Between 2009 and 2012, I embarked on an unconventional project in Lusaka, Zambia. After interviewing over forty women who work the streets to sell sex in exchange for money, Nightlife was born. This book profiles twenty-five stories of those women. The stories are heartbreaking, shocking but real. I am pleased to inform you that this book is now available on Kindle on Amazon.
During my work on this book, I spent a lot of time at clubs in Northmead, Kabwata, Chilenje and other places in Lusaka. At first, it was very difficult to get the women to open up and share their difficult stories. In many ways, I related to some of those stories. I know firsthand what it is like to lose your parents and have your world turnaround just like that. I also know that many of you will relate to the stories of these women because they bring back to life the buried and unresolved issues of our society.
Here is Lulu’s story as featured in Nightlife:
Lulu is a pretty, shy seventeen-year-old girl. Though she is only in her teen years, she has slept with at least twelve men so far. According to her, this is not a lot. She had only started prostitution about two months earlier. She had never slept with a man before she got into the business. Two months, twelve men. At an average of six men a month, or two and half men a week, this girl is on a fast track in this industry, I thought.
Lulu lives with her parents in Kalingalinga. The only nightclub she patronizes is just less than a hundred meters from her parents’ house. Lulu does not speak English. She dropped out of school in grade nine. For about three years after grade nine, she did none of the things she had wanted to do. All she did was baby-sit her siblings, do house chores and whatever her parents asked her to do. She was bored to death because all her friends were in school or busy doing things that made them happy. She wondered why she was having such a “cursed life”.
This girl is short, medium build and well-rounded cheeks. She has a great smile which leaves a big gap between her teeth. She could pass for a twenty-five-year-old. When asked what she wanted to do in life, she quickly points out that she wants to do social work and work with people who are infected with HIV/AIDS. What? Quite a contradiction, I thought. But before I pointed an accusing finger at her, I decide to probe further about her choice of this career path.
Living in Kalingalinga which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Zambia and perhaps with one of the highest prevalent HIV/AIDS rates in the city, she has seen many people die of this disease. As a matter of fact, she has had close relatives who have died, including cousins, uncles and aunties. Some are still living positively with HIV. She remembers counselors coming to school and talking to them about HIV/AIDS explaining that it was dangerous and spreads very quickly. She had decided much earlier that she will not sleep with any man until she was married—a goal she clearly hasn’t been able to meet.
I only sat with Lulu for one day to talk to her about all this. This girl was well informed about HIV/AIDS for her age or even education level. Many girls her age know little about the killer disease. I even learned from her about CD4 count and all that; information even I was not very familiar with. To put it simply, CD4 count determines the level of cells in your blood that helps to fight the virus in your body once you are infected. That is why an infected HIV person’s condition is downgraded to AIDS if they have a very low CD4 count. Generally, at this stage, their health is usually not very good.
Things for Lulu took a different turn when her parents started playing matchmaker for her. They talked about how she was a grown-up woman and needed to get married. Her father had suggested indirectly that she needed to marry one of the neighbors. She could not believe this. This was an elderly man the age of her father. How could her father think of such a thing? How could he ever think of giving her daughter away in such an immoral way? These are the questions that ran through her mind as she recalls.
At first, she thought her father was joking. But the moment “this man” started making advances to her, she knew things were serious. She told him off. This man had just lost a wife and had children who were as old as she was. She was under such pressure from her parents including some of her relatives who, according to her, didn’t think that she could do anything else in life. None of them had ever sat to ask her about her future plans. None of them had suggested potential things for her to do. According to her, her father’s motivation for wanting to marry her off in a hurry was the dowry.
In Zambia, when a woman is getting married, the groom’s family pays a huge sum of money to the bride’s family. Though traditionally this was often quoted in cows, nowadays it is just converted into cash. Currently, the going price for a bride can be as high as 12 cows.
It was during those low moments that Lulu went out with some of the older girls from the neighborhood to the nearby nightclub of Mayela. Mayela, or “Sin City,” as it is sometimes referred to, is one place full of activity. The place is patronized by girls from Kalingalinga, Mtendere, Kaunda Square and even as faraway places as Chawama. In stark contrast, the men come from the wealthier neighborhoods of Kabulonga, Woodlands, and Ibex Hill.
