, MOMBASA, Kenya, Jan 27 – Imagine you have a video camera. Pan out to Mombasa town. There is a young good-looking well-groomed man sitting on a bamboo chaise lounge.
He is a male sex worker, who caters only for male clientele. He has a slightly bored expression on his face, but is willing to answer my questions.
“I don’t know why they think there are only a pocketful of homosexuals in this country?” Brian (not his real name) muses before I even start, looking down and staring at his fingernails, but not really.
“Our main market is not the white tourists who come down here. We cater for people in Nairobi, Meru and even Mandera!” He goes on to say – in a slightly feminine tone – that last December he spent the entire month, fully paid, in Nairobi. “I had fun!” Brian enthuses.
Brian is one of many male sex workers who cater exclusively to male clients. He regularly attends one of four health centres that serve MSM (Men who have sex with Men) in the coastal town, set up with the help of the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICHR). At these centres, men learn about safe sex practices and occasionally get counselling.
In a study published in the June 2007 edition of AIDS, researchers estimate that at least 739 MSM are selling sex to men in and around the city of Mombasa – a “sizeable population who urgently need to be targeted by HIV prevention strategies,” it says.
24-year-old Brian explains he initially got into the business “to make money.” “Nowadays sometimes I do it just for pleasure, but mostly it’s for the money. I work only five times a week,” he declares, at which point I ask him if he is a homosexual.
“I was raped by a neighbour when I was about eight years old. And from that time I started getting sexual urges – more for men than women. I didn’t take any action after the rape, because I was threatened,” he reveals to me, explaining that he suffered emotionally for a while before coming to terms with it.
“I started actively going with boys when I was in secondary school. I was in a boarding school. I had about 40 boyfriends in my total four years there,” he says.
“I didn’t have sex with all of them, but at least there was something; like romance and things like that. After college is when I came out and from then on I would look for people who want serious relationships,” he states.
He reveals that his first few relationships did not work. “Most people just wanted to have sex and then they would often cheat on me. I have never desired to have a sexual relationship with a woman though. Maybe one day I will, just to try.”
“In my business, I charge about Sh1,200 per shot. But that’s on the lower side for the younger clients. I only give two shots, once at night and once in the morning. I don’t stretch myself.”
“I don’t like old guys,” he confides with a low voice, “so with those ones I charge a bit extra, about Sh2,500, and that is just for the night.”
Brian tells me that despite the stigma that faces homosexuals, more specifically from society, police, and the church, their clientele is made up of people in these very segments.
It was revealed at a June 2007 conference in Nairobi on Peer Education, HIV and AIDS that MSMs face high levels of stigma and discrimination. Agnes Runyiri of ICHR said at the forum that homosexuality is considered taboo, un-African and anti-Christian.
“It (homosexuality) is very common. The only problem is stigma. That is why we are scared to come out. But in real sense, our clients are politicians, businessmen, religious leaders – I’m very sorry to say – but it’s true,” Brian points out.
He goes on to describe his work. After I enquire whether he has had any bad experiences the 24-year-old narrates that sometimes you get bad customers who pay you less than the agreed amount or disappear without paying a cent.
“Luckily, I have never had a violent customer; although I was in a violent relationship once. He used to beat me up and say that it was because I had become naughty,” he says shrugging. Brian tells me that that was why he had to break it off.
He also underlines that safe sex is key in his line of work, and even generally with men who have sex with men.
“There is a safe clinic (ICHR) that I work with. I started as a peer educator, but since I have a background in journalism, I now work as a counsellor. We have very many gays, who are messing about and they don’t know that they are. We deal with prevention of HIV/AIDS and it is helping because many of us were dying.”
He says it’s unfortunate that they are mistreated in most health institutions and says the government should look into this.
“I wish that the government would sensitise the whole country to accept that this thing (homosexuality) is there and we have to help these guys out. The more we push it under the table, the more we are going to die.”
“What we need is health rights,” he tells me, “not even marriage rights.”
I asked why and he said; “Because I don’t think even my family would allow me to do that. They need sensitisation. People don’t understand that we are normal human beings, it’s just that our sexual preferences are different. But we are just normal people.”