‘No one wants to be a prostitute but we have no choice’

Ladies of the night
 Livingstone, Zambia: It is not quite what Joanna had in mind when she graduated as a primary school teacher five years ago.

Instead of teaching Zimbabwean children basic skills she finds herself hanging out at the dimly lit entrance to a rundown block of flats – one of dozens of young professional Zimbabwean women who slip across the country’s border to work for a few days or weeks as prostitutes.

"We just come over for a little time. I need something, anything to take back that side," she says in a whisper, gesturing in the direction of the nearby Zimbabwean border. "I stay for ten days and then go home for a week or two before coming back."

It is late, dark and dangerous in the side streets and alleyways of Livingstone, a small town better known for its location on the Zambian side of the world famous Victoria Falls.

The "clients" from a nearby dingy bar can be drunk and violent.

"Sometimes they try not to pay … at times, the police chase us away and the local girls fight us too. No one wants to do this work, but we have no choice, it is so bad there now," she said.

"As soon as there is peace back home I will not come here again."

Joanna, a 27-year-old mother of two, stopped teaching in 2007. The world’s highest inflation rate had rendered her small but once respectable salary of
1.2 million Zimbabwean dollars useless.

"It costs 9 billion just to buy bread, but now they even want US dollars or rand for everything. How are we to get them? My young sister is looking after my children – it pains me to see them crying, they are so hungry," she said.

She is far from alone in her predicament.

A report published by Save the Children yesterday to coincide with the start of the new school year said thousands of children and teachers were unlikely to return to school when term began again formally.

The report said that many teachers were being forced to scrape together enough to survive rather than returning to their schools. This, combined with the country’s food crisis, was likely to deprive about 4.5 million school-age pupils of their education.

Zimbabwe’s education system, once one of the best in Africa, has disintegrated over the past year. Towards the end of 2007, 85 per cent of children were still at school but by the end of last year it fell to 20 per cent and is now expected to fall much lower.

Education, once President Mugabe’s most treasured policy, is not the only sector in ruins.

Joanna’s friends include women who ran small businesses, traders, accountants, former secretaries and PAs, even a policewoman – all of whom have been driven to cross the border and ply the world’s oldest trade in the most humiliating of circumstances.

These women tell their friends and family back in Zimbabwe that they are making money by buying and selling cheap clothes and other items. "I told them the first time I had sold my mobile phone to buy this and that and get started … There is nothing there and we have no choice. The only good thing is that we stick together and help each other. This is not the only place I go, I have been to Botswana and Mozambique too," said Laetitia, a 29-year-old friend from the same area of Zimbabwe.

The women face many hazards. Most have been harassed and even deported. The locals charge above the going rate for rooms and food and evict them quickly or report them to the authorities if they fall behind.

They all blame the Zimbabwean leader, President Mugabe, for their predicament. They speak his name with bitterness, but few have any hope that things will change in the short term.

"By the time this is all over, it will be too late for us … our lives have gone. Our children may see better days, but not us. I can’t believe when I think back to how I dreamed my life would be," said Laetitia.

"When I was at school I dreamt I would become a doctor. Now look at what we do." Her friends nodded in agreement.

It is estimated that more than four million Zimbabweans have fled food shortages and 80 per cent unemployment to neighbouring countries. In recent months the exodus has turned into a flood as the political crisis has deepened. A cholera epidemic has killed nearly 3,000 people as untreated sewage flows into water supplies. About five million people who remain in the country are dependent on food aid.

"Mugabe believes he has the title deeds to our country. By the time it is all over I believe I will no longer be around. I just live from day to day now, it is useless to look further ahead than that. When I remember my school and the children, I can’t believe what I am doing. It was another world," Joanna said quietly, a small tear trickling down her cheek.

Post published in: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *