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Inside the Life of Nairobi Male Sex Workers

Posted by Administrator on December 2, 2011

As the globe marks World Aids Day today, we take a look at the growing population of male sex workers in Kenya

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Mantulli System 25, wears bright makeup and colourful clothing every evening and then heads to work. He struts into an inconspicuous pub near Kirinyaga Road in Nairobi where he orders two beers and waits. This is yet another promising evening. “You see, you people condemn us during the day but at night you are our clients,” he says.

Mantulli has been a sex worker for eight years now having escaped home at 18 years after his family disowned him. He is Taita, but prefers to use his “business” name to hide his real identity. He is among hundreds of young male sex workers in Nairobi. Social workers say this is a growing underground population only known to its clientele and a few health officials.

This new breed of sex workers are vulnerable to HIV infections and have come under focus as the country struggles to contain HIV within the 1.5 million Kenyans already infected.

At the bar table, Mantulli is joined by Fabian, his 24-year-old friend. Light-skinned, tall and slender, Fabian also orders two bottles of his favourite beer. “Yes we are here,” says Mantulli in a flattering and gentle voice. He frequently flickers his eyelids, scanning the entire bar. He then twists his lips and says the young men present are all sex workers. “I drink daily with them. Sometimes a client may come here or just send somebody to pick me. About 90 per cent of my clients are married men. I know this because they insist that we pay for a hotel room instead of their homes.”

He adds: “Some of the religious leaders and government ministers who condemn us during the day are our clients at night.” Mantulli says he likes his job. “My brothers hate me a lot, although I usually send money home to help them. I tell them I am a sex worker, not a prostitute.” He grew up in Mombasa where his mother operates a small shop.

Mantulli says he understands his business is risky. Men who have sex with men account for 15 per cent of all HIV infections in Kenya, according to the 2008 Kenya Modes of Transmission Survey. Other studies have shown that among MSM, infection rates could be as high as 30 per cent, compared to the national average of seven per cent.

The National Aids and STI Control Programme (Nascop) fears this high concentration of HIV is finding its way into marriages. The 2007 Kenya Aids Indicator Survey shows nearly half of all Kenyans living with HIV are married couples. Nascop deputy director Dr Peter Cherutich says male sex workers can no longer be ignored although their work is illegal. “We are sensitising hospitals to provide treatment to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation,” he says.

Mantulli says some clients offer more money for unprotected sex. “At such times you take the money.” He says there is plenty of money to be made in Nairobi, compared to Mombasa. “There is more money here. In Nairobi somebody can give you Sh5,000 for one night only. In Mombasa clients usually give you Sh1,000.”

He claims the police and hospitals are their worst enemy. “The police easily identify us because of fancy dressing. They always demand at least Sh1,000 bribes from each of us. If one does not have money, some policemen rape you. If you resist, you’re thrown into the cells and charged in court with a totally different offence like touting,” Mantulli says.

Although there is no legal definition of prostitution in the Kenyan penal code, it is illegal to live off the earnings of prostitution. Same sex intercourse is also illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

A non-governmental organisation working among sex workers says such legal bottlenecks make intervention hard because sex workers avoid treatment fearing arrest. “As a country we seriously need to consider these groups because they may be the source of most new infections to the general population,” says Job Akuno, a project manager with the National Organisation of Peer Educators.

He is in charge of a programme that offers health education to 2,000 male sex workers and 12,000 female sex workers across the country. “Our policy is clear. We do not condone neither do we condemn them, but every human being must have access to health services,” he says.

Mantulli, a muslim, says nearly all government hospitals are reluctant to treat male sex workers for sexually transmitted infections. “I once went to hospital with anal gonorrhoea and all nurses and doctors refused to attend to me. They asked how a man can have anal gonorrhoea unless he’s gay.”

Mantulli lives alone in a small rented room in the city centre after being chased away by fellow tenants in the estates. His friend Fabian is more feminine and more discrete. He mapped male sex workers for several organisations and says there are about 4,000 in Nairobi, mostly in their 20s and in school.

He is the last born in a family of three. His mother, a mitumba clothes trader, died of Aids in 1995. He dropped from secondary school in 2005 and the following year was introduced into sex work by a friend he met in Kangemi. “My grandmother used to tell us that education is not everything. She had several plots in the slum yet she was illiterate. So I began going to a bar in Westlands. Here you buy one beer and drink slowly. As the night wears off you’ll get a man chatting you up and the two of you can go to a lodging for the night,” he says. “We didn’t use condoms all the time. Sometimes a good man says we will have sex for Sh10, 000 without a condom and Sh5, 000 if I insist on the condom.”

He says a friend in 2006 introduced him to the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative, who were seeking HIV negative men who have sex with men for an HIV vaccine project. Fabian says he took part because he was desperate to find anything to do and the programme made him busy. He says nearly all his clients have been married people of about 40 years. “They are regular clients. These were the best because you’re assured of constant money,” he says.

Fabian says he no longer engages in active sex work because he gets stipends from his volunteer work with NGOs. He was recently invited to South Africa to an Aids Forum to speak of his experience. He presented a paper titled: MSM: The Hidden face of HIV in Kenya. Fabian says his most scaring experience was during the KAVI programme in 2008 when he went for regular screening. “I tested positive. I know I contracted HIV from clients and may have passed it on to others,” he says. “I am still not on ARVs but I take some antibiotics.”

Fabian claims most male sex workers in Nairobi could be living with HIV but they will not admit it. He now distributes condoms to them in bars at night. Mantulli says he tested negative the last time he took a HIV test. He drowns his second beer. We have to leave as one client approaches the table.

Source: NAIROBI STAR

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