Six clients per night make up for what your parents can’t give you.
Five years ago, a Ghanaian newspaper exposed a brothel that employed underage sex workers. The story, by famous investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, caused an international outcry, won prizes and prompted Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare to act. But not for long. The one hundred and sixty girls, taken into care by the Department, were put back on the streets a mere two days later. Today, they work on the side of the Accra railway tracks.
It’s 2 AM on a Sunday and the city of Accra is fast asleep. Only here, next to the railway, the music plays loud and fast and tiny light bulbs brighten the wooden shacks. A bunch of men chat with young girls in tight tops and miniskirts. There’s 16-year-old Maafia*, a small girl with skin the colour of baked clay and a cornrow hairdo. She wears no make up, and flashes a wide grin every time she speaks. As she moves to join other girls dancing under a bright light, it is clear that she is a few months pregnant. Maafia is one of over a hundred young girls who work here every night.
Tobacco and cheap perfume
Inside a large yellow wooden kiosk named ‘Arrivals Lodge’ in bright red paint, landlord Chidi (33) paces up and down, trying to figure out where to put the five girls who have just approached him. “Have some patience, you’ll be served soon”, he says. The brothel counts ten bedrooms, five on each side of a tiny walkway lit by blue fluorescent lamps. It smells of tobacco, cheap perfume and body odor. Used condoms and tissue paper, wet with semen and lubricant are piled in the wastebaskets by each doorway.
17-Year old Chris works as a janitor here. He knocks hard on the doors: they have had their five minutes. “Time up,” he says and girls, paired with men of different ages, emerge from the cubicles. Chidi signals the five waiting girls to move in, each with their client in tow. They will spend their five minutes either on a thick blanket on the floor or on an uncomfortable wooden bed. People mustn’t fall asleep here. Each bout of sex of five minutes is worth five Ghanaian Cedis (about US$ 1,80). Of this, two Cedis go to the landlord; the rest is shared between the girl and her pimp. You have to have sex with six or more clients every night to earn enough to survive.
Fried yam and money
To find the brothels, follow the railway tracks towards Accra Central and keep going after the VIP Bus Terminal. You’ll see wooden shacks and tin roofs on your left. "KEYS - MAN - TOMBOLA HOUSE" is the inscription on one of the kiosks. You'll pass young boys smoking or gambling there, and the pimps who stand close to their motorbikes. At dusk, these carry the girls to the railway tracks; they take them back to their rooms in the slum at dawn. During business hours they stand with the eyes fixed on their particular girls. They fight, beat and often rob clients who try to cheat.
Close by, middle-aged women with dishes and buckets sell fried yam and roasted plantain. One of them, Auntie Yaa, also sells condoms and tissue paper to the girls who patronize her brothel. She keeps the business’ proceeds at the bottom of her bucket. Savvy traders are everywhere: people sell bed sheets, leggings, ice cream, coffee.
This part of Accra has always been a rough settlement for migrants from all over West Africa, mostly cobblers, street hawkers and artisans. But nowadays their shacks, hammered from plywood and tin, have all become brothels. The young girls, many of them minors, work in the more than fifty such establishments here. Every week, new girls join. There are also those who disappear. Nobody knows where.
Romanus, the Brothel King
The brothel slum was established by Romanus, a lanky middle-aged Nigerian nicknamed the ‘Brothel King,’ known for his rubber flip-flops, London brown cigarettes and laziness when it comes to changing his shirt. During the day, he lives as a family man in town with his Ghanaian wife. At night he is here, coordinating his three main employees: Chidi, Chris and bar sales girl Ama.
When Romanus bought the kiosk for 1,300 Cedis (US$ 470) in late 2009, it was a makeshift warehouse, used to store bags of maize for market women. Romanus started selling liquor here. Later he created three rooms within, two of which he shared with his wife and two brothers. The shift to this brothel business started a year later, in 2010, when a brothel called Soja Bar in the centre of Ghana was closed and demolished by the authorities.
That action was a belated response to a newspaper report that underage girls were working there, or rather, to the international outcry that had followed it. At the time the report was published in 2008, the minors had been taken into the care of the Department of Social Welfare, but they had been put back on the street two days later and had returned to the brothel to continue work for the next two years until the place was closed. After the demolition, the girls had started referring their clients to the railway tracks, making arrangements with bartenders operating there to convert back rooms into brothels. Because of the lucrative rental fees paid by the sex workers, even residents started giving out their rooms. It was then that Romanus decided to "enter the nude-house business". Hammering plywood inside his kiosk, and moving his fridge outside, Romanus created its current 10 mini-rooms.
In one year, he made enough money to add three refrigerators to his smokescreen bar and to hire staff. He has also extended his one brothel to four, now renting out three big shacks in a nearby slum for 7 Cedis (about S$ 2,-) per night. And just in case one day police will come to close and demolish the premises on this side, he has already built a new big brothel in another part of town as well. "That one fine, wey e big pass this one sef," (that one is even nicer and bigger than this), says Chidi.
