Late yesterday afternoon a powerful thing happened in Maai Mahiu, Kenya. I was at a meeting that brought together eight local women and a team from Holland, led by an unusually outspoken woman named, Marieke, who manages sex work projects at SOAIDS. The visit to the Roadside Wellness Centre was originally to give the team a quick look at how a North Star clinic operates. That was the plan. And then I asked if I could tag along and interview one female client, maybe a sex worker activist, so that I could tell her story in a blog post for International Women’s Day on 8 March. Again, that was the plan.
Halfway to Maai Mahiu we learned that a group of women were gathered to meet us and when we arrived we were told they had been waiting an hour, were very tired and really wanted to go home and nap before nightfall. One woman hadn’t slept since the previous day. Not exactly a great introduction for anybody.
But about 15 minutes into the meeting a palpable transformation of energy swept over the group. I looked around and they were leaning forward, eyes locked on Marieke, nodding and then suddenly, a loud burst of laughter rocked the container. Energized by her warmth, impressed by her intimate knowledge of their work, and anxious to learn new tricks and techniques to protect themselves, the collective energy began to bubble. After an hour of animated discussion, we respectfully cut it off knowing that they had other places to be.
Still thinking about the story I wanted to tell, I somewhat reluctantly asked if there was one woman who would agree to spend a few extra minutes with me. There was a pause, some glances darted, and then Mercy nodded that she would stay. And then Ruth nodded. And then something remarkable happened. Everybody nodded that they wanted to stay and keep talking.
I am not telling one woman’s story here, but instead, the story of a chance meeting with a group of women who started as strangers to us and ended up anything but. There was a surprising unanimity in their answers to sensitive and personal questions about the hardships they face, like police harassment, hunger and stigma in the community. They don’t make much money and they don’t enjoy what they do to make it. When I asked what their priorities were they agreed food first, then, school fees for their children, and then, if there is anything left, they send money back home. All of the women came from elsewhere and most don’t see their families for a year or more at a time.
There were other points of agreement that made me especially proud to be part of North Star. It was clear that the RWC staff, Lucy and Oliver, who is affectionately referred to as “Daktari”, are trusted and well liked. The women feel safe and respected, even to the point that they bring their clients to get condoms, advice and treatment when they can persuade them to do so.
On this International Women’s Day, I want to say thank you to the remarkable women I encountered yesterday — Ann, Zipporah, Caroline, Alice, Mercy, Ruth, Agnes and Ester for speaking so honestly; Lucy for the dedication to her clients; Eva for her leadership; and Marieke for her warmth of spirit that transcends cultures and continents. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, they go even better.
SOAIDS and North Star Alliance
The Dutch NGO, SOAIDS, selected North Star Alliance as a key partner in a five-year initiative, funded by the Government of The Netherlands, to create a programme to improve the health and well being of women engaged in sex work in Kenya and Uganda. North Star will be working with local sex work associations and other partners to introduce a tailored package of health and social services for women at risk.