9 February 2013

Nigeria: Gimbiya Street - Dead End or Path to a Better Future?

Gimbiya Street in Abuja is well known for the prostitutes who hustle there every night. Weekly Trust explores the scene through the eyes of one of the girls.

She had to go far away from home to do what she is doing. Nobody in her hometown in the southwest of Nigeria is supposed to know what she does, but her extended stays in Abuja, and the Rose flower tattooed on her left arm speak a rather unambiguous language. Since the end of last year she hustles at Gimbiya Street, a well known, illegal street-workers patch in Abuja. In the capital, hundred of kilometers far from home, no friend or member of the family observes her, or even worse, appears as a potential customer.

Tonight she is wearing a red gown, unlike most of the other girls, long trousers that hide her dainty body. She hardly looks like a prostitute, rather like a student on her way to class. As she stands beside the street hundreds of cars pass in walking speed over night. One crazy man has equipped his car with chains of light. It looks like a spaceship and catches the attention of all the girls. The men search for the girl that fits best to their taste. She whistles to attract their attention and bends down trying to look into their eyes. Men stop their cars, lower the window and scrutinize a hand full of girls that are gathering to compete for the customer. But she also has a glance at her potential customer. She doesn't like old, fat or smelling men. If they are too disgusting, she refuses to go with them. If she decides to offer a sexual service to him, she will enter his car to head toward his house or a hotel. Afterwards the man will sometimes want her to remain beside him while he falls asleep. Under the veil of darkness she will leave him early in the morning. It will be as though she has never been there.

He hangs around at Gimbiya Street every night. Four years ago the thin man in his thirties has arrived in Abuja in the darkness of the eve of 26th of May 2008. He will never in his life forget this date. He leans at a fence beside the entrance of the Grand Mirage Hotel. A band inside the hotel plays Bob Marley. He, the chain-smoker, is their brother. If his sisters are in trouble, harassed by drunken customers he always comes to their aid. That is his lifestyle. Doing the right thing, no matter what it costs. He doesn't know the girl's names. It doesn't matter to him, because they usually protect themselves with fake names. He considers them as very fine girls, many of them educated and gifted with skills that should allow them a bright future under normal circumstances. Frequently the girls come over to have a brief chat with him. Sometimes they make jokes, but most of the time they just sit side by side and observe the hustle and bustle of Gimbiya Street.

A glance at the girls reveals that some of them lack the straightforward gaze, the calm and well thought moves and the upright posture full of dignity of the dainty girl in the red gown. Have these girls passed a point of no turning back? Trapped in the dead end of Gimbiya Street? The job appears seductive. They may do it for fun, for easy money, expensive clothes and a car. Some girls have lost themselves in the nights at the street-workers patch. There is no yesterday and no tomorrow; only her, the customer, the sex and the money.

The seductive character of the job is not the only challenge. The girl in the red gown blames the working conditions at Nigeria's street-worker's patches to render the job unbearable. Girls at Nigerian street-worker's patches are frequently abducted by ritualists who may cut off their head or private parts to use it as charms. One night ritualists have caught her. Surprisingly they seemed to be unsure how to use her. Then they tortured her and dumped her in the bush in an unknown place. "It was only God that saved my life in this night."

Since prostitution was banned by law, the police, the environmental task force and soldiers arrest girls hustling at Abuja's street-worker's patches several times a week. An initiative by the senate's deputy president to legalize prostitution in 2011 couldn't gain popular support. Tonight the police arrive at 11pm in a private car. The policemen with bullet proof vests and AK-47s squeeze five crying girls at the backseat and drive off. She was unlucky and is among the arrested girls. At the reception of the police-station nine intimidated girls are gathered. With a parental attitude the policemen- and women complain that these girls wouldn't stop to make trouble. The girl's shoes are huddled together and all other belongings put in a plastic bag. After their names are recorded the girls are locked in one of the notorious Nigerian police cells. A dark room, smelling of urine, shit on the ground. After hours a friend brings the money that will finally bail her and two of her friends out. Tonight the girls have lost N10.000. It was hard earned money. A signboard inside the police station's reception claims "The police is your friend and bail is always free".

The three girls are walking out of the police station heading towards home. It was her first time in police custody. "That is how we catch fun!" For a short time they look like children full of adrenaline after playing a prank to someone. After seconds the grotesque euphoria disappears. Her head is aching. Exposed to the risks of being trapped in the car of a stranger with unknown intentions, harassed by Abuja's security agencies the working conditions are troubling her mind. She would rather like to work in a clean and safe hotel abroad. A friend of her just returned from Dubai. Nowadays it is one of the major destinations of Nigerian sex-workers. Though it is a country where prostitution is strictly forbidden, the working conditions are apparently better and the payment is higher.

She is still a student in a Polytechnic in her hometown. Soon she will return to write exams. She will have to learn well to compensate all the lecturers for the lectures she has missed. On a daily basis she has witnessed how ambitious plans for the future are shattered due to a lack of money. Her mother has died when she was thirteen years old. Her father struggles to sustain the living for her stepsiblings. Last year she has made up her mind to hustle and called her friends who were already working at Gimbiya Street. Once she has saved a certain amount of money she wants to open a shop in her hometown. She already has a clear picture of the financial plan and how it would look like. With her forefinger she points at where the wine, the cosmetics, the food and the cash desk would be. She hustles in the night but she has never called herself a prostitute. What she does is not who she is. She considers herself on the path to a better future. Tomorrow has not yet disappeared in the dead end of Gimbiya Street.

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