A late night drive down Nairobi’s Koinange Street reveals that the city’s unofficial red light district is struggling to remain in business. Yes, there are still a few skimpily dressed women whistling at passing cars and occasionally throwing their legs in the air as an invitation to the passing drivers, but a lot what used to be a bustling nightlife with taxis, tea vendors, prostitutes and pimps is evidently disappearing.
The closure and subsequent destruction of the city’s New Florida Club, a landmark on this street since the 1960s, has effectively robbed many of Nairobi’s sex workers of their business.
The Florida was pulled down in August this year to make way for the construction of another of the modern high-rise buildings that dot the Nairobi skyline these days. This popular club hoisted above a petrol station in the heart of the city, had earned a reputation as a Mecca for tourists, locals and of course, some of the city’s prostitutes who considered it their turf.
The Florida attracted two categories of commercial sex workers: the more resourceful, higher class ladies who could pay the cover charge and afford their own drinks while scouting for known or potential clients in the club. The other type of ladies would be found out in the cold of the night on what has come to be popularly known as K Street, waiting for drive-by clients.
With the closure of the club, the ladies of the night have become fewer and fewer in that area and the (in) famous street that by day houses some of Nairobi’s top businesses including banks, boutiques, colleges and restaurants is relatively quiet by night.
Just down the road from Koinange Street, one is attracted to the distinctive sound of live Congolese rumba and as you draw closer there is a strong smell of roasted beat and grilled fish. You have arrived at the Simmers Club. The profile of the prostitute who hangs out here is usually one who will sit a table, hope to attract a man to offer her a drink that she will then hang on to for the better period of the night while watching the comings and goings intently.
Hanging out at Simmers requires one to be alert because some of the girls here, in cahoots with their male collaborators, would not be averse to slipping something into your drink to knock you out. Just as with Koinange Street and the former Florida Club, the streets around Simmers have also taken on a life of their own with scores of girls carrying out their business here.
The taxi drivers around these city streets are an important part of the link between the sex workers and clients in search of women.
Relax and tax
Perhaps as a measure of the high profile sex trade in the city, the Nairobi County Assembly in June engaged in a lively debate on a motion to create a designated red-light district, what members called a “leisure zone”, for the city’s commercial sex workers.
“Let sex workers have a designated building so that whoever needs them can get them through the Internet,” said one county leader.
In fact, such a proposal is nothing new in Nairobi. The city authorities first talked about relaxing the laws against prostitution in 2012, with the Mayor at the time saying such dedicated workers like sex workers should not be harassed by city officers but should instead be facilitated in carrying out their trade and paying taxes.
The debate over prostitution is often discussed through the prism of unemployment and supporters of the move to create a formal red light district raise two issues. One, is that commercial sex workers should be facilitated by law to earn a legitimate living in a country that suffers high unemployment. Secondly, that such an arrangement will contribute to revenue for the county government through taxes.
A survey early this year revealed that over 75 per cent of Kenyans support the legalization of the commercial sex trade to control the spread of AIDS and as a source of taxes. The same study found that a single sex worker earns 1,500 shillings a day and that the daily income from the sex business is 300 million shillings. Therefore the Kenyan Government would earn a tidy 110 billion shillings just from taxing sex workers
The current law makes it an offense to “loiter with intent to sell sex.” The council officers use cloak and dagger tricks like driving around in unmarked cars pretending to be clients and then arresting the sex workers, or propositioning a girl in a club and arresting her soon as she steps out into the street.
The Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP) which fights for the rights of sex workers says two Nairobi County trucks cruise around the city streets collecting money from the sex workers.
Ironically, the city’s sex trade is bustling with strip clubs, massage parlours and brothels right under the nose of the over zealous city officers. It is well known that brothels are run in the upmarket estates under the guise of massage parlours and the BHESP puts the number of sex workers in Nairobi at 10,000.
Nairobians like to say that unlike the old days when you had to go to “K Street” to pick up a girl, the sex trade has been devolved to the city’s other suburbs like the “Electric Avenue” in the Westlands area which is dotted with swanky modern clubs and the popular lounges playing House music, a favorite of the younger crowd. Perhaps even more worryingly for parents, the trade is now being carried out in residential areas by underage girls.
Just as with every aspect of modern life, the world’s oldest profession has embraced technology as a marketing tool with tech-savvy sex workers in Nairobi swapping the freezing streets for social media and a website [Warning: NSFW content] to market themselves complete with phone numbers and cost of services offered.