Akpara. Akwuna. Ashawo. Funny how in Ibibio, Igbo and Yoruba, the word for whore sounds the same – this class of women that we’re taught to turn up our noses at, because they don’t fit in with the pretty picture of society’s questionable morality.
Three days ago, I put up a post about my friend Susan Asakpa who is a cab driver in Abuja. In many of the comments, people hailed her for doing “legitimate” work rather than selling her body for money. One even said that if all young women are like her, prostitution would stop (as if prostitutes patronise themselves). This post is born out of those comments. I hope it makes sense.
It takes bravery to be a prostitute.
When I speak of prostitutes, I’m not referring to the runs girls who do it out of greed and solely for the money. I’m talking of those women whose daily grind it is to labour above or under several men every day, just so they and their families can survive.
One of the kindest and most well-mannered persons I know, is a prostitute. When we met, she opened my eyes to her world, a dark place which until then, I’d been content to scuff at from afar, while draped in the piety of my church robes. After my encounter with her and a few of her colleagues, I was less inclined to turn up my nose.
“You’re not ashamed of what you do?” I’d asked her one day. It was my belief then, that all prostitutes were brazen. Had they no shame?
“Why should I be? It’s a job and shame won’t feed my parents. It won’t pay my son’s school fees.”
“Why don’t you take the money you make and get out?”
“Babe, if we made that much money, my colleagues and I would own mansions in Abuja by now. If it were that easy to get out, many of us would’ve left on the first day. It’s like smoking; when you’ve been in this business for a long time, it owns you. You don’t know any other trade, so you stay. Sometimes, you go out to find a job that society approves of, but these men look at your boobs and ass and say, ‘If you want a job here, you have to be sleeping with me.’”
I know how I flinch when a strange man touches me in the street, no matter how inadvertent it was. Then imagine that I have to lie down and let many such men inside my body, oftentimes for a paltry sum which will be divided between me and a pimp or a madam.
It takes and incredible kind of bravery to decide to do this every day. The risks: diseases, beating, rapes, juju and even murder. Many of them take drugs and stay high, so they don’t have to feel. It’s a job that slowly erases your soul, your very essence until nothing is left. But you keep on, because you must survive.
Society has taught us to view these women as objects or lesser humans. We frown at an ashawo, but not her male customer. Because we’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s a man’s place or right to seek sexual release, but the woman who provides it for a fee, is the bad person.
But like or believe it or not, every prostitute has a story. And some of them would make you weep.
“I was 16, just finished SS3. My father had a stroke. We weren’t rich, and the little we had went into medical bills. The landlord threw us out and we moved into an uncompleted building. Debtors were on my mother’s neck. No one helped, not even the church where we’d been faithful members for years. One day I came home and my baby brother was eating a half-eaten akara someone had thrown in the dumpster. It broke me. So I said yes to the richest man on our street, just so my family could eat.
“The first time, I thought I’d die. I was a virgin and it was very painful. I lay there and listened to him breathing heavily above me. I had an out of body experience where I was looking down at us and hating myself. By the time he started giving me out to his other rich friends, I stopped feeling. Not even when they made me do some unthinkable things.
“One time, I thought that I could leave this life. So I asked one of his friends he’d loaned me to. This one was kind and generous. I asked for a loan to start a business, just 50,000 naira which I would pay back in 3 months. He sighed and said nothing. The next time I went to see that rich man, the one who gave me out, he gave me the beating of my life. He said I was selfish and ungrateful. That how can I be begging for money after all that he and his friends had done for me. Abeg, wasn’t I rendering a service? Were they doing me a favour?
“The part that pissed me off the most, is when their wives, mothers and those yeye church people had the guts to call me ashawo. Fuck them! If any one of those men or women had hired me to sweep their houses, wash clothes or given me a loan to start a business when I begged them, I’d be in a better place. But they said we were carrying bad luck, because of the things that happened to us.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying prostitution is necessarily a good thing, but this is one of those situations where unless you’re wearing the shoes, you have absolutely no idea where it pinches. It’s easy to say, “Begging is better…couldn’t she borrow money from someone and start a business…” when you’re not the person begging or borrowing.
Until you find yourself in a situation where every door is closed to you, where you have to stand on the roadside and beg someone for money and watch them give you a contemptuous look before walking away. Or ceremoniously hand you 10 or 20 naira. Even if you collect from 50 people, it’s barely enough to eat, or pay rent in the cheapest place you can afford, let alone start a business.
Someone may say, “Let her go back to the village and farm.” You’re assuming that everyone knows their village, has a piece of land there or knows how to farm; that it’s a guarantee that farming will work.
“Ashawo na work. Many people may not like it, but it’s a job and we have customers just like every business person.
“You know you’ve hit rock bottom in this job when the police arrest you at night for loitering and prostitution, take you to their station, take turns to rape you and then tell you to go and continue with your work. How do you become a human being after that? How do you even make yourself feel like one?”
I know this piece may not sit well with a lot of people. But it is what it is. In my opinion, it takes a brave woman to be a prostitute.
Written by Eketi Ette