Juba, the capital of the world's newest country, South Sudan is earning accolades by the day.
Since the historic secession from the North mid last year, Juba has seen a surge in trade and a massive construction of new structures, as it scrambles for recognition in the global map. The city has attracted people from all over the world including humanitarian workers, consulates, traders and those in hospitality industry. The new economic euphoria, coupled by an unprecedented cross border immigration is now flourishing the world's oldest profession-prostitution.
Commercial sex workers are drawn from neighboring countries including Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the DRC. They are thronging Juba for one mission- to make quick money. Even the previously naive South Sudanese and several Northerners (young girls and women) have been lured into the trade in a bid to earn a living and sexual freedom.
In a bid to revamp a country reeling from a protracted 21 year old civil war, it is a catch 22 scenario for foreign traders who want to export anything that can be sold in Juba-including sex. The upsurge in sex trade, mainly booming along the border areas and in the main city has necessitated the influx of brothels, mainly operating as sex camps. Among the brothels that have made house hold names include, Gumbo, Rock City, Jebel, Customs and Airport road among others, all located within Juba town. Kenyans known to be entrepreneurial by nature are flexing their muscles in the lucrative business. Rock City Lodge is home to about 200 and 400 Kenyan sex workers, according to statistics by a Juba-based NGO, Confident Children out of Conflict, who mainly target travelers and tourists.
Although prostitution is illegal in South Sudan, many girls engage in the trade in hide-outs masquerading as lodges. An official from the South Sudan Aids Commission who begged anonymity admits that containing the vice is an uphill task because it has also lured under-age South Sudanese girls sell their bodies for a living.
"Prior to the stability of South Sudan and the signing of the CPA in 2005, prostitution was largely associated with foreigners. It is regrettable that our very own girls now engage in transactional sex work due to the influence from their foreign peers." He cites poverty and lack of education as the major contributors to commercial sex. "You see, most of these local girls are homeless and without any family, and since they can't get descent jobs, they resort to prostitution."
Foreign girls turning tricks are increasing in number. Statistics from a US-funded organisation, Family Health International puts the number of sex workers to between 4000 and 10000, which is also inclusive of locals.
A section of Kenyan girls living in Juba engage in transactional sex voluntarily while scores of others are lured into the trade by unscrupulous agents operating in Nairobi, who organise for the girls to go and work as domestic workers or as waitresses, only to end up as prostitutes. Once they enter Juba, the latter are now dependent on their 'hosts' who mainly operate as pimps. Janet Kanini 25 has just returned from Juba. She was invited there by her aunt (name withheld) in January last year, immediately after the historic referendum to call for a secession of the South from the North.
"I thought that I was going to help my aunt in her restaurant situated at the Jebel market. She had linked me up with an agency in Nairobi's river road area who helped me with a passport and visa as well as other logistics to enable me travel to Juba." The young girl, who allows me to use her real names but not photograph her, says upon reaching Juba, she only worked at her aunt's restaurant for one week. She would later be enrolled in a brothel to work as a prostitute.
"I could service five male clients in a night. They never paid me anything as the money went to the brothel owner who I referred to as 'mum'. Janet talks of the sexual violence that surrounds the brothels. "The clients do not care if you are there voluntarily or otherwise. Some even insult you while others beat you up." She says that the issue of protection is a mirage as some clients refuse to wear condoms. "Sometimes when you tell a man to use a condom, he points a gun at you. Then after finishing with you, he will mock you and leave the room, ready to 'slaughter' another girl," she says.
Janet's case represents scores of girls who are not in a position to negotiate their sex work, or even to benefit from the money they have been earning. Hers is a classic example of involuntary bonded labour. An action research carried out by a Juba-based NGO, Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC) notes that 'Pimps are the business brokers or -managers of prostitutes. Usually the prostitutes are highly dependent on them for their protection. Financially, they are usually dependent on them too, even to the extent of bondage. They manage the flow of clients to the sex workers and recover a large part of their earnings as rent in return.'
Like any other trade, sex business is booming in Juba. Most Kenyan girls that iI interviewed admit that Sudanese men are the 'new kids on the block' as they have lots of cash. "I target tall Dinka men who drive cars with number plates written GOSS (Government of South Sudan)," says Triza* proudly. Triza is a fresh graduate of Nairobi University who had been a commercial sex worker at the famous Koinange 'Red light' street in Nairobi.
She decided to export her skills into Juba because, according to her, Nairobi is not lucrative any more. "There are so many of us at Koinange street and with the harsh economic times in Nairobi, people are wary of spending on sex." In Juba, she can make a whooping 1,335.77 SDG ($500) in a week and this she does by sleeping with different men at different lodges. Triza's clients include rich Dinka men, expatratiates but on a grey day, she can offer her services to truck drivers who pay her a paltry 20SDG per sex round.