God helped Chidi
Five years ago, Chidi escaped from a military training camp at his home state of Imo in Nigeria. His father had taken him there because ‘he wanted something good for me’, he says. But Chidi found the drill of the camp unbearable and decided to run, vowing not to see his father for the rest of his life. After three years as a roaming trader between Nigeria and Ghana, and staying in the brothel slum when he was there, he met Romanus, who asked him to become the janitor in his first 'nude-house'. Romanus paid well. Chidi now dreams sometimes of impressing his father. “If he sees me now, he'll take me back."
Chidi is slim built, of medium height, dark brown and very religious. To his left ear, a tattoo of a crucifix stretches to his back. Inside the brothel, on the door to the room where he often sleeps, there is a big poster of Jesus Christ, with a halo and his right hand pointing to a bleeding heart. "God wey e do everything for me oh," is how Chidi explains his current ownership of the three kiosks he rents daily to sex workers. He is planning to build new brothels in other parts of Accra.
A promise of marriage
Maafia is the youngest of seven children of a fishmonger mother and a carpenter father. When she was one year old, her parents divorced and she, her mother and siblings moved to Accra. They were very poor. Maafia recalls living off the generosity of neighbours. “I would follow my playmates to their houses so I could eat with them. Some parents didn’t like that.” She left primary school after class 1. “I didn’t like it. And my mother struggled to pay the fees.”
She was 14 years old when she left home on a Friday in late 2011. "I wanted to earn my own money. How can a man respect you if he wants to marry you and finds that you depend on your mother for everything?" she says, clearly unaware that most 14 year olds in the world are dependent on their parents.
Maafia’s plan, made on that previous Sunday, was to follow her neighbour’s daughter Maadjoa, who had already gone to live by herself in the sprawling slum of Tuobodum in central Accra. Maafia met up with Maadjoa and was invited to the room she had there. “Maadjoa introduced me to a boy who said he loved me. In the beginning we never had sex. He was only giving me money. When he finally asked, I could not deny him." While Maadjoa guided Maafia on the ins and outs of the ‘business’, the soft-spoken boy, Rashid, became Maafia's pimp.
Rashid now accompanies Maafia to work every night. He visits her ‘anytime’ and she often gives him money, "whenever the work fetches enough." He has promised to marry her, too: it is a piece of news she shares with a smile. But for now, she has to earn enough money to start her own business. "To be independent before we marry," she says.
Paying for siblings, saving for college
Like Maafia, sixteen-year old Akua (last name withheld), feels that it is too much to ask of her parents to support her. “They don’t have enough. I also have siblings who need support.” Then there is Mawuena, a 15-year old high school graduate, who travelled from Ghana’s Volta region to work here. When she completed school, there was no work, and, again, “no one to take care of me.” A friend brought her here. Like Maafia, she dreams: of a better life, of making enough money to go to college.
Do any of the girls ever achieve such dreams? Nobody has come back to tell. “Some get pregnant and they leave to their villages. Others come back. For those who don’t come back, we don’t know what happens to them,” Maafia says.
The day is for sleeping late, cleaning up and hanging around; the evening and night are for business. By 7 PM, the Arrivals Lodge’s wastebaskets are emptied, the beds are made and the drinks chilled. One television set constantly shows wrestling matches or soccer, whenever there is a Spanish Premier League match. The other TV, connected to two wooden speakers, is set aside for music. The first clients arrive and the girls get busy.
No response from Social Welfare
Ghanaian law prohibits prostitution, with a special clause outlawing child prostitution under 16 years. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children further requires State Governments to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. But beyond rhetoric, nothing much has been done to deal with child prostitution in Ghana. There are occasional raids on brothels, but invariably, the girls end up back on the streets, either at the same place or somewhere else.
When asked about the 2008 case, then Deputy Director Joanna Mensah, -now retired-, admitted that the task of sheltering 160 child sex workers had been beyond its capability. Citing the case of a 13-year-old girl who had screamed for “being starved from sex” for those two days, she said: “Nobody knew how long she had been in that trade. How long are you going to keep that child; would she stay? That child needs more than just the physical care. If they stayed, this girl would go through psychotherapy. How big are the facilities; and how do you keep them?”
Six years later, the Department still doesn’t appear to have found answers to these questions. Countless calls for an interview with the Director or his deputies at the department have not been returned. More than six visits to the main offices of the National Office of the department also yielded no results. Will it take another international outcry for it to realise it must get its act together?
Counting the money
It's 5 AM and the city is waking up to begin the day's hustle. Maafia is fast asleep in her room. Arrivals Lodge staff Romanus, Chidi, Chris and Ama count money, straightening wrinkled notes and punching calculators. Close to the railway lines, some girls and their pimps sit smoking and drinking, with the cost of the drinks and the weed on the girls. Other residents grab a bowl of noodles at the stalls on the dirt road in front, or move to take a dip in the public bathhouse, fist bumping or greeting neighbors with heads bowed. It is the life they lead by day, until the night calls again with its charging demands.
*Name changed for privacy reasons
Selase Kove-Seyram is an Accra-based multimedia producer, photographer and freelance journalist as well as a member of the production team for ‘Africa Investigates’, an investigative documentary series on Al Jazeera English. Kove-Seyram also took the photographs for this story.