A day in the life of a sex worker: When all you have to sell is your body
What you need to know:
- On ‘drier days’, *Stacey Akinyi, a sex worker, stands in the cold in different corridors of Kisumu City or its outskirts seeking clients.
- Daisy has been in the business for 20 years, and chairs Smart Ladies, an organization that advocates sex workers well-being.
- Carolyne, a sex worker, whose mother was a sex worker too, was born at a brothel on Kirinyaga Road, Nairobi.
Three women – Stacey Akinyi, Daisy Achieng’ and Carolyne Njoroge – share what a day in their life looks like.
It is 12pm when we meet Stacey Akinyi* at a liquor shop in Kisumu City, where she is a waiter and doubles up as a cashier. She got this job late last year.
The compound within which the shop is located is bustling. A man unloads a crate of beer from his motorcycle. Nearby, two women wash dishes from two basins placed on a small table while chatting. Another woman flips a chapati cooking on a traditional stove.
About 10 men sit across the compound sipping alcohol, some silently, others conversing loudly. Two other men walk in and sit in blue plastic chairs inside a tent just outside Stacey’s stall.
“Kuja unikalie nikushikeshike (come sit on me and let me fondle you),” one shouts.
She politely declines and insists on taking their order.
Stacey says Monday is among her less busy days. Every day, she wakes up at 5am. On weekdays, she prepares her six-year-old son for school and escorts him. She returns to the house and prepares herself to leave at around 7:15am for work, using a boda boda.
The first on her to-do list is balancing the books, taking stock of the inventory and sending photos of all transactions and money to her employer who is in Nairobi. She then cleans the stall and as soon as she finishes, customers begin to trickle in. She takes their orders throughout the day, up until 11:30pm when she closes the shop. On weekends, which are usually busier, she leaves work at 2:30am.
As her day job closes, her night job starts. After working for more than 16 hours, she earns a meagre Sh300 a day, which, she says, she has to supplement with sex work.
“Sometimes I feel really hopeless because I use all my day’s wage to get me to my client. However, I am not someone who can stay idle, so I keep working.”
Stacey gets her clients from various places, some are those who drink at the stall. Other days, she is called by her contacts. Still on ‘drier days’, she stands in the cold in different corridors of the city or on its outskirts.
Once a month on a Monday afternoon, she gets two hours off and attends free health check-ups offered by an aid organisation. At the centre, she also receives psychosocial support to keep her mental health intact.
About 150km away in Nakuru County, Daisy Achieng’ walks into the Nation office in Nakuru for a scheduled interview. It is around 7pm. She oozes confidence and it is impossible to ignore her bold presence. Daisy has been a sex worker for 20 years, and chairs a local organisation, Smart Ladies, which advocates the well-being and development of sex workers.
“I am a full-time sex worker and I am proud to be one,” she announces. “As I reflect on my life, I do not see myself in any other profession.”
Each day is different, depending on where she wakes up. The first thing she does after waking up at 10am is to check her phone to monitor cases that may have arisen during the night concerning fellow sex workers whom she fondly calls “my girls”. She does this to ensure she addresses new emergencies as soon as possible.
“Sometimes I am called to respond to violence alerts when a girl has been beaten up. Other times, it is to resolve conflicts between our girl and a boda boda rider or a client. If a girl has died, I also have to track her family down,” she states.
If there are no emergencies, the mother of two goes on to have breakfast with her children when they are on holiday. She takes some time to play and spend time with them. During school days, after breakfast, she immediately heads for their office in Nakuru town. She reports at around 11am and leaves at 8pm.
“We have myriad activities at our offices. We have grouped our members into young sex workers, new sex workers, people living with HIV, alcohol addicts, and those seeking mental health assistance,” she says.
Each week, they prepare and run activities pertaining to these groups. They partner with organisations to offer among others, sensitisation, cancer screening, HIV testing and condom distribution.
Daisy says Smart Ladies does not recruit new sex workers but register those who find themselves in Nakuru, in the event that they need to contact their next of kin.
After 8pm, Daisy heads back home and prepares for her night job. Owing to years on the job, she already has an established clientele. However, you may still find her at high-end restaurants and bars depending on the day, but never on the streets. She returns home at around 5am and the cycle continues.
“I want to give my girls everything I did not have,” says Carolyne Njoroge. Growing up in Nairobi, she yearned to receive motherly love, but it was impossible. Because of that, she takes her motherhood role seriously.
A sex worker and a parent of two teenagers who are both candidates, she admits that she is hands-on and her typical day revolves around mothering.
During the week, Carolyne wakes up her youngest who is a day scholar and currently in Class Eight, at 5am. She prepares and ensures her daughter takes her breakfast. Since she never eats in the morning, she uses the opportunity to bond with her daughter while packing her midday snacks. Once they are through, she drops her at school.
She returns home and prepares for her 9am-5pm job. She is the deputy national coordinator at Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (Keswa), an umbrella body of sex workers’ groups formed in 2010.
She leads advocacy, response to violence, programming, and resource mobilisation for group members. Her advocacy at county, regional, national and international level entails pushing for the decriminalisation of sex work. Further, she leads community-led participatory research to gather data for Keswa programmes.
On Saturdays, Carolyne enjoys taking her daughter to fun spots. On Sundays, she spends the day at home planning and preparing meals so that she is not overwhelmed during the week. Daily, she ensures her daughter is asleep by 8pm. As an active and a full-time sex worker, Carolyne has her regular clients and does not go out to the streets.
Carolyne’s mother was a sex worker. She gave birth to her daughter at a brothel on Kirinyaga Road, Nairobi. They moved in different areas of the CBD until 1999 when her mother was brutally murdered by one of her clients.
