GABORONE — During the day, she will give your hair the most refined look, albeit in a makeshift saloon, but when night falls across Botswana’s capital Gaborone, Debra Ncube (not her real name) exchanges sex for money.
Routinely, every evening, Ncube, who is in her early 30s, sashays up Notwane road at Extension 12, a high— density suburb in Gaborone, in a tight, short skirt in search for customers.
She is usually joined by a few other young women, also thought to be her compatriots.
They strategically position themselves some 100m from Notwane bar, but Ncube picks her spot, a tree opposite the car park illuminated by headlights.
She says she has been a sex worker for five years and has been bedded by several men, earning an average of $52 per night.
Every evening, after knocking off from her “other” job, she joins her friends at their usual spot to target clients who usually frequent the three bars in the neighbourhood.
She is part of many Zimbabwean women in Gaborone who travelled southwards to take on the oldest profession – prostitution – when Zimbabwe’s economy got rough some years ago.
“This is what most women from my country do. In fact, I can safely say it is most of us who work as hairdressers at the roadside salons. During the day, we while up time doing people’s hair, which doesn’t really pay. The real work starts in the evening, around 1900hrs,” she says.
She adds that there are a few who worked as maids during the day and then added-on to their meagre salaries by selling their bodies.
A recent report released by Botswana’s Health ministry indicates that there are more than 1 500 Zimbabwean sex workers in the southern Africa country. The survey conducted between 2012 and 2013 focused on three centres – Gaborone, Francistown and Kasane.
The capital Gaborone has more than 1 200 Zimbabwean sex workers while 300 operate in Francistown near the Plumtree border post. The resort town, Kasane, has 100 Zimbabwean sex workers and others are scattered in various urban areas in Botswana.
There are almost 4 153 commercial sex workers in the three towns. More than 70% of the women cite financial gain and lack of employment as reasons for engaging in this trade.
Those who work at the makeshift saloon earn an average of P800 ($93) a month. The cheapest, room in Bontleng, where Ncube stays, probably costs her P400 ($46).
She says there was absolutely no way she could survive on the peanuts she makes at the salon.
“For most people, the saloon is just to cover up our act in case people start suspecting, especially those who know us. On a good night, I can make more than half the money I earn in a month at the saloon,” she says.
Through that, she has managed to acquire a few belongings for her lodgings in Botswana and is able to send money back home every month end.
She stays with a friend, identified only as Thoko (not real name) in Bontleng, which is adjacent to Extension 12 and a stone’s throw from the Gaborone central business district.
Their house is strategically located near a petrol station at the South Ring Mall, where they occasionally check for potential clients when the bars have closed.
Ncube is hardly at home and is not worried about not having electricity supply.
“What would I need electricity for? The house is just for me to keep my belongings. The only time you find me at home, I will be sleeping.”
During the day, she is at work. From there, she just comes home to bathe and head to her spot. I only come home in the early hours of the following day, and at times I get clients who would want to stay with me for a few days. If I don’t do that, I will not survive,” she explains.
Although she would not discuss her prices, indications are that her clients pay P70 ($8) for a short time, and P350 ($40) for the whole night.
Of late, the police have been descending tough on Ncube and her friends, who do not have the required documents to live and work in Botswana. But she has mastered a way of beating their raids.
“We now know them. Most of them are now our friends. When they come, we either pay them a bribe or just do a short time with them for free,” she says.
But that strategy only works when they are dealing with men officers, as she reveals that women were always uncompromising.
A few years ago, the government announced new regulations that compelled beer halls to close early.
President Ian Khama blamed alcoholism for HIV and Aids and other ills bedevilling Botswana.
And then Botswana followed up with a campaign that sex workers would either be detained if they were locals, or deported if they were foreigners for their “disorderly and indecent” behaviour. And this has hit hard on Ncube’s business.
“Many people would rather buy beer and take it home, than drink at the bar. We used to get most of our clients around midnight, but now we have to get them earlier as there will be no-one at the bars around that time.”
But Ncube has found her way around the situation.
She keeps contacts of every man she sleeps with and every day, she will call them and ask if they would need her services.
“On any given day, there is always at least one of them who would want me to come and spend the night with them,” she reveals. Botswana is second after Swaziland in terms of HIV and Aids prevalence rate in Africa.
In 2012, it was estimated at least 400 000 people aged between 15 and 49 in Botswana were living with HIV and Aids.
Botswana has a population of two million.And Ncube is aware of those statistics and the danger her night job comes with. One of the ways is insisting on using protection all the time.
She adds: “I know there are issues about HIV and Aids, but the challenge now is to make sure we use protection always. Every business has its risks, and even ours. One just has to find ways of handling the risks without endangering my life or getting my family know this is what I have been doing.”
Back home in Bulawayo, her relatives think she is secretary at a construction company. She holds a secretarial certificate, but claims it was hard to get a proper job because she was a foreigner.
“Most companies prefer locals for such positions because when they employ foreigners, they need to start doing permits,” she says.
But Ncube also has to ensure she does not get people who know her parents visiting her.
“My parents and everyone around our family think I work for a construction company as a secretary. That’s what I also told my boyfriend. What else would I do, this is the only way I can survive here in Gaborone. This is not a good life, but there is nothing I can do, otherwise I would die a pauper” she said.
Thoko recaps the situation of many Zimbabwean women, saying: “Back home, many people believe we hold senior positions at big companies, but that is not the case.”
Most Botswana women are more qualified and dominate the marketplace, leaving only a few good jobs for foreigners.
“Most of the stories you hear about people working at banks, diamond companies are lies. We know some Zimbabwean women who have bought properties through this (prostitution).”
With the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe still unstable, Ncube and her friends look set to hang on a bit in Botswana to make a-no-so-decent living.
— Africa Review