Accra is done for the day – dead and deep into its beauty: woes, glory, good, bad, better, and worse.
Only a handful of the city’s creatures are awake. The night’s precipitation is littered – accurately – on the aluminum glass exteriors of the high rise commercial buildings in the main city center.
The people here at night maintain a pious we-won’t-sleep posture all year, professing to be the gatekeepers with lock and key to the capital’s ins and outs. Even if they desired to, they simply cannot afford to sleep a wink. Even.
Men, women, and destitute young children lie callously on the streets as though that is all there is to their being. More than half of them are products of a thriving rural-urban migration situation – crisis, more like – that is, at the very core, carcinogenic and has eaten into the fibre of a society that is still struggling to wean itself off itching sores, which have become banal. Almost.
It is some minutes after 11:00 pm, midweek. The city is wet and has already showed its struggling self. A heavy cloudburst some hours early on has set her up for a cold night. While it is game over and baptism of many things – sadness, pain and anguish for the homeless – it is work all over again for commercial sex workers.
A four-door hatchback sedan shows up at the Cantonments Roundabout, within reach of the Togolese Embassy and the residence of the British High Commissioner.
The temperately-rickety sedan wears shaded windscreens that sit perfectly with the military-type colour of its exterior. The woolliness with which he goes round the Roundabout for more than five minutes, makes it a curious case of a wannabe so lost in his maiden Formula 1 race he could crash.
There is anxiety and caution written all over its movements until it finally decides to man up. The male driver moves slowly towards one of the Roundabout’s many wonders – Mercy Anobah, a plump-looking young lady in her thirties with a not-so-flattering bulging belly. Wearing thick make-up that portrays her as queen at night, she gladly walks up to this very first client, strutting to showcase her great legs the way they do on the runway. She sits inside the car.
After what looks like a drawn out five minutes’ negotiation, Anobah steps out to fake a phone call, and gently retreats from the car’s passenger front seat door. A concrete hint. A deal isn’t happening.
“He was wasting my time; he wanted to pay 50 cedis,” she says. “That is an insult. 200 cedis is what I charge for a short session.”
There is beauty aplenty and there is wisdom, as well as vice, all over the small Roundabout that links the Cantonment area – a plush community – to important structures like the American Embassy and luxury apartments.
Anobah’s clients range from the fairly-okay to the well-to-do. She calls herself a service provider.
“I am a service provider; I meet the needs and wants of people,” she says, laughing hard to expose the adorable dints on her chin.
A trained teacher, she quit the classroom when it became impossible for her to take care of herself after the death of her late husband.
“He was a good man. I know he wouldn’t be happy wherever he is but I have to survive. I have one child. It wasn’t with him. It was with another man from a previous relationship. I have to take care of her. She is my everything. She is the reason I come here every day.”
For Anobah, beyond her daughter and mother, motivation to join her colleagues at the Roundabout comes down to every thing that has happened to her in the last few years after her husband’s passing.
“The few jobs I thought I could do to take care of myself, my mum in the village (lost the father at age 16) and my daughter, didn’t end up the way I wanted. I have not had very good experiences when it comes to working for others,” she says, failing to explain what challenges she went through.
When asked if sexual harassments were part of those challenges, Anobah shyly covered her face with a white handkerchief, and placed her head on her laps for a few seconds before looking up, offering a gaze that silently, nonverbally, enquired: do you really want an answer?
Like her colleagues, she is also aware of how illegal commercial sex work in Ghana is and the associated health dangers.
“I go to the hospital often to check if I am okay. You know, these days you can’t even trust the condom. When it comes to that aspect, I am very careful because I meet all sorts of people; so it is important I protect myself.”
Despite her caution, she also has appetite for risk.
“I will never do raw sex unless you are paying more. Some of the men who come here want it without condom. But, because the money is good, I have no option than to accept. I also need the money. It is a risk I take sometimes.”