“The news was everywhere, on television, newspapers and radio. When mom’s family heard about it, despite her having chosen a life of solitude, they decided to come find me and bury her,” she recalls.
Carolyne was put under the care of one of her aunts. However, it was not long before she ran away.
“It was very challenging because all my life it was just my mom and me. Additionally, I faced a lot of stigma for being a sex worker’s child. When I couldn’t cope, I returned to the city where I felt I belonged.”
Carolyne did not anticipate that life alone on the street would be as difficult as it turned out. For the first time, she had to cater for her basic needs. At 14, she was pushed into sex work — naive and vulnerable.
For Stacey, she was introduced to sex work by a friend. She was 19 and had just completed her secondary school in Kisumu, where she was born. Her parents died before her fifth birthday, leaving her and her three older sisters under the care of their grandmother.
“Despite scoring a C plus in 2013, I could not further my education because no one could pay my school fees,” she says.
Stacey’s friend who lived in Mirema, Nairobi, convinced her to join her instead of “wasting away” at home. The idea of a better life excited her and she relocated to the capital.
“We lived with seven other girls in a one-bedroom house. We would hop from club to club and she would vanish with others till morning. Out of curiosity, I asked about her disappearance and that is how I was slowly introduced to sex work,” she recalls.
At first, Stacey was reluctant, but she eventually accepted. They worked together for a year before they fell out. She decided to join her sister in Kiambu, but with no job, she struggled. She opted to return to Kisumu and get a fresh start. She fell in love and started working as a hairdresser.
“Things were looking good for me; my son came along soon after. His dad was responsible, but after he died suddenly, I was stuck again. Being thrusted into single parenthood was not something I had expected. I decided to resume sex work.”
The Covid-19 pandemic worsened her situation. She lost her job at the salon following closure of businesses.
Daisy, on the other hand, was born in Bondeni and raised on Flamingo estate in Nakuru. She started sex work in 2002, when she was just 16. Her mother sold chang’aa (illicit brew) to support Daisy and her siblings. In 2001, one of Daisy’s brothers died and her mother left for the village, leaving her under the care of her elder siblings.
“By the time mom was leaving, I had learnt how to brew chang’aa. I started selling on weekends, then I thought about selling on weekdays because business was really good,” she recalls.
While selling the illicit brew, she met her first client. After that, she chose to fully pursue sex work because harassment by police was less pronounced than it was in chang’aa business.
After a while, she could longer multitask — going to school and running the business. She dropped out of school in Form Two. However, three years ago, Daisy went back to school to complete her secondary school education to enable her perform her role as a peer educator effectively.
Stacey asserts that sex work is dangerous. Some of her friends have been raped, others robbed and murdered when they meet their clients privately.
“Besides harassment, which I now consider normal, my worst experience yet was when I was drugged. I woke up at 2pm in one hotel and my client was nowhere to be found. I was forced to pay for the room; we were to check out at 9am. It was costlier than my earnings and my sister had to bail me out.”
In 2016, there was a spike in the number of sex workers who were brutally murdered, in what appeared to be the undertaking of a serial killer. Daisy rallied her colleagues to demand protection of their rights.
“I stepped up and led in protesting against these killings because our work was being jeopardised. Afterwards, I pursued training in human rights and since then, I have been educating my colleagues on their rights,” she says.
Stacey hides her job from her extended family to avoid stigmatisation. As it stands, only her sisters know she is a sex worker.
For Daisy, she has fully embraced who she is. She says self-awareness is the key to avoiding self-loathing.
“Still, my mother has not fully accepted that I am a sex worker. Every now and then she probes when I am getting married but that’s not how this industry works,” she says, laughing lightly.
Despite the stigma from most of her extended family, Carolyne says she will forever be grateful to her late grandfather, who was her biggest ally. She believes the worst and the most dangerous form of stigmatisation faced by sex workers emanates from medical workers in public hospitals.
“I experienced this a lot when I was younger and could not afford private hospitals. Profiling and denying a sex worker medical services puts the entire community at risk because we serve a wide clientele,” she says.
Stacey admits that despite connecting with different individuals, she is always left feeling empty. She hopes to quit sex work. The long working hours leave her exhausted, she says. She is saving up and hopes that soon, she will quit sex work and start selling mitumba (second-hand clothes). She also hopes to move out of her grandmother’s house, which she shares with her two sisters, cousin, five nieces and nephews. In a different lifetime, she says she would perhaps be in journalism, her dream profession.
“With the high cost of living, I embrace sex work. It pays my bills and enables me to raise my son,” she states. “I cannot wallow in self-pity because of life’s challenges. I am doing my best given the circumstances. I hope people understand that sex workers are human too and accord us some dignity.”
As her children grow older, Daisy plans to hold a conversation with them about the nature of her job before any other person does. She, too, hopes that someday she will be able to leave sex work behind.
“In our organisation, we have sex workers who are as old as 65 and 70, but I don’t want that for myself. However, I will keep at it until my children reach university and can live their dreams,” she states.
Her plea to the government is to decriminalise sex work. In 2027, Daisy intends to run for Member of County Assembly (MCA) to ensure political participation and representation of sex workers.
Carolyne has embraced the work she does because it has made her the woman she is today. She does not look to change careers now or in the future.
“I feel strongly that we live in a society where sex is very transactional. Whether you are exchanging sex for rent, gifts or to make money directly as we do, that remains to be a personal choice,” she says.
Carolyne hopes that in the future, the government and other stakeholders can work towards creating a healthy, enabling environment for sex workers, one free from violence and stigma. This, she says, can only be done through full decriminalisation of sex work. Further, she suggests that sex workers be included and involved when developing policies that affect them.
*Name has been changed to hide identity.