Juba's sexual landscape is a far cry from Nairobi's Koinange street. Whereas Nairobi girls are known for positioning themselves at noticeable pick-up points along the road, or operating in palatial homes in leafy suburbs, in Juba, the sex business is mainly in dilapidated sex camps. I visited the Gumbo Business Centre, which also serves as a transit area for many trucks that deliver goods into Juba thus making it strategic for many travelers in need of lodging.
Gumbo is lined up with numerous brothels masquerading as lodges. These are skewed structures mainly constructed with tin and papyrus and the numerous rows and rows of them have given birth to a sprawling slum. Never mind the dilapidated set up of the place, with open sewers full of filth and rotten garbage, for this is where money changes hands for female bodies. In here, the business of sex is under the strict guidance of pimps (brothel owners) thus making it less lucrative for the girls. It is here that you also find under age Southern Sudanese who cannot afford to solicit for sex in Hadikas (night clubs).
"On a good week, I can pocket around (500 SDG) $187 and that is if I solicit sex from one sex camp to another," says Kate* a Kenyan. Kate earns 20 SDG per sex session and can reduce it to 10, on a rainy day. According to her many Kenyan girls, unlike their foreign counterparts, always agree to use condoms unless when they are under intense pressure from violent clients. "We always get condoms from local NGO's like International HIV/Aids Alliance and our peer educators implore on us to always use them. Sometimes when you tell a client to wear protection, he threatens you with a knife or refuses to pay you." She has since gone for five HIV tests which proved negative. But this status could be short-lived.
Kate lives a double life. During the day, she works in a salon and at night, she is a 'call' girl. She has so mastered the art that she is able to spot a man with a rich pocket. "You know here in Juba, so many wealthy people are coming for business and after a hard day, they need some quality time," she says with a smile. Kate decries the deplorable life of the sex camps where exploitation is rife.
She says that lodge owners capitalize on the trade at the expense of the girls, "We do the donkey work but get peanuts. If I rely on the sex camps I will be so poor, so I have to up my game by soliciting for men in night clubs and sometimes at the border." She however admits that the influx of twilight girls in Juba has reduced their earnings.
"I came here five years ago and that time, we were so few. A single sex act could earn me at least 30pounds ($11). I could operate from Jebel and Konyokonyo markets. (Jebel is the largest market in Juba which is synonymous with sex workers, while the latter has traders of all sorts and also specialisez in sex trade). She says that Kenyans have to compete for clients with Ethiopian and Ugandan girls, who flock the markets and are also very 'smart' in the game. Sometimes when business is really low, they are forced to share clients and consequently share the pay.
These sex rooms have nothing to show for it, save for the 'work' that goes on here. The beds are made of bamboo sticks, often very weak and lack bedsheets. Ventilation is a mirage and floors are mainly mud or sand. The bathroom area needs a facelift, it reeks of stale urine and the taps are ever dry. The girls have to rely on the brothel owners to provide water for bathing. One has to part with at least $3-5 for daily rent in which case is the amount one makes on the job. Most girls however, opt for monthly rent which could go for $50 or less, if one negotiates with the brothel owners.
"Here is it very hard to get well-to-do clients because of the deplorable condition of the area, but all the same we make it," says a disgruntled Mary*, also a Kenyan. At 35, the mother of three is not ready to quit yet. All her children were born on 'the job' and there is a probability that they might end up like her. She talks of a great moral decadence at the brothels, thus making it not safe for growing children. Her main clients are truck drivers who often book nearby lodges for sleep. She says that some drivers are so stingy with money and opt to exchange sex for food. "A client can sleep with you and instead of giving you money, he will buy you food." These are mainly Mundukuru( Arabic shop owners).
Though Gumbo is mainly associated with Ugandan sex workers, Kenyan girls are gaining popularity by the day. Most sex camps here are owned by soldiers and police men who often run the place in 'absentia' but the sex workers admit that the same policemen solicit sex from them, 'at a very bad fee'. One Ugandan girl told me that the police pretend to do raids at night in a bid to stop the vice, only to end up sleeping with the girls, "Banange, are you asking me about police raids, hahaha, we are not scared of them anymore."
Most Kenyan restaurant proprietors organize for sex clients for the call girls. Once the clients dine in their restaurants, they are referred to the brothels where eager girls are waiting for them. The girls will later split the pay with the restaurant owner.
Ironically, even the areas surrounding the renowned Dr. John Garang Mausoleaum and the Juba University roundabouts are prone to sex workers. The International HIV & Aids Alliance, an NGO supporting community action on Aids in developing countries, which has a presence in South Sudan, estimates the HIV prevalence rate to be 6% in Juba. The influx of foreigners who influence young South Sudanese into prostitution could push the figure further.
Now, with the alarming HIV prevalence rate, Local authorities in Juba, under the directive of the South Sudan goverment is set to dismantle all city brothels and deport foreign prostitutes who they blame for decaying the morals of South Sudanese. If this happens, foreign sex workers, including Kenyans may have to find alternative ways of earning a living.