Barely a fortnight after Lulu was introduced to Sin City, she slept with her first man in the nearby Theresa Lodge. The man paid her $25 for a “short-time”. She was in so much pain that she went straight home after this experience. She had conflicting thoughts throughout the night about this experience. She loved that she was able to earn some money. “This was the first money I ever made and it took only about ten minutes to make it,” she said. However, she was filled with shame that she could do such a thing. How could she lose her virginity to an old man, let alone a stranger? How could she sell her body?
For the next two weeks, Lulu struggled with these questions. Nevertheless, she enjoyed the freedom of having her own money and spending it on things like a phone, lotion, and sanitary pads. “I knew I could stop depending on my parents for money,” she recalled. “Besides, I had to do something to upset them so that they do not push me to marrying that man.”
Lulu became a frequent customer to Mayela. She would go with some of the girls who were more experienced. They would buy a drink and sit at one of the tables talking about many things. “When a man likes you they would usually ask one of the bartenders or door bouncers to come and talk to you. You would then go out and talk to the man. After you agree on the price and venue then you would go and get it done.”
One thing she was warned by the more experienced girls was not to go with a man to their house. So the girls at Mayela insist on a short time or going to the lodge. After all, you make more money when you do short time. Lulu explained that most men were violent if they took you to their place. After sleeping with you, they would not want to pay you and would simply throw you out of the house in the middle of the night.
She tells a story of one of the girls who went with a man to his place somewhere in Woodlands. After sleeping with her, this man asked her to leave immediately. He quickly picked up her clothes, dragged her out of the house and through the gated wall fence, and threw the clothes at her. She was not paid anything. She did not know where she was. She put her clothes on and started walking the streets of Woodlands until a taxi stopped and gave her a free ride back to Mayela.
According to Lulu, she has had sex with men in cars, someone’s yard, and even at the back of the nightclub. The most she has slept with is two men in one night. She admits that other girls can sleep with as many as four men a night. Lulu points out that her parents have stopped talking about the marriage. The older man has stopped pursuing her because now everyone knows what she is doing.
Lulu is somewhat embarrassed by her new profession. She states that she will stop as soon as things settle down and she saves some money to start a business. When asked if she will continue to pursue her dream career of social work, she quickly agrees. She will save some money and then do a course at one of the counseling schools.
Just before I concluded the discussion with Lulu, I asked her about whether she had been tested for HIV/AIDS. She admitted that she had not. She is careful that men use protection when having sex with her. In fact, she carries some condoms in her purse. She thinks that she is not positive anyway. I asked how much money she needed for her to do the social work or counseling program she wanted to do. She said she needed only about $250. When I asked her whether she would stop prostitution if someone gave her that money to go to school she answered emphatically, “definitely!”
This story is testimony of how Lulu’s parents indirectly pushed their daughter to get involved in prostitution. Is it that her parents are so poor that they wanted to make money by marrying their daughter off? Would the father have pushed her daughter to get married to an older man if he wasn’t poor? Probably not. These are some of the questions I reflected upon as I left Lulu that night. To be honest, her story left me very depressed. It made me angry at how humans can sink so low.
When I got home that night and was typing this story, I was encouraged to continue with this work. After all my community needed to know, the civil society needed to know, the government needed to know and the world out there needed to know. A story as Lulu’s, a young girl of only seventeen, pushed into prostitution by the poverty of her parents needed to be told to the world.
My goal in this book was to not only highlight the plight of the women but also to engage people in conversation. There’s tremendous need for ordinary Zambians to speak out on issues that affect Women. We need to reach out to the victims and help them. We also need to engage lawmakers and policymakers so that we can develop laws that protect such vulnerable groups.
In the book, I offer some recommendations that could help in protecting the women who risk their lives on the streets. Please reach out to your communities and organizations that support vulnerable women. The book can be accessed at Amazon
By Wezi Ngwenya