12:17 am. Streets away in East Legon (also in Accra) on a Friday night, there is an urgent sensual thirst that needs to be feted; balls waiting to be pampered.
On the road in front of the residence of three-time African Footballer of the Year, Abedi Pele, a group of commercial sex workers are already at work, applying powders on their faces and pulling up leggings to waist levels in readiness for what is a regular night’s call, to provide paid-for kindness to desperate virile nerves.
They have lined up from one end of the street to the other, preparing to pounce on their usual suspects: aliases (men) with very urgent needs below their waistlines and in search of cures for their neglected libidos. It is a theme so correct it strays and slides into the waiting hands of these sex workers without toil.
There is stiff competition here, so much so that the pitching takes different forms of invitations to treat. On the menu is a simple approach of hitting the right targets: cause a stare and manage to at a least get a paying client.
“Some come here only to make fun of us,” says Peace Amadi, a Nigerian who moved to Ghana for a ‘better life’ three years ago.
Amadi’s choice of East Legon, and not any of the many other spots in the capital, was informed by a briefing she had before jumping onto a Lagos-Accra bus to Ghana in November, 2014.
“I was told by a friend, who left Nigeria years ago to come and do this work, that all the rich men in Accra lived in this community so it’s a good place to make money with this kind of work.”
Amadi has only been doing transactional sex work for a year and eight months; her previous months in Ghana devoted to spa work, west of Accra.
“That is what I used to do in Nigeria. But my madam lost her properties to the bank so life went bad for me afterwards,” says Amadi, 29.
1:13 am. At the Bigot Spot area in Lapaz (Accra), the night is still young for the not-so-young Aisha Tandoh, 40. Playing loudly in the spot’s speakers is Date Your Father by Ghanaian female sensation, Ebony. Tandoh is expecting a good day at the office; a few fathers to work on.
Drunk and blurting a string of incomprehensive twaddle around the lyrics of the song, Tandoh reeks of alcohol but would stay sober as the night fades away. In good company, she and her friends have solid protection from merchants of other vices in the area, notorious for heavy gambling, and drugs.
“They protect us; some of my friends also have boyfriends amongst them so we are like a family.”
She makes a point about why the protection is needed.
“Sometimes, you will get men who will want to intimidate you.”
Tandoh plies her professional trade between Bigot and the Vienna City facility in Nkrumah Circle, Accra. She speaks boldly about how the Nkrumah Circle area is becoming an urban spook of a commercial sex zone.
“People have become used to the area, and these days, too, there is competition from smaller towns so the men don’t come there in their numbers like before.”
2:16 am. On the Oxford Street, Osu, Accra, Mildred Nyarkoa sits all by herself around a tea seller’s structure. She is a beauty with contours to die for. Her loud earrings sag, knocking each other off over a game of who cracks it best. They earn her eyeballs, flashing with both admiration and desire.
As she sat to wait for her slices of bread with fried eggs, she brilliantly sows seeds of lust among four men, who are whiling away time at the tea seller’s kiosk.
“She wouldn’t be bad for the night,” one whispers.
Nyarkoa is aware of her environment and so, in the few minutes before her order is ready, she walks up and down to nowhere, putting her rather impressive derriere, that is sitting in a skimpy jumpsuit, on display for public consumption.
She has skill and malleable charm. Built out of a sophisticated insight into the wants of craving men, she carefully whips her hair back and forth into equilibrium as though they were falling. She gets bawdy by swaggering harder. With her hands in her two pockets, she exposes the rounded firm figure behind her: her warmth so alluring, and soothing. All four men are suddenly engaged in a wayside naughty talk of getting laid and what makes appropriate lullaby for men at night.
“I like what you are doing,” one says, aiming for Nyarkoa’s attention. She pretends not to have heard the compliment and heads straight to her duty post across the street.
Nyarkoa says what she does to men, like the four, is to “prepare their minds for the future”.
“I know them very well; they will come and look for me,” she says with certainty of a professional.
