(Adult Content) I connected with Life Bloom Services International while at a conference at Kenyatta University in Nairobi the end of July 2011. There I met Catherine Wanjohi, the executive director and founder of LBSI, where she gave a presentation titled, “Giving a second chance to women and girls in the sex work industry through education.” I spoke with her at the end of the panel to find out more about Life Bloom and to see if she was interested in brainstorming ways to grow the network of support for LBSI. We spoke a few more times before the end of the conference, exchanged phone numbers (I had a local number while in Kenya. Thanks to a freed iPhone—and the help of a KU student—it was actually possible.), and had tentative plans for me to visit a brothel and the offices of Life Bloom.
Connecting in the city and the landscape. We connected via phone a few times over the next few days and set up a time when Susan, who works with LBSI, would come and pick me up from the Kenya Comfort, where I was staying during the last two days in Kenya. The day came and Susan picked me up, being driven by a hired driver, which is customary in Kenya where I still attest that successful drivers aught to receive a PhD in Vehicular Maneuvering. We introduced ourselves, and I met two other people in the vehicle (the driver, Jonathan, and another woman associated with LBSI who was feeling ill and coughing a lot—I gave her some vitamin C I had packed to help stay healthy through all the traveling) and drove through Nairobi to an area called Eastleigh. Once we were close to our destination, we picked up a representative of the Ministry of Health, who was scheduled to talk with a group of sex workers.
On the journey, the change in the landscape of the city was fairly drastic. Downtown Nairobi is relatively modern. There are parks, high rises, chain and local shops, hotels, paved roads, and men and women dressed in business attire. Once we got closer to Eastleigh, the height of the city diminished, the roads turned to dirt, buildings didn’t appear as well maintained, there were more bars on windows, and since it had just rained, the roads had about three inches of standing brown water in them. The make-up of the water was questionable. In transit, we drove past a group of mainly men wearing traditional Muslim attire listening to a speaker on the sidewalk. Though there were still men and women in business attire, there was definitely a wider mix of social class in Eastleigh than there had been in downtown Nairobi and some clothing and shoes were tattered.
When we arrived at our destination, we hopped from the car to the curb to save our feet and shoes from the wet muck of the streets. I surveyed the destination. It was a concrete block building, one-story high, that had been painted a light blue. Once through what I can only describe as a breezeway, which was guarded by a young man, the building opened up to a rectangular-shaped common area, which was filled with people and chairs (and animals), which I’ll detail in a moment. There was clothing on two lines, about 10 yards apart from one another, going from the wall where the entry area was to about 30-50 yards to where the building wrapped around and met another wall. The structure was nearly closed off with the breezeway and another opening in the structure at the far end opposite the breezeway. There were only a couple rooms immediately to the right as you walk into the open space before the structure continued at a 90-degree angle and more rooms, about five or so, continued to the end of the row where the structure turned 90-degrees again to the wall where the clothesline ended and there were a few rooms or storage spaces at that end. There was a single wall of rooms that extended from the side of the left wall of the breezeway, about four rooms in total. The width of this open space was about 20-30 yards. The building seemed to be gated off at the breezeway where we entered and opposite this entry area, though not having traveled to the other end of the structure, I am unsure as to whether it was a walkway that led to an area of more rooms or perhaps where there was an additional entryway/exit.
In this space, there was abundant life and what felt like joy. There were several small children wandering about, keeping mainly silent, many of the children appeared to be boys, one of whom I was later given permission to give a piece of Starburst. There were many women, perhaps 15-20, who were sitting in the open space in chairs when we entered the building. They were already engaged in lively conversation, most likely in Kiswahili, an assumption based on the fact that many people in Nairobi, particularly women engaged in sex work, are likely to come from various tribes in Kenya and thus if they are not speaking in English, they are more likely to be speaking the more common shared language of Kenya, Kiswahili. There were also chickens roaming in the common area, at least one of each sex.
I was offered a seat by some of the women and initially tried to refuse—I wanted to be sure there were enough seats for those gathered and didn’t count myself as needing a seat since during travel, I’d spent plenty of time sitting. I was also quite aware that my whiteness* could have been providing me with unearned privilege even in this space—but they kept up their plea and I sat among them along the wall to the right of the entryway. The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle; the representative from the Ministry of Health would be able to speak with them while having visual contact with all of them and they with one another.
