One prostitute gets a whole city talking about sex.
Dayo Olopade wrote a book about Africa, technology, and development.Mutua Matheka is a photographer living in Nairobi.
In 2009, an undersea fiber optic cable linked Africa’s east coast to broadband internet for the first time. The giant sea creature provides high-speed internet to South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, and Djibouti—the countries along what was previously, according to Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, “the longest coastline in the world without a fiber-optic cable connection to the rest of the world.”
In Nairobi, the impact was immediate. Just about everyone in the city already had a cell phone, but web access suddenly sped up to global norms. In the years since, Nairobi has become a genuine rival to tech clusters from California to Bangalore. Young Kenyans spend their days glued to social media—mall rats for the web age. And, more impressive than the slick apps and hardware coming from the new e-Africa, technology is sparking the democratization of voice.
When Nairobi Nights appeared in 2011, it was unlike anything else that has appeared in Kenyan media. The blog was a running conversation on selling sex in East Africa’s most bustling city. Purportedly written by a Kenyan prostitute who calls herself “Sue,” the blog chronicled her adventures working Nairobi bars, backrooms, and hotels. It quickly found an audience of ultra-wired and sex-curious youth—which is to say everyone with a pulse and a phone. “When it came out, it blew up. If you were connected, you found out about it,” says Kennedy Kachwanya, a blogger with a large following. “Everyone wanted to know what this was about.” Another Kenyan blogger named Harriet Ocharo recalled when she first heard of the blog: “Somebody circulated a link from Twitter and it went viral that day.”
I first heard about Nairobi Nights on Twitter, too. Of course I clicked through. The heart of the story is Sue’s portrait of Koinange Street, a busy avenue in the center of Kenya’s capital. By day, it’s clogged with traffic, men in suits, and typical downtown commerce. By night, it’s a complex ecosystem of street hawkers, night watchmen, late-night partiers and, we learn, prostitutes.
When you earn a living having sex, like I do, it’s no longer sin. There is nothing to cause the adrenaline rush. [...] But once in a while you will get a man who comes with an out of the ordinary idea that stimulates your pleasure glands..
The other day a man in a new Jeep picked me around 10 pm. He told me to sit at the back. “I want to report my wife" he said as we drove to the Central Police Station. The police are not our best friends and wherever possible we keep our distance. But here he was taking me, almost naked and with prostitute written all over me, to a police station. I didn't feel so good.
He drove straight to the compound, and parked near a bus whose passengers some two policemen were frisking. We had sex there. It didn't last ten minutes, but it was the sweetest and most exciting sex I have had in a long time.
When I moved to Kenya, I would notice skimpily dressed women in bars, or on street corners, who were surely selling something. But I never knew more than that. The rest was guessing.
Sue broke it down. She wrote without being sentimental, or even very graphic, about starting in the low-class, downtown brothels and then working her way up to the street. She explained the going rates: too little. She unpacked what she carries in her purse: condoms and sedatives. She explained the economics, etiquette, and protocols: Cars pull up and girls gather around to let the john pick his prize. One of my favorite entries, “Street Badges” recounts a time when she broke the rules and called another prostitute fat in front of a potential client. The insulted girl forgot her mark and came charging after Sue, who admitted she deserved the beating;
In coy prose, Sue identified herself as a onetime university student who lived a double life. To most people, she was an ordinary girl. To her clients, she was an impulse purchase. To me, she was a revelation: Nairobi’s most obvious secret had an anonymous digital sherpa.
The duration between 3.45am and 5am in the morning is one of desperation. If a man hasn’t picked you by the time, then some despair sets in. That does not mean a girl cannot be picked within those hours, she can, but the quality of men who visit the street at that hour is not the best. Most have been partying all night long, are drunk, demanding and hard to negotiate with. The sober ones are likely to be with emotional problems and rather unpredictable. If there be a serial killer hour, then that is.
Sometime ago a man picked me in his car a few minutes after four. He was in a suit, good looking and sober. He told me he was from outside Nairobi. He was on a business trip but booked in a hotel with his family . He said he only had a thousand on him, not enough to book a room and pay me. Could we go to my house and at the end of it give me the whole amount? he posed. I didn’t think of it twice. I was financially cornered. I said yes, reasoning one man would make no difference.
We had a twenty minutes session. Dressed up he said he couldn’t find the money in his pockets, and then pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book. “I left the money in my car" he said. I followed him to the car, which was parked outside the gate. I stood a short distance away. I watched him bend over as if looking for the money under his seat. Then all at once the engine started, and he was gone before I knew it. I wanted to shout thief and have him stopped before he accessed the main road. But I held my breath. Even if he was stopped someone would ask: “What has he stolen?”
