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Published: March 25th 2011
I feel like I’m living in a different life over here. I email and chat with the in-country staff here on a daily basis when in Baltimore, but when I’m here I’m so busy battling heat and mosquitoes; keeping a supply of clean water and edible food; and dealing with cultural differences and language barriers that I often forget that I have things like bills to pay and other emails to respond to and a life continuing along at home. And with Skype connections being so bad lately, even keeping in close contact with Ken has been a challenge. I was talking to an expat colleague who, after living in East Africa for 3 years, still feels like she’s in la-la land. I’m not sure what all of that means, but there it is. I am living in another world.
The other night, my Japanese friend and I went to our favorite Indian restaurant for dinner where the Tanzanians are dressed in traditional Indian garb and the owner stops by your table to make sure you are enjoying your meal. Luckily my friend’s friends and family were not directly affected by the earthquake/tsunami, but we spent a bit of time talking about it. We also watched the expats and visiting foreigners and an older white man with a young Tanzanian woman while we enjoyed our navrattan korma and veg biryani.
After dinner we walked down the road to Q Bar, which is notorious in the neighborhood for being sleazy. M. said the place is packed with sex workers, so she wanted me to go check it out. (Funny how people always want to take me to the sleazy locations, probably because they know I’ll just walk up to people and start asking questions.) We did a lap around the place, which was a little courtyard outside, meaning it was very warm. There were two bars, a pool table, a soccer game being projected on a large screen, and lots of tables and chairs. We decided to have a beer and people-watch for a bit.
As the night progressed, woman after woman dressed in skin tight clothes and spiked-heel shoes filtered into the place. They would hone in on a white man sitting alone and go over to bat their eyelashes or flirt or ask for a light of their cigarette. A man sitting at a table in front of us was ordering wine and dinner for his “date”, a young woman who kept leaning onto him and putting her arm around him. Next to us a couple of white men sat down, who I think were Italians. Within a few minutes, two women joined them. One was in cargo shorts and a white t-shirt, had manicured dreads, a knitted cap with traditional African colors, and tattoos on her arms. She was clearly playing the “rasta” role. The other woman was wearing a tight black dress that only covered one shoulder, black fishnet stockings, and black high heels. Before we finished our first beer, I saw the man with the stockings woman put his hand in her lap, rub her inner thigh, and reach into her crotch on multiple occasions. It was pretty soon afterwards that the 4 of them left to go to the guesthouse upstairs that rents rooms for $50 per night. They returned within 45 minutes.
The guy leaning against the high-top table to our left was watching the soccer game. Three different women approached him, but he said very little to them. He kept smiling at me, but I wasn’t sure if it was because he was interested or because he knew we were amused by all of the seductions that were taking place.
Another woman in a blue tank top and tight jeans and heels kept pacing back and forth in front of us, trying to catch the eyes of men. M. is good with Kiswahili, so she went over to her and asked her to join us. I bought her a beer and asked her a slew of questions in true field research style. I swear she told me her name was Happy. She told us she comes there often but lives close by and sleeps at her own place. She has a 7 year old son but is only 24 years old herself. She knew an awful lot about how the rooms in the guesthouse look, and stories about various women that were there (including one lesbian). She told us how she makes juice and ice cream and has two children sell it for her on the street in Dar es Salaam. She also told us how she once fell in love with a man from Norway, but that shortly after they moved in together, he said he was done with her country and her and left.
Happy was truly happy. She laughed a lot and kept giving me a high-five when she said something she thought was funny. I asked her opinion on the stereotype that all Tanzanians cheat, and she said, “All people are cheat! Man everywhere tell you they love you and cheat you!” (laugh, high-five)
I asked what she was doing there that night. “I come for fun, some drink, maybe meet friend,” as in, a foreign man. My guess is that these sex workers often hope that one of these foreigners will fall in love with her and take her to a faraway land. These women were all very beautiful and had light skin, but some were sickly thin. Drugs? HIV? Both? All a good possibility.
The men were disgusting. They tended to be older white men with a scruffy look and uncut hair who probably have wives or girlfriends at home to which they act like miserable shlubs. It was clear most of these men were there for a little taste of Tanzanian twat.
Can you tell I was disgusted? Watching the man with the woman in fishnets made me nauseous. I wanted to go over, slap him across the face, and say, “What the fuck are you doing?? Do you have no respect for women to be acting like this?!” And he clearly didn’t—when he first came back from the guesthouse he was ignoring his new female friend. Then he brought another one of his friends to her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was pointing to her, pointing to him, and nodding—it was clear he was trying to arrange for his friend to be her second client for the night. Supposedly these women pull in 100,000 Tshs per night, which is a typical monthly Tanzanian salary. Very, very good money. But I would bet the condom usage is low and the rate of violence is high.
I was happy to see the guy making eyes at me left alone when the soccer game was over.
Commercial sex work is everywhere, and some women really do enjoy their jobs and feel empowered by being able to sell their sexuality. And I am not one to advocate for abolition of sex work. People can do what they want to do, as long as they do it safely. But in places like Tanzania, sex work is usually out of necessity for the woman. And when you see these men taking advantage of cheap pussy in a resource poor country, it brings out the angry feminist in me. A man like that clearly has no respect for women. How could you?
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