As we send our students to travel we encourage them to travel to learn and learn to travel, by talking with as many people possible, to expose themselves to as many local experiences as they can find and be curious about anything and everything. Here is a story from Fighting with the Poor student Johnny from France who is in his traveling period.
Zanzibar is a paradise on earth with some of the most beautiful white sandy beaches and lush coconut trees: a paradise that hides an unfortunate reality. If you confront poverty and growing tourism, you get sex. Sexual tourism is omnipresent, and I have even been told: “all women have a price here.”
I’d like to share a moment with you in the middle of March, the temperatures hitting 38 degrees every day, the high season is over and the low season is showing its nose. There are not many tourists on the island, and that makes the competition fiercer. I was relaxing in a local bar and observing tourists who are feeling like they are in Europe while being in an entirely different culture in Zanzibar, which seemed disrespectful in a way. A woman approached me.
We are sitting next to each other, so she engages a talk. “Where are you from?” We make introductions. Her name is Afia (name changed), 35 years old, selling local handicrafts on a beach on the other side of the island. She says she came here with a friend, but she has already left. As I am also alone, I represent an easy target. People start looking at me and showing thumbs up. I sense that something is going on, something that I guess but I cannot be sure about. Maybe the way she is dressed is a giveaway, but it is a bar so it might as well be as she likes to show her body. At firsthand, it seems strange in a Muslim country, but I’m not here to judge.
After a few minutes into the conversation, she wonders what I am up to tonight, if I would like to join her in another club. “I have no plan,” I say. Afia proposes to go dancing and then … go to her room. I, curious, ask “why?”. She seems embarrassed and apologizes. She really apologizes for asking such a question, and I can see in her eyes that she knows, I understand what she is offering. After a long silence and hesitation, I ask if she does this for business. She is ashamed to answer. I reassure her that I’d just like to understand why.
Afia is a single mother because the child’s father disappeared during her pregnancy, who also takes care of her brother’s son and her mum. The 350.000 shillings (150$ at the day) she earns monthly at the shop are far too little to be enough. Prostitution is a way to make the extra support she needs. She says several times that she doesn’t like it, but she got to take care of the children. She doesn’t want to smoke weed and drink alcohol, but tourists do. She doesn’t like to bring guys home and get paid, but tourists pay good money. She wouldn’t reveal how much she earns, although I have been told besides drinks and food, sex with a prostitute costs between 20.000 and 50.000 shillings (10 to 25$). “It depends,” she says. As we move to another floor, because the bar is closing, I see similar black girls coming along with both black and white guys. Those guys are shameless, touching and even kissing them on the thighs.
She continues to talk even though I have told her she can leave or not answer my questions if she doesn’t want to. But she speaks, and I listen. She has a dream to own a shop that earns more money so that she could stop selling her body, but her goal has a cost: 1 million, if not 2. For a year of having this double life, she hasn’t managed to make it. Afia is exhausted, she goes to sleep late when the guy is satisfied and wakes up early to go to her underpaid job. Her face reveals deep and sincere expressions of a non-wished lifestyle.
She asks me if I can help her with the money. It’s difficult for me to answer. Would it really help if I give her the money she would have earned if I would have accepted to sleep with her? She needs a million, and I don’t have it. I hand her 2000 shillings, just enough for her to take a motorbike taxi to get home, or maybe to another club. Before she leaves, I give her a hug and tell her to take care.
It feels embarrassing. What should I have said? What should I have done? Pay her for something she doesn’t like or show her empathy? What helps the best? I don’t have an answer to this question, but I am the kind of person who gives empathy and doesn’t profit from misery. Shame on all those people who do. I do not judge prostitution when it’s chosen, it should be respected, but when it’s a suffering, we need to act. Although I know she won’t be reading this article, I’d like to tell her that I wish her the best in life.
But it’s not only women who sell their bodies for sex tourism. Although to be a male prostitute requires some more conditions: to be young, to have a strong body full of muscles and to have no shame. Most of the men are under their 30’s. Usually, they work in hotels. They spot lonely women, who are more open and might be looking to fulfill their sexual desires. This is what brings us to the prostitution of many young men on Zanzibar. A different kind of prostitution: They will not directly ask to be paid for sex. They will go to a club, dance with women, seduce one of them and let her know that he is in love with her. If the first part of the fake romance is successful, they will have sex. Only after this, the guy will say that his life is hard, he is poor, and he needs money to help his family, which in some cases is true. In this scenario, two solutions are possible: either the woman says it was just for sex or she gives him money, and the theatre goes on as long as the woman stays here. In both cases, the guy wins. He is satisfied even just with sex. The ultimate hope is for the woman to bring him to Europe to a better future, even if he has to share his life with someone he doesn’t genuinely love.
The typical woman is an elderly, over 40 years old and white. The reasons why they come to enjoy sex are multiple. Maybe they are lonely after a divorce, and they like to feel desire again, possibly young, and strong black guys are their fantasy, perhaps they just want to forget themselves in an affair with no tomorrow.
These men are called the “beach-boys”, which is not considered a bad word. Everybody understands what they do and why. They have no shame to do it. It doesn’t excuse the manipulation and lies, but their hands are tied, there is a real lack of money behind the beautiful views on an endless blue ocean and blue sky. Life is a struggle, and you really learn what it means here – stuck in paradise.