‘After Hours’: Life as Sex Worker in Addis Ababa
By Meron Tekleberhan
Addis Ababa, April 25, 2011 (Ezega.com) -- ‘After Hours’ (Seate Elafe) is the title of a book by journalist Ermias Seyoum, chronicling the true life stories of commercial sex workers in Addis Ababa. Although much has been said about the Ethiopian sex industry, this book takes a unique perspective by allowing the women to talk about themselves. Unlike many other books that have been written on the subject, this book is different in that it doesn’t just present the observations of the author. The insight into the 47 women whose stories make up ‘After Hours’ and their views on their life as women in the sex industry makes for a riveting reading.
The Women in ‘After Hours’ represent the gamut of Ethiopian society. Most are very young, many below the age of twenty five and some below the age of twenty. They are mostly forced into the sex trade for lack of better options: due to poverty, disillusionment with marriage partners, or rape. Almost all are dependent on qhat, spending a great percentage of their income supporting this addiction. Qhat use in turn fuels consumption of great quantities of alcohol and tobacco. All these substances help the women cope up with their demeaning work and social inferiority. For some the false bravado that comes with intoxication is the only way they can contrive the bravado to do what they do.
In this book, we don’t see much of the fabled royalty of sex workers and the expensive call girls. None of the women are pampered kept women catering to select clients. ‘After hours’ deals with the seedier and more realistic fate of the common bar ladies that crowd the countless bars and clubs in areas such as Piassa, Kazannchis, Chechenya, Haya-Hulet Mazoria, Merkato, etc. Areas such as Piassa and Chechenya in particular attract all types of clientele from all walks of life. Well-heeled businessmen to those who wait for their payday to make a visit, well-educated university professors to long distance truck drivers, and elderly married retirees to young teenagers hell-bent on their first sexual conquest all frequent these areas in search of gratification.
Ermias allows us a look behind the veneer of glamour and sexuality that shrouds these women. We glimpse women like any other with their own identities, dreams and aspirations. All carry heavy loads of pain and deep rooted contempt for the masculine sex. Adepts at capitalizing on the weaknesses of males to make their living, they find it very hard to accept men as anything but predators solely motivated by sexual desire.
Attracting clients and retaining them is their business and the women are fiercely territorial. There is a strong competition with the girls who choose to ply their trade on the streets. The bars ladies, most officially on a payroll as waitresses for paltry sums of 80-100 birr a month, look down on the street prostitutes. They claim that the street girls have no boundaries to what they will do including allowing acts such as kissing, fondling and kinky sex which are completely unacceptable to most bar women.
Street prostitutes are also ever present threats to the bar women because of their cheaper rates. The former don’t have to worry about paying some of their fees to their employer and can hence afford to undercut the bar women. A bar woman in Piassa, for example, can charge anything from 60-100 birr hourly rate and 200-300 for the night. However, a street woman in the same area can charge much less without having to worry about the sum she will need to pay to her employer.
For obvious reasons, the most popular clientele are foreigners. Some, usually first time visitors to Addis Ababa or those wishing to retain their anonymity, use tourist guides or agents to solicit girls. The guides anticipate what type of girl would be preferred by the client based on his nationality. According to ‘After Hours’, tall thin ‘super model’ type girls are chosen by Europeans and Americans, while Chinese and Middle Eastern men show little discrimination. The middle men get a percentage of the woman’s fee as well as whatever the foreign client pays them for their discerning procuring services. They take especially big percentages if the woman is unable to directly communicate with her customer, as is usually the case, and personally arrange for future ‘dates’.
Other foreigners who are more conversant of the ways of Addis night life and less worried about being recognized frequent night spots especially designed for this purpose. These men usually pay much less, around 50-70 dollars, than the hundreds of dollars those who use middlemen are required to pay. Even so the high exchange rate of the dollar still makes a foreign client something to be coveted. Similarly generous are clients of the Ethiopian Diaspora who have the added advantage of speaking the language.
Some ‘lucky’ girls can even secure the role of an all expenses paid kept woman for the duration of the foreigners stay in Addis Ababa. In addition to the payment they receive for services rendered, such girls get to go on vacation to the various tourist destinations around the country. However, a few women complained about the sexual expectations of foreign clients. It seems that non Ethiopians and those of the Diaspora have adventurous desires that are abnormal to the Ethiopian experience.
Many of the 47 women featured in ‘After Hours’ aspire to leave the industry. The very few who have actual plans on how to make their way out save their money or invest in an education. Most, however, seem to lack the direction or determination to change their lives by themselves. All, even the ones pursuing a better future, seem to be embittered and resentful. They feel that society has them pegged as outcasts, ignorant and deserving of their fate. They see no hands stretched in help and skeptical of the possibility of genuine philanthropy.
Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.