In old age, most women play with their grandchildren in the evening. But at 64, Rosemary Johns is still counting the number of men she has slept with to make ends meet and raise her children.
Born and partly raised in Tanzania, Rosemary came to Nairobi where the city’s unforgiving life saw her trekking up ‘Hooker Avenue’ for the better part of two decades in the famous Gikomba, an area synonymous with the oldest profession: prostitution.
That was in 1984 when a friend told her how well-paying flesh peddling was. She has never looked back.
“This house is not complete at the moment. Recently, a freak fire razed down some houses here, including all my items,” says Rosemary in fluent Swahili delivered in a husky voice as she welcomes us into her cubicle, partly made of stones and mud.
“I got married at 16, but after some time in marriage, my husband started neglecting us after I gave birth to five children,” recalls the now mother of eight (two have since died and the rest are adults in Tanzania). “I could have had 10 children were it not for two miscarriages,” reveals Rosemary who parted ways with her husband and became a barmaid in Musoma, Tanzania, before relocating to Nairobi where “I joined some women along Digo Road where we would wait for clients day and night and charged Sh5 for our services.”
The price remained the same for more than five years “until it rose to Sh50 and finally over Sh100 in early 2000s, depending on the location,” explains Rosemary who estimates that she could handle up to 40 men “on a good day” and “between five and 10 men on a bad day.”
Rosemary says she operated for a year on the top floor of a building along Nairobi’s Luthuli Avenue “waiting for clients,” while at Gikomba, most women owned cubicles where clients were restricted to less than 20 minutes a session.
“Until 2000s, no one paid any attention to us whenever we reported assault cases. Even the police would arrest us at the city centre without any reason,” says Rosemary, recalling how the arrival of condoms was a nightmare since most of men preferred “leather-to-leather “and “forcing a man to use protection was akin to giving him up for another sex worker.”
Many things have changed in the last 30 years as “nowadays I see young girls joining us here and within days, they would be driving their own vehicles or running businesses. Unfortunately, some of them steal from customers. They make quick money and invest well, but compared to years back, they are now too extreme even in their dressing. We used to dress nicely without exposing our breasts or butts to attract men.”
Rosemary, a staunch baptised Christian who never misses church on Sunday, is considering retirement because “nowadays we depend on long-term customers. In fact, I had started small leso business after getting Sh70,000 loan from a local bank, but fire razed down my house and shop in March. Even my baptismal card and other documents were burnt. That and other problems pushed me back to the business.”
The arrival of condoms according to Rosemary, was a nightmare to her and her colleagues in the business because forcing a man to use it was akin to sending him to another hooker.
“That saw a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. But we had Casino Dispensary on Rive Road, where such cases were treated,” she says.
She reveals that, “Sleeping with more than 10 men for Sh50 each was a windfall because making Sh500 in a day was the equivalent of earning about Sh5000 today.”
She adds that, “It has been a long journey and I’ve slept with more than 5,000 men in more than 20 years. I’ve been in the field, even my children know it, and used to visit but when they grew up and started their families, they stopped frequenting Nairobi.”
At the moment Rosemary has temporarily hung her ‘boots’ since she lives with two grandchildren, but she has a similar house elsewhere to keep the business going. She discloses that her loyal clients are the ones she started with way back.
“It’s the fire tragedy and raising these children that forced me to go back to it again. Before the fire, I was buying kangas from Mombasa and selling them in Nairobi. I had borrowed more than Sh70,000 from a local bank. I hope that things will change one day and God will intervene along the way”, she said.