Sue calls the blog posts “episodes,” and like must-see T.V., they were fairly addictive. For months, with thousands of other readers, I refreshed the page constantly to see what she’d say next. Part of the allure lay in her description of the shadow world we all knew about. “There’s never been someone documenting that happening,” says Martin Wamathai, a poet and blogger based in Nairobi. “We see it happening but don’t quite accept it, so that was a different approach.”
But most of the appeal was in the writing. In fact, what was particularly shocking about Nairobi Nights wasn’t that the blog was salacious or graphic but more that it was so well-written and considered. It was intellectual.
Yes, I know how it sounds for a prostitute to talk about spirituality, but I actually mean we are priests of our own kind, ministering to our flock; the men. Ignoring all the hullabaloo, the role of priests is to provide emotional stability to those who congregate. A role we have played, in a more practical way, to many a man we have slept with.
Men come to us because they want to get something out of themselves. And not the product of their balls, for if that was the case, they would fare better, saving time and money by playing with themselves. Its something intangible, what the priests here call pepo, some sort of 'demon.' Men come to us possessed by stress, frustrations, mid-life crisis, career stagnation, work challenges and we exorcise them in a more pleasurable way, which doesn't involve sitting on a pew for hours listening to a man or woman blaming your spiritual afflictions on your refusal to give tithe.
Needless to say, Sue wasn’t a typical sex worker. Far from being ashamed, she told readers that she—like Coca-Cola—was selling “happiness.” She insisted that prostitution should not be legalized (with a cash flow several dozen times the daily wage in Nairobi, she wasn’t eager to be taxed). She offered hints of her biography while critiquing society’s expectations of women in Africa:
A female teacher in the mixed boarding school that I attended used to compare us girls to a tin of cocoa; you remember the one which had a foil inside. "The first time you let a man touch your breasts or private parts, then you have opened the lid. The moment you lose your virginity, the foil is gone. After that, every time you have sex, the cocoa gets depleted. If you are not careful the rightful owner will find there is nothing left for him.
At the face of it, it was a polite way to dissuade us from adolescence sex, but a little deeper it implied we girls didn't really belong to ourselves but to some man somewhere, who was supposed to have all the cocoa. Our role in society it seemed was to prepare for this man.
On the blog, she didn’t have to say “fuck that”—we all knew what she meant.
Aside from being feminist in highly patriarchal Kenyan society, one of the more controversial aspects of the blog was just how smart it was. It’s why some readers grew skeptical of the truth of Sue’s claims. (A bouncer who often bailed Sue out of jail and bridged her loans verified to me that she had worked as a prostitute in Nairobi.) Though she had been studying law when she dropped out of school for sex work, Sue linked prostitution and economic theory.
From my economics class I can remember some musings on choice and rationality. That one stops doing something only when the incentive to stop is larger than the incentive to continue. At the face of it there are many advantages of quitting dilly dallying with prostitutes than continuing. On the other hand and from the same economics class I remember something about irrationality. Not all decisions human beings make are rational. There exists irrational compulsion, which makes people act in ways which are thought to lead to their own destruction, but can't resist it even when there are better alternatives.
This post carried a double irony: Sue encountered the theory of rational choice because she attended the best university in Kenya. This made her much luckier than her less well-educated colleagues. Despite the dismal rates of youth employment in Kenya, sex work actually made less rational sense for Sue. She had been pulled, not pushed, into the game.
But what had pulled her? To find out, I had to meet Sue in person.
After a months-long email courtship, I came to befriend and conduct a series of interviews with Sue. I found her story to be one of connection and intimacy as well as disconnection and anonymity. I am lucky for that—her most deeply held secret is now mine to keep as well.
In person, Sue projects the same knowing reserve you read on the blog. She is quieter and prettier than you would think. Sue has “retired” from the game, both on- and offline—but isn’t ashamed of what she’s done. She wasn’t a pornographer. She wasn’t a head case. She was just going to work, like you and I do. For the most part, she enjoyed being a prostitute.
She also enjoys being a writer in Africa’s digital moment. “Since the dawn of the internet and the beginning of blogging as a culture and means of expression,” she says, “I’ve always been writing, journaling, and recording my thoughts and day-to-day activities. So it’s natural that I set up a platform where I could interact with an audience.”
The interaction has been comic and tragic both—Sue receives scolds from local pastors, as well as pleas for appointments from prospective clients who fell in love with her online persona. In the comments section of the blog, readers offer digital applause for her triumphs and virtual regrets when a client insults her.
The viral popularity of her side project came as a surprise to Sue. “I think people just don’t expect you to put some words into reality,” she tells me over breakfast in my apartment, where we can’t be overheard. (She’s an early riser.) “I think too much of a critique of society is a challenge, a criticism of the way we live and the people we are. So we take for granted these things will never be said, so when you tell them, ‘It’s your daughter, wife, sister and mom, these are women providing the services,’ people are shocked. [...] They just don’t expect it ever to be said.” Laughing, she tells me about the dingy brothel where she first had sex for money: “Sabina Joy is the place that we all walk past with our eyes closed. We all know it’s there.”
