This article was originally published on Ebola Deeply.
By Jaime Velazquez
On Freetown’s Aberdeen beachfront – a long, golden stretch of sand that meets the warm waters of the Atlantic – street food stalls sit next to swish hotels and restaurants owned by Lebanese businessmen. Hawkers selling clothes, soft drinks and Chinese-made radios hang out with girls selling something else entirely: sex.
This paradisiacal stretch of Freetown was a melting pot until Ebola arrived. The virus has infected more than 5,000 Sierra Leoneans since May, and it’s killed at least 1,600. Many more lives have been turned upside down.
Before all of this, business had been brisk for the prostitutes of Aberdeen. Foreign businessmen and diamond traders – a cornerstone of Sierra Leone’s black market economy – used to pay up to $100 for their services (the average monthly income in the country is $680, according to the World Bank).
But most of their clients are gone now. They left because of “this Ebola.”
“We’re afraid of the clients, and the clients are afraid of us, because nobody wants to catch Ebola,” says Kalidja, who at 23 has spent five years working the streets. She uses the proceeds to fund her education; she’s studying catering. “But I take care of myself,” she adds. “I never go with a man who looks sick.”
Under the shade of a fat palm tree, the girls chat to Aberdeen’s beach boys, who roam the sand with not much to do. Freetown’s nascent tourist industry has all but collapsed, so the boys protect the girls from customers who want a free ride. Big banners all over the city suggest prophylactic measures to avoid Ebola’s spread: “Stay safe, avoid close contact,” they say.
Ebola is transmitted through the bodily fluids of a sick person, but the girls, unable to avoid human touch, cope with Ebola the only other way they know how: by forgetting. They bury their worries with gin, sold by the beach boys in one-dose, high-alcohol plastic pouches.
Juliette, tipping one to her lips, says these little bags of “omole” lighten her troubles. Perhaps it’s because a policeman killed her boyfriend, a former client, right here on the beach with four straight shots, shattering her dream of becoming a secretary. So now she goes to work in tight, shiny black pants and a yellow top. She has a gap between her front teeth, a sign of beauty in West Africa.
“I know Ebola is real,” she says, “but I’m not afraid. If I were afraid, I wouldn’t survive. I need money, so I do whatever I have to do.”
But the hand sanitizer she needs as a bare minimum is out of her budget. “I wash my hands with soap over on the rocks, and I use condoms,” she says. But she knows that isn’t enough.
Because prostitution is illegal in Sierra Leone, the girls receive no help or information from the government. Mariatu Samai is a former sex worker who represents 3,500 prostitutes across Sierra Leone. She says the government pretends they don’t exist.
“But we do exist,” she says. “And everybody has the right to survive and get food. We have children. We have rights like any other human being.”
In an attempt to slow the transmission of the disease, authorities have declared that all physical contact is to be strictly avoided. They’ve banned public gatherings. All of Aberdeen’s bars and clubs are closed, leaving hundreds of girls trying to make a living on the beach.
Naomi, who lost her father at 14 and her mother three years later, began selling sex as a way to feed her four brothers and sisters. She grew up in the town of Mondema, about 75 miles from Freetown. While she works in the capital, she’s been staying at a house close to Aberdeen. But the owner of the house died from Ebola, and Naomi was forced into quarantine.
There were some upsides, she says. The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) gave her three meals per day while she was in isolation, and Naomi put on weight.
But once she got back there was no more sustenance.
“These [foreign] men who used to come and help us are all gone,” she says. “And locals never pay more than 100,000 Leones ($16) for sex. We have nowhere to stay and we have no food. We need help,” she adds.
As the sun sets over this tropical swathe of sand, the sex workers of Aberdeen stalk cars. If they’re lucky enough, they’ll find men with houses or hotel rooms, and they’ll have a safe place to sleep. The night might bring the usual drunk and delirious clients, or, as the outbreak shows no signs of letting up, it might bring clients hungry for what has become the ultimate taboo: the joy of human touch.
Jaime Velazquez is a contributer to Ebola Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of Ebola Deeply]