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NEWS

The Rise Of Pop-Up Brothels In Nairobi

Meet the people controlling Kenya's sex trade

BY Joan Thatiah

Mar 22, 2021, 09:41 AM

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Nic Louw
This story begins with a post in a Facebook group. Apparently, with the Covid-19 pandemic keeping people indoors for most of the last year, sex workers have abandoned their spots in the city centre for street corners in residential areas. The worry in this Facebook group is that having the ladies of the night this close to home will morally corrupt children and husbands.

A spot check in Kasarani, Kayole and Umoja, three of the most densely populated residential areas in Nairobi, reveals that these women's fears are not unfounded. In alleys and matatu stages I see women, some of them surprisingly young and others pregnant, on the prowl. Others are ordinary-looking and could easily be mistaken for mama fua who hang around estates looking for clients to wash clothes for. The few that I approach are reluctant to speak with me about their trade, even under the cover of anonymity.

Other than the women, I notice something else.

In parts of Kasarani, there are identical cards nailed onto electricity poles. On them features a picture of a half-naked woman, a phone number and the word ‘Massage’ written at the top in red. This is my next lead. I call the number and a pleasant woman who sounds surprised to hear a female voice answers the phone. I pose as a young woman seeking a job in their establishment and reluctantly, she gives me a number of a man she says will give me a job.
Nic Louw
Max refuses to discuss business with me on the phone and insists on a face-to-face meeting. I meet him in a car wash on Kiambu Road where he is having his two cars washed. He is a bear of a man, over six feet tall and almost as wide. When I first see him I contemplate turning back and abandoning my mission. He tells me he is 40 but from his dressing, he could be younger. 

After quickly sizing me up, and perhaps deciding that I am too short to be with the Kenya police, he begins to rope me in. The only job he has available, he tells me, is making his clients happy. How? I want to know. 
“You will go and you will do whatever the client wants. If they want to have sex, you will have sex,” he says casually.
I learn quickly that Max runs a pop-up brothel, the new phenomenon in the Kenyan sex trade. A pop-up brothel has no physical location and activities move from one rented space to the other. He runs it from his phone and in hired hotel rooms and Airbnb apartments in residential areas where the women who work for him meet clients, conduct business and then leave quietly.

When he started out he looked for most of the clients himself through his wide social networks but now, the cardboard advertising works just fine. All the money that the women who work under him get goes through him.

“It’s good business. You can make up to Ksh 4,000 a night,” he tells me, still trying to persuade me to work for him.

Unregulated Industry

In a country where 7% of women nationally have traded sex for money or gifts at one point in their lives, a thriving sex industry is hardly a surprise. According to a 2017 UNAID report, there are approximately 134,000 sex workers in the country and Nairobi is home to at least 20,000 of them.

A decade ago, sex workers in Kenya stood at street corners to display their wares. This was before they trickled into massage parlours where they would offer ‘extras’ to willing clients. Thirty-three-year-old Cindy Wangui speaks about beginning work as a sex worker in Nairobi years ago.
“I started sex work in Parklands, we would look for clients out in the street at night. Then I set up a massage parlour with three friends. We saw clients from there,” she says.
Why sex trade? “It’s the only thing I know how to do," she explains.

Cindy is a soft-spoken, light-skinned woman with a cracked front tooth. While I expected a bubbly woman with a coloured weave, heavy makeup and talons, she has her natural hair up in a neat ponytail and the only makeup she has on is a hint of lip gloss.

She tells me that for a few years business at the massage parlour was good. Then, Kenya recorded its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020, a nationwide curfew was instituted and everything went to the dogs.

“We would see most of our clients between 8pm and 1am and with the curfew, the trickle of customers just dried up. Clients would be running home after work so they are not arrested by the police,” she says.
This is how she ended up working for a man she calls Chief. 
Like Max, Chief also runs a pop-up brothel. His business, Cindy shares, started as an agency supplying strippers to parties. Then customers began demanding more and he became a pimp. Compared to her days in the streets when she would often get beaten up and denied payment, Cindy reckons that the pop-up brothels are safer. 
The problem with the arrangement is the men behind the curtains pulling the strings.
“When people hear that we work in posh hotel rooms and furnished apartment in upmarket Nairobi, they think that we are making a lot of money. It’s just peanuts. The pimps make all the money,” she says.
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Cindy is the oldest in her group. She offers that most of the other girls she works with are in their early 20s, a big chunk of them still in college. Every night, her boss has about eight women out working. This means that there are still thousands of sex workers out in the streets and working from bars, exposed.

Still A Man's World

In Kenya, the legal situation regarding sex work is complex. While the Kenyan law doesn’t criminalize sex work, it is illegal to profit from, abet, compel or incite prostitution. The illegality means that the industry is largely unregulated. This is how men like 36-year-old Kidero get away with running a digital brothel.

I meet Kidero through a forwarded WhatsApp message. The poorly crafted message is looking for clients out for the best time of their lives. ‘We have all types of juicy girls, including exotic ones, the message says. To meet these girls, I am told, I need to go through him.

I am a bit surprised when I first meet him. In place of what I expected to be a big, loud, scary man is slender and smiling, one who is even a little easy on the eyes. Within minutes of meeting him, he taps on his phone to show me photographs of his two-year-old son. Kidero is a trained travel agent. He began his enterprise by chance as he was spending a lot of time online two years ago, looking for something to do after his last job at a travel agency fell through.
Nic Louw
“I noticed that there was a gap between the people looking to pay for physical pleasure and the people selling it,” he says.

His business is purely online and he runs it from his house. A big part of his day is spent on social media advertising his services. Sex workers, he says, are never in short supply. He manages his ‘workers’ through a WhatsApp group. Once he has landed a client, he will book a furnished apartment also online.
“It’s tricky because you never know who is watching. I have a few furnished apartment owners I work with who don’t ask too many questions” 
The fault in this seemingly seamless enterprise is the fact that it is mainly online where almost everyone is pretending to be someone else meaning that he is not able to thoroughly vet clients or even the sex workers before taking them on. The whole idea of the online pop-up brothel may be a lot less safe than it looks for both the sex worker and the client.

“That’s true. It’s just like any other business, bad things sometimes happen. We have had a few incidents,” he says. When I press him for the details of these incidents, he goes quiet ending that line of questioning.

For him, even in the midst of the pandemic, business is good. His only worry is the recently introduced digital tax targeting small businesses and individuals offering services online.

“The government will start looking at online spaces more closely. Things should be very hot now,” he says meaning that the risk of him getting caught running his illegal business has gone up.

While Koinange Street, Nairobi’s major red-light district, may appear to have a reduced population, the truth is that sex work is still thriving in the city. The shocking truth is that even if you live in a comfortable, safe neighbourhood, sex trade may be happening right next door.

And it’s being run by the most unlikely people.

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