I actually hadn’t known it was there—and when I paid the Sabina Joy a visit, its name seemed incongruous. The girls I saw selling sex at rush hour were anything but joyful. At another club, Tahiti, I encountered a young girl so drunk—again, in broad daylight—that she was unable to write her name for me.
We take for granted these things will never be said, so when you tell them, people are shocked.
Sue shed light on the disappointment and danger in Nairobi’s shadows. Her dispatches on contradictions and corruption—very often, the police who stop Nairobi prostitutes accept “bail” in cash or in kind—lit up mobile phones and computer monitors around the world. She became a local celebrity. A pirate CD featuring a woman reading her blog posts went for sale in local kiosks in 2011. After purchasing a copy from a salesman who assured her he had met “Sue” “many times,” the real Sue could only smirk. “She has a very high voice, lacking the huskiness of shouting at night in the cold and puffing cigarettes. She reads very fast, as if she is in a hurry,” Sue says. “Not to brag, but I can read better.”
This isn’t the first time a canny sex worker has opened the door to the champagne room. What made Nairobi Nights special was both its timely use of exploding web technology and its specific relationship to conservative African culture. As Sue puts it, “When men want to have sex, women, incidentally, will appear,” she says. When asked why sex workers choose the life, she telegraphs her own logic: Women get into the game “to ease the pressure of being a certain type of women in a certain type of society.”
This is another layer of the spectacle that is Nairobi Nights. Hiding behind her assumed identity online, Sue replicates the false faces and fake names adopted by johns and ladies on the street—while exposing the lies Kenyan society tells itself about sex and opportunity. Her tell-all style mirrors the intimacy—the sometimes-fake intimacy—involved in intercourse. She maintains an irresistible tension between distance and attachment.
But that tension took its toll. Eventually, Sue felt trapped rather than liberated by the sum of her experiences. “What I had a problem with was the duality of the existence,” she said. “Like if I slip up or forget or send the wrong message, or have a certain personality in a certain context, then people will recognize me. So that’s always been the challenge. And a bigger challenge than people would think.”
This need for vigilant self-division may be familiar to many of us with virtual—if more virtuous—versions of ourselves online. It’s a feature of an increasingly digitized world that, through the magic of fiber optics, now composes most of Africa. But maintaining this particular double life was unusually trying. Sue offered hints at her frustration on the blog:
…in the formal companies the longer you stay the higher you rise, and the more your pay. In our trade on the streets; the opposite happens; your value decreases as your experience increases. Quoting five years experience is a turn off. Many a girl gets to prostitution telling themselves they won’t do it for more than a few months, maybe six, save some money, start a business, hit it big in some way or get a 'proper' job. But a year goes and another still on the street. The optimal experience is about a year; when one is no longer surprised by the antics of men and all the inhibitions are gone. After a year there is a plateau and then the downward curve starts.
And this is not tied to age. If a girl hit the streets at the age of 18, in two years she will be 20 but streetwise she will be older than the girl who started at 23, and has been at it for five months. Somehow men are able to tell the difference, and the more you stay on the street the fewer men pick you. Eventually you fade away, drop out of the street or change tactic. The obvious way to do the latter is to go downtown, to cheap brothels and bars; where you charge a tenth of your fees uptown. But it’s not a free ride down there; Duruma road and Latema are overflowing with fresh girls every day. Good Hope along River Road still offers some hope but there is something really boring about sitting on your chair, in a miniskirt, legs wide open waiting for a man to wink at you.
So after a total of 10 years on the streets and a year online, Sue is out. Despite the thrill of web fame, and the release of telling tales she could never reveal in person, she wouldn’t recommend her choices. “There are much easier ways to make money, if it’s about the money,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But there are also easier ways to build a confident and positive sexual culture that I don’t think we are encouraging in our culture. There are ways of being sexual without being an object.”
Nairobi Nights was a sort of object, now preserved in amber online. It enabled fevered projections and speculations from alarmed Kenyan theists and amused cosmopolites alike. I can’t imagine a better way to show up the Kenyan culture of sex, or to show off the digital spotlight now shining on Africa. Nairobi Nights was, for a time, the perfect means to give the world something that we didn’t know—or couldn’t admit—we wanted.
But Sue doesn’t see herself as a revolutionary in message as much as medium. “I just changed the forum,” she says, laughing. “I mean, people are talking about sex all the time everywhere. Sex is an obsession. Even in a society where we assume sex is some sort of wrong. I don’t think I’ve changed the conversation. I was hoping to eventually lead to a different conversation about positive sexuality and the ways we interact. But no, I don’t think I’ve done anything. Just wrote a blog.”