I was sitting at the Green Pastures Hotel, Ngong, the other day. I’d just taken care of some errands at the bank and sent out emails. I spotted the Green Pastures café and noticed that although several tables were occupied by old Masai men, there was still space to sit and enjoy Kenya’s legendary chai. I decided to walk in and have a cup of tea and 2 mandazi. After ordering my snacks at the counter, and grabbing a seat, I became aware of two school girls in uniform eating fries. I also began following a conversation between a security guard who’d walked in for lunch and the hotel staff. They were making fun of him for eating githeri and reminding him of previous visits to the joint when he’d ordered chapati and beef stew – a much more affluent meal than his current maize and bean stew. He laughed off their remarks, intent on negotiating some beef gravy onto his plate. I thought about paying for his meal but he seemed a lot more at home in the restaurant than I was. On the other hand, I figured, two high school girls would love a free plate of fries. I decided to pay for their meal.
At the end of my meal, when I went to the counter and settled my check, I asked the cashier whether the two students had already cleared their tab. She said no, at which point I expressed my desire to pay on their behalf. Although she seemed a bit hesitant, I went ahead and handed her the KSHS 200. I had not calculated a quid pro quo – at least in no more than an acknowledging nod of the chin, and a shrug of the shoulders. Essentially, a thank-you-but-it’s-no-big-deal response. Nothing more. Putting myself in their same position, I reckoned that as a cash-strapped high school kid any benefactors, especially those engaged in public transactions would be quite welcome. I get a free plate of fries and all I have to do is wave thanks and goodbye? Sign me up!
That, it turns out, was the exact moment of my miscalculation. These two young women were not operating under the same assumptions. I hissed at them as I was walking out the door – that “xsxs” sound you make with tongue partly jutting out from lips spread over barely exposed front teeth. They both turned to face me. I then ventured to say, “msilipe, nimelipa.” The reaction was fascinating, actually. One of them interpreted my words as an insult. Pointing her right index finger to just above her ear and behind the temple, she gestured asking, “wewe, uko na hii?” Essentially, my sanity was in question. How dare I openly pay for their meal? Her body language was extremely rude; that she was irked enough by my actions to also perform her displeasure in public is amazing to me and invites so many questions. I don’t doubt that at least one of the young ladies, perhaps both, harassed the cashier for having accepted the money on their behalf. I wonder if both female students understood accepting a free meal to also mean partaking in an exchange – for which their part of the deal was yet to be determined. Being that I’m a man, it’s not entirely inconceivable that I might have done so to elicit sexual favors.
During the last couple of days I spent in Accra, I took it upon myself to bar hop extensively, in commemoration of the wonderful six weeks I’d spent in Ghana. East Legon was one of my favorite haunts. Close to the Mensvic Hotel where I was lodged, I could walk back from a restaurant as I surveyed the night scene.
I’d just had a lovely time at Jerry’s; this outdoor pub that sprawls from within the halls of a juke-box-furnished hall onto the busy Legon Avenue. Patrons not only sit at the counter, indoors, they also occupy plastic seats on what had historically been a sidewalk. They balance local and foreign brews – Star, Club, Heineken – on plastic tables and nod to the DJ’s efforts. Sometimes the DJ replaces the juke box; often they simply compete for an audience. The party spills over onto the busy two-way street. Young ladies in various stages of undress, saunter up and down the street. They familiarly walk into Jerry’s, order drinks, stand by the kebab/mshikaki grill and light cigarettes, then walk back onto the road waiting for the next client. These young women don’t ask for anyone’s permission to be present. If Jerry’s does not prove up to par, they easily walk across to Phillipo’s – a hip barbecue joint that boasts a long line of customers waiting to pick up their chicken, goat, or sausage meats-on-a-skewer. Dressed in wigs, black evening dresses, short skirts, sling bags, heels, and manicured nails, these young women are comfortably in place.
Alongside them, in between Jerry’s and Phillipo’s, a range of foreign vehicles drives up and down sometimes slowing down to let one of them hop in. Occasionally, a driver will simply pull up at Jerry’s and begin a conversation with one of the women. Drinks might even be ordered and consumed as the couple chats, sometimes sitting inside the car, but more often simply leaning on the hood or the car doors. Understandably, given the large number of ladies present, it often seems like a buyer’s market. Consequently, several ‘sellers’ chose to detach themselves from the Jerry’s/Phillipo’s crowd and stake out their own spots. About 200 meters in either direction, you’ll find seductively dressed ladies standing alone, as though waiting for a cab, or in twos and threes, sharing a smoke and surviving the night. Walking from Jerry’s to the Mensvic, I was fascinated by how the women chose a particular spot. Did everyone have a favorite spot; would others stay away and respect some kind of ownership? Was it more strategic to stand underneath a tree, next to a restaurant, or behind an electric pole? At what point in the conversation between a sex worker and a client did the issue of monetary compensation arise?
If Jerry’s and Phillipo’s are visited by the hoi polloi – folks who don’t mind mingling outdoors, assaulted by hooting taxis, mosquitoes, braving inadequate/non-existent interior décor – the new KFC joint 300m down the road is reserved for the upwardly mobile. Where Jerry’s is loud, chaotic, and characterized by cheap plastic furniture that breaks or bends – suddenly planting its occupier on the dirt floor – KFC is marked by shiny glass walls, polished daily to assist its clientele better reflect on their progress up the social ladder. The wood and metal furniture is largely immovable; the only fluid part of the restaurant is the drive thru section where customers lean out of Range Rovers and latest model Jaguars to order family packs of chicken nuggets and diet cokes.
Jennifer and Anita were standing together by the road side. I walked on the pavement behind them headed back to the hotel. Jennifer made first contact; not in any rude or heckling kind of way, but just a polite hello. I stopped and engaged them in conversation. They shared their names, after I’d told them mine. And then I began with the fifth degree. Where are you from? Jennifer said she was Liberian, but Anita was from Togo. I thought it was highly suspicious that none of them identified as Ghanaian. Was this to avoid some kind of stigma? For me, my antenna was doubly raised because I’d had several conversations with Ghanaians where crime and begging on the streets were social ills repeatedly associated with foreigners – not something Ghanaians did. Go figure! I couldn’t tell if Jennifer’s English made her Liberian enough, but I sought to check Anita’s French. I can happily report that even if she’s not Togolese, her French is more fluent than mine!
I was interested in finding out how long they’d been pursuing this line of work. And I was especially curious to figure out how, if at all, they read potential clients. I asked questions about how often they reach out to someone who’s walking. Jennifer remarked, “this one has a lot of questions!” In their position, I figured I’d only speak with men who drove, expecting them to have more disposable income. Jennifer and Anita made the argument that sometimes they actually make more from a man who walked to them. Anita was pretty clear that if she had a husband she’d not be on the streets at that time; she’d have someone to take care of her. We parted with me buying drinks for them. It was the least I could do. Having taken up their time with my questions, I could at least buy each of them a beer in return. The cash exchange was surprisingly comfortable for all parties involved.