The landlords accept sex if you cannot pay the rent
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Every six months the rents go up in Eastleigh. That is because the high rises are the main vehicles for making money for the powerful businessmen in the area: construction and rental bosses in this Nairobi community where mainly refugees live.
The refugees are Somali, like the rental bosses themselves, but there is little solidarity from the landlords vis à vis those who depend on rooms in their buildings. Everyone in this community -Eastleigh is where your shops are, where people speak your language and also you sort of get put down as a Somali if you try to live outside your own area- competes for space.
Government doesn’t help to regulate the rentals or exercise control over the landlords. The inaction towards Nairobi slum- and other -lording, upgrading and gentrifying areas until most city dwellers can’t afford to live anywhere anymore has been criticised for over a decade now but nothing changes (1). The Nairobi city council representative visits Eastleigh at election time, the women in the neighborhood say, but otherwise never.
Supervisors and bosses
That is why the rent goes up every six months in Eastleigh and that is why even modest hijabi women, widows and married ones, young and old, now pay with their bodies. Four out of thirty randomly interviewed female inhabitants of section 3 and 9 street in Eastleigh say they have sex with their landlords in lieu of paying (part of the) rent. Twelve others said they get money for rent by servicing their supervisors or bosses at work: often traders who also own buildings. One of the twelve gets paid for sex by her lecturer at university; another one, Hamdi (32), continues to have sex with her ex-husband to help her pay for the roof over herself and her (and his) kids.
That arrangement almost came to an end when Hamdi started a relationship with another man and the ex “found him here and he got angry and jealous and said he would not expect to ‘get a bill’ for this month,” but she was able to patch things over and the arrangement continues. “I know it will cause disease this way,” she says. “But everyone here is fighting for daily life.”
STREAMER Eastleigh is full of women who came looking for a better life and who are now HIV positive
Hamdi was born in Dadaab refugee camp on the border with Somalia, where her parents still live; Safiyo (35) who dresses modestly in long dress and covers her hair like all women here, once came from Garissa in the east. She never thought she would go out, as she does now, in the evening with lips red with lipstick, trying to find men to sleep with for money. When the police ask questions she makes up a story. One day she’ll have a better job and stop, she says, and meanwhile she hopes she won’t get sick before that happens. Eastleigh is full of women who came looking for a better life and who are now HIV positive.
Besides the sixteen out of thirty who sleep with their landlords and bosses another seven are like Safiyo and walk the streets at night. Two younger girls I speak to sleep with their teachers for better marks, hoping for certificates that can help them find real jobs. Only three out of the thirty are assisted by male boyfriends and partners, like Sacdiyo (30), who counts herself lucky to just have one boyfriend to look after in exchange for money for rent and food for herself and her children. “I used to have sex with more men but I was so scared, not only of Aids, but also of pregnancy, because how am I going to feed another child?”
Hoping to remarry
Sacdiyo has -almost- achieved a feat that others still hope for. A new partner, preferably an actual new husband to marry, is the big goal for the remaining two out of my thirty interviewees in this place where husbands are dead, divorced, or simply gone away. A new husband may be the one thing that can help you survive. The family lives in camps or in war-torn Somalia, after all; they are more likely to want help from you than the other way around.
STREAMER Welfare projects fell away after Somalis were blamed for terrorism
There used to be several projects that helped the refugee families in Eastleigh with skills training and health care and some welfare. But then in 2013 and 2014 there were Al Shabaab attacks and the Somali community was blamed -even if most women and children here ran away from Al Shabaab to begin with. As people were arrested and deported and raided, civil society organisations turned to advocacy and human rights work and welfare projects fell away. Only the Awjama Cultural Centre still teaches some sewing, entrepreneurship, tailoring, and painting. The Nairobi County, under which Eastleigh falls, has a budget for some help for the needy, but there are many needy in Nairobi and the Somali refugees of Eastleigh are at the bottom of the list. Charity in Eastleigh only comes a few times a year in the form of free meals dished out by the mosques at Ramadan and Eid.
Business is business
The imams and elders in the community know about the women and the poverty, but they say they also don’t know what to do about it. Poverty is poverty. The landlords will say that rent is just business. It is business everywhere in Nairobi, so why not here? All these ladies signed rental contracts, which provide for increases, didn’t they?
Fahma (29) is just home from work and cooking dinner for her two sons and one daughter. The children are doing their homework sitting on the ground, since there is no furniture besides a double bed where they all sleep. Fahma will go out again after midnight, locking the room with the sleeping children inside.
Note 1 See https://www.zammagazine.com/chronicle/chronicle-30/504-kenya-gentrifying-kibera