The talk that the representative gave was about basic sex education. In a mixture of English and Kiswahili, he spoke about the importance of condom use. He talked about how women should not douche, particularly as a way to avoid infections (and to pay attention to the symptoms of why a woman might want to douche, since the reasons might be due to symptoms from an STD). He asked for a volunteer to demonstrate, on a wooden mock-up, how to properly put on a condom. He did the blow-up-the-condom trick and it was apparent from some of the facial expressions that many of the women had not seen this done before. In fact, the associated discussion with the demonstration–that no matter what a guy says, the condom will fit–was enough to have the women giggling and exchanging knowing glances. He discussed the importance of insisting upon condom use as part of the business process and that if all the women banded together, the men engaging in their services couldn’t just say they would go somewhere else. Of course, this was in both Kiswahili and English, but between the non-verbals and the context of the conversation I’ve heard in many a sex education class, I could piece together what was going on relatively well.
The Ministry of Health representative was still talking with the women when Susan came to get me. She asked me if I wanted to hear one of the women’s stories, since there was a woman who was willing to share her story with me. I was surprised and agreed to follow her.
She brought me to a room that was along the wall extending from the breezeway’s left wall. The room had just enough space for a twin bed, a chair, and a small space between the entry way and the foot of the bed. The room would be wide enough to fit two twin beds, but not much more. The walls were of the same concrete blocks in structure and were painted a robins-egg blue on the bottom and an eggshell white on top. The concrete had pieces falling off, beyond mere chipping, and the wall had scratches, gouges, and dirt in various places; the walls had clearly not been painted in quite some time. The floor was bare concrete. The bed was a simple twin bed with a wool cover that was folded halfway down with peach sheets that were tightly stretched across the bed and tucked in. The owner of the room, who I quickly learned was Nancy, had one make-up bag, one small purse with short shoulder straps, and one plastic bag of belongings in the room. In our conversation, which I’ll describe fully, she seemed to indicate that this was all she owned.
Nancy appeared young, possibly in her late 20s, and aged at the same time, heavy from the weight of the world upon her shoulders, complete with guilt. She was wearing a peach and white-stripped shirt and pants. Her hair was pulled back and part of her hair on the right was pursed from her hair tie. Her eyes were both tired and slightly yellowed, yet there was a glimmer of hope and a lot of kindness in them.
Susan introduced us and indicated that since Nancy was not very comfortable with her English skills, it would be easier for her to tell me her story in Kiswahili while Susan translated into English. It is possible, therefore, that in translation, some nuances and details were lost or misrepresented. From the translation and what I was able to remember and later write down, the following is Nancy’s story. It is important to note that I told Nancy that I did not expect her to share her story with me. That, in fact, her willingness to be so open with a stranger surprised me. She assured me that she was choosing to share her story with me and that because I knew Catherine and was thus associated with Life Bloom, I had already earned her trust. This was very moving and was a strong testament to the strength of the relationships that had been developed between the brothels and LBSI.
I sat on the left edge of the bed, where the wool blanket was, and Susan sat on the right edge along the wall. Nancy was sitting on the bed toward the center and mainly facing me. My body was turned in such a way that I could turn to see Susan, but that I was generally facing Nancy as she spoke.
You don’t choose this life. Nancy left school at Level 7 and prior to being married made her income cleaning homes. After she had been married a while, her husband got sick and they spent all their savings on dialysis. Her husband’s family made her leave their community, possibly due to her not having any children with him that may have otherwise tied her to the community.
Nancy is the eldest of 7 or 8 children and therefore according to tradition and custom, she is expected to help support her younger siblings and her mother. At the time that we spoke, she had helped put two of her siblings through school, though one of them had dropped out.
After her husband died and she had been banished from her husband’s family, a friend of Nancy’s told her about the potential of earning money through sex work. When we spoke, she had been in the business for three, going into four years. When I asked her what she might like to do if she had the choice or option, she mentioned that she wanted to be a hairdresser and would like to complete school. She could speak and understand some English, but it was limited and she seemed to indicate that she might like to know more.
Like the majority of other women in the sex work industry, Nancy did not aspire to be in this line of work, yet her options were limited, particularly in an economically challenging time. Though she had worked before being married, her options were later limited. This is likely due to having been out of the working world for quite some time and a lack of contacts and networks to rely upon – remember, she lost much of her network when her husband died.
