happening and advise whether I should move out of the area entirely. I got a few vague answers like…..”It’s the politicians that rented apartments at the end of the road, the girls are waiting for them.” This turned out to be partially true, but I still sensed that there was more to this dynamic than meets the eye.
Night Walkers – And now my watch begins
The girls were not on the streets every night, sometimes they would disappear for months, so why was there such a fluctuation in trade if there was a constant market of politicians ready and willing to pay for sex everyday? This triggered me to start keeping my own “night’s watch”, getting used to particular faces taking turns at different times, but still I never found out the reason for the unpredictable rhythm of the street girls.
I lived in Kilimani for a year, becoming more and more curious about the social, economic and cultural dynamics that governed this unknown world at my doorstep.
There’s a visible difference between prostitutes on the streets of Nairobi and those that I had seen in London, New York, Lagos, Accra etc. On this side of Nairobi anyway, towards Hurlingham, the girls look like sexy secretaries or naughty “girls next door”, not hard-edged street walkers like those on Koinange Street. This fascinates me……what kind of a guy picks up a girl that looks this ordinary? Is there a difference in the Kenyan psyche that does not want to use the classic differentiations deliberate unconsciousness, a determined denial that they are engaged in a salacious transaction, so they pick a girl who does not look too obviously like a prostitute? I remember joking to my friends “…these girls are really not serious about their business at all, they are not trying hard enough, what type of hooker refuses to dress the part?”
Night Crawlers – Back to the Street
I didn’t know the answer to these questions, but my interest was recently rekindled again by three things: 1. This picture of Nairobi at night; 2. I am preparing for a panel discussion at the Zanzibar Literary festival in August, where I will be speaking alongside Shereen El Feki, who wrote the award winning book “Sex and the Citadel” exploring a brisk history of sex in the Arab world from the 10th century until modern day. 3. The fact that when I returned to Nairobi last year, I chose to live in an apartment on the same street and so I eventually found out the reason for the erratic rhythm of the hookers on the street.
One of the reasons is that there has been a brothel situated at the end of the road for the last 20years or more. It’s practically an institution now, frequented by generations of men, some of whom I know, respectable bankers and lawyers, happily married or otherwise, who claim to have been taken there only for stag nights or special “bachelors outing”. They mostly viewed it as a place for fairly “safe” fun. Interesting……so it would seem that these girls only come out to the roadside when business is very bad and they need to entice new clients or remind the old ones that they still have a haven at the end of the road.
Night Stalkers – Research on the History of Prostitution in Nairobi
I recently began reading background texts for the my role on the panel for the Zanzibar Literary Festival, which is to bring East and West African perspectives into the conversation about Women in Africa, I also begun to look a little more closely at stories that chronicle life in the dark underbelly of Nairobi nightlife. Another writer invited to the festival this year, Boniface Gachugu, has written a very apt article that captures the shifts in the ways that the night moves in the city called “Nairobi Nights”:
“By 9.30pm most family-minded folks would have reached their homes or were on board vehicles. The city was thus left out for the normal end-month night patrons, cocktail binges and usual night gigs, night-out parties, the casual mixture of call girls, night-crawlers, night-runners, night-revelers, night-club hoppers and night patrollers.
All had started swimming into and within the streets towards different directions. In a short period of time, the city would thus be roaming with qualified and unqualified merry and misery makers.”
Nairobi is a city where people like to enjoy themselves and that gives a nice natural energy this thriving city. Whilst many people live oblivious to the parallel lives around them, it reality does not take much digging to find out more about “the oldest profession”, one which it seems also helped to fund much of the physical infrastructure in the city today. The book “The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi” by Luise White, shares some accounts on this, of women entreprenuers who owned brothels and acquired property situated at the very heart of the urban centres, women whose profit from what is seen as “immoral earnings” actually helped to build the city of Nairobi.
“From its earliest years Nairobi had a special relationship to people in the countryside who were trying to recoup their loses. Unlike other capitals in settler societies, Nairobi had no industrial base – the wealth of Kenya was kept in the agricultural sector – hence no need for a permanent labor force. While the British colonialists sought to make the capital a city of male migrants, the permanent African population clustered in the service sector: servants, prostitutes, and householders.
Indeed, prostitutes often became landlords and many landlords were prostitutes: this was not because illicit and respectable roles were indistinct in cities in British colonial Africa, but because women, in the absence of formal employment opportunities, earned the money with which to acquire property through prostitution, and landlords, however rapacious their rents, had a degree of legitimacy because of the years they had spent in these communities, as good neighbours, and valuable, peace-keeping tenants.
The illicit often supported the respectable. There were no pimps at any time in Kenya’s history, so that prostitutes were able to retain control over their earnings – when they so desired – and have intimate and stable relations with laboring men who were their customers”
Night Watchers -The Life of a Prostitute in Modern Day Nairobi
This is hardly surprising and is probably true of many cities, but our fascination about how people engage with the world of prostitution remains even in this digital age. There was a very famous blog called Nairobi Nights which ran for 10 years by a prostitute named Sue that told of her “episodes” on the streets, a very well written and insightful commentary from a “professional” in her own voice. The part that touched me most is how she describes the desperation that sets in as the night edges into dawn.
“The duration between 3.45am and 5am in the morning is one of desperation. If a man hasn’t picked you by the time, then some despair sets in. That does not mean a girl cannot be picked within those hours, she can, but the quality of men who visit the street at that hour is not the best. Most have been partying all night long, are drunk, demanding and hard to negotiate with. The sober ones are likely to be with emotional problems and rather unpredictable. If there be a serial killer hour, then that is.”
A nice summary about the impact of her narrative is contained in the link above.
“Nairobi Nights was a sort of object, now preserved in amber online. It enabled fevered projections and speculations from alarmed Kenyan theists and amused cosmopolites alike. I can’t imagine a better way to show up the Kenyan culture of sex, or to show off the digital spotlight now shining on Africa. Nairobi Nights was, for a time, the perfect means to give the world something that we didn’t know—or couldn’t admit—we wanted.
So after a total of 10 years on the streets and a year online, Sue is out. Despite the thrill of web fame, and the release of telling tales she could never reveal in person, she wouldn’t recommend her choices. “There are much easier ways to make money, if it’s about the money,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But there are also easier ways to build a confident and positive sexual culture that I don’t think we are encouraging in our culture. There are ways of being sexual without being an object.”
In conclusion, I guess some things don’t change easily, the mystery remains only if you fail to embrace the complexity of human interactions in the diverse melting pot of a growing urban metropolis. Luise White surmised in her book that:
“Nairobi prostitutes described a world of hard work and opportunity in which prostitution was not evidence of social pathology or moral decay or male dominance, but a complex relationship between men and women and their respective families.”