The nitty-gritty. I asked her about the business and how much it costs to maintain and what customers get charged/pay. Nancy said that business was slow and that in fact she hadn’t been feeling well, so she didn’t have any customers for the last couple of days. She hadn’t eaten in at least two days either. I asked her what she generally ate when she could and she indicated that rice and cabbage was a typical meal she would have, which is a common staple among Kenyans I had met and very affordable. I asked her about the money. She stated that regular customers would pay between 100 and 200 KSH (equivalent to around 90 cents to $1.90, depending upon the conversion rates). It costs close to 300 to 500 KSH to eat a well-balanced meal at a very affordable place and likely about 200 KSH to purchase food to cook for a modest meal. This struck me the hardest and it was clear that it had. Nancy paused and looked at me – I luckily held back the tears in my throat from surfacing in my eyes, as this was not about me – and I told her, ‘you give so much for so little in return. It makes me sad.’ She had been tearing up at various points of her story, particularly when talking about her deceased husband, and her eyes became a bit watery after I expressed my own emotions and reactions to her story. I also came to find out that it costs 250 KSH just to rent the room that she uses for her business. She indicated that sometimes the women rent rooms from one another when they cannot afford a room on their own.
Religion and guilt. We talked some of her religious history and the reaction within her congregation. She stated that she is a Christian woman, but grapples with what she does for a living and lives with the associated guilt. She indicated as well that some women from her church, particularly the elders’ wives, shunned her after her husband died. She didn’t seem to have a place to go.
Nancy tells her family and her current church that she is employed, but she doesn’t tell them what she does. She seemed to really struggle with the issue of religion. I told her, from my own perspective and belief in god, that god still loves her. That god understands she doesn’t want to do what she is currently doing for work and that she is searching for a way out and that the effort to do so, the intention and motivation to do something different – to dare to wish something better – is what is important to god.
Parting in sorrow, hopeful for change. We talked a little more. In our conversation and just before I left, I gave Nancy the food that I had with me on that daytrip: two Nature Valley granola bars of honey and oat. She put them away in one of her bags and thanked me. I had wrestled at the time with the thought of giving her some money. However, provided the story she told me, the context of our meeting, and the location, I felt it best to not do so. I didn’t want her to get the impression that I was paying her for any service or viewing her as anything “less than,” as I most certainly wasn’t.
Nancy thanked me for listening to her. I thanked her over and over again for the courage to tell me her story. I told her that I saw hope within her and I wanted her to hold onto that hope and work with it to find a way to do what she wanted with her life. I asked her if I could give her a hug. She seemed to get choked up that I would make such a request after hearing her story and in knowing her past. With Nancy crying and sobbing, we hugged for a few moments, both what seemed like longer than usual and not long enough. When we let go, I held her hand a moment, gave it a small squeeze, and Susan and I left the room.
Since meeting Nancy, and also since visiting LBSI’s offices in Naivasha and future site of the Training Center, it has been very important to me to find ways to help LBSI build the training center. I will write more about the visit to the LBSI offices and site of the future training center in the coming weeks or month.
An update on Nancy’s story and more on Life Bloom:
I later learned from Catherine that Nancy had a very difficult following two weeks after sharing her story with Susan and me. She could not take any customers for a few days because she could not stop from crying. Yet she told Catherine that she was thankful for being able to tell her story as it enabled her to grieve and to recognize her worth. Nancy has since received training from Life Bloom, developed a strong network of other women in her community, returned to school for adults, taken on customers for hairdressing, and left the sex work industry. She is taking charge of her life and moving it into directions that are empowering for her and for those in her network.
And this is but one story of the many women that Life Bloom works with to empower through reeducation and training, as well as the work that LBSI does with women to build their self-confidence.
Life Bloom transforms women’s lives through empowering them to not only take control of their lives, but to encourage their networks to do so as well.
In five short months, Nancy took control of her life, was trained by LBSI, and is now a peer leader and a strong-willed advocate for the work that Life Bloom does. (To listen to Nancy’s story and learn more about Life Bloom, you can download a radio recording at Media Fire that was recorded on a WERW talk show, The Forum, with host Jeremiah Thompson.)
* I was the only white person in the space and after being in Kenya for an extended period of time, being in the numerical minority was not unusual, surprising, or uncomfortable. In fact, going back home took quite an adjustment (and I’ll write about that as well, in time). But I knew that in this space, the favor I was given was likely due to my marked status as “visitor/tourist”. Another alternative, as I later learned, was that Susan had introduced me as being someone who met Catherine and took an interest in Life Bloom. Provided the cache that LBSI has among the women, they could have easily been extending a chair as part of custom (Kenyans are very hospitable and kind, in my experience) and thanks for the connection to LBSI. It is easily a mixture of this and many other possibilities.