“As for tonight,” she adds “I have an appointment. He should be here soon,” referring to an expat who works in one of the many shops dotted along the Oxford Street.
The sex trade is a vice in good standing in Ghana. It has left officialdom clueless. The actors, too, are somewhat jumbled, wishing for workable alternatives in lifelines.
Of all the things these workers project for themselves, a change in trade is never one because it pays. But they continue to yearn for that evasive better life – as in the case of Amadi – one that is so reassuringly positive, and provides more than nights of sex for cash.
Fatiah, a 20-year-old head porter from the Northern part of Ghana, has been struggling to fit into a bubbly capital that has too many problems to even think of properly accommodating her likes. She makes a living – by day – by carrying goods, and – by night – by offering sex in the Agbogbloshie area, northwest of the Central Business District.
She does not enjoy her current means of survival, she says but, just like Anobah, she has little option.
Fatiah, like the many thousands who make-shift sleeping places for themselves at night in front of stores, dreamt of a bigger life prior to relocating to the city.
As it turned out, there was more to the better Accra story.
One of the most pressing issues the city face is the reoccurring deficit in accommodation. Over 5 million people (and counting) live here. Half of them have come from far and near to look for the good life.
Space is still a luxury here in the capital, which is bursting at its seams.
“It’s an unfortunate politician-to-masses soap opera; it beats the popular Mexican soap on Ghanaian television, Kumkum Bhagya, by many margins,” says Danso Ampem-Darko, a banker.
Fatiah hopes that metropolitan authorities will move away from cutting sods into implementing solutions that make life better for all, and not just a few.
Like fine wine, Accra’s problems, are not dying anytime soon, the work of Anobah, and Amadi being one of many issues authorities contend with.
Prostitution is still illegal in Ghana. Occasionally, there are police raids in the capital and other parts of the country to clamp down on the activities of sex workers. It appears a worrying situation for the police, who have argued strongly that most of these commercial sex workers have been infiltrated by other bearers of vices such as drug dealers and armed robbers.
“You don’t want us to sleep, so you will also not sleep,” said a Police Officer when a number of robbers and prostitutes were paraded in Kumasi in October, 2017. In all, some 245 people including robbers and sex workers were arrested, a number shared between Ghanaians and Nigerians; prompting a meeting between the Regional Police Command and the Nigerian High Commission.
On July 14, 2015, the Western Regional Police Command arrested some 11 women around the Aponkye Nkakra Avenue and Shippers Council Roundabout.
“Sometimes, the Police Patrol cars stop by briefly to talk to us, that what we are doing is against the law,” says Anobah, adding “I have also heard complaints from my other colleagues. I have a friend who stands at the Nkrumah Circle area; the other day she told me the Police came around to arrest some of our people.”
Arrests across the country continue to happen but that has done little to stop the Amadis and Anobahs from having a trade, and from making a living.
So wide has the ecosystem grown that Ghanaian commercial sex workers now have competition from locally-based Chinese counterparts, who have invaded the country in search of moans and orgasms that pay.
“The Chinese invasion is a bother,” says Nyarkoa who has seen some recently around the Oxford Street in Osu, Accra.
“I saw some [Chinese prostitutes] the other day around this place. I knew that was what she was doing because it is the same thing I also do,” said Nyarkoa in the local Ghanaian language Twi. “These days, when you go to the Casinos, they are there.”
But the invasion doesn’t appear peculiar to Ghana.
Across Africa, there is a springing up of local and foreign-run brothels competing for available spots of the trade.
Basile Ndjilo, an Associate Professor of Anthology at the University of Douala, Cameroon, in a March, 2017 paper, showed how disgruntled sex workers in Cameroon dealt with a Chinese invasion by “relocating their business to popular entertainment areas commonly characterized in Cameroon as rue de la joie (street of enjoyment).”
Based on ethnographic research conducted between 2008 and 2012, Ndjilo’s paper also argued that the “local geography of sexualities has become a site for asserting ethnic, racial or national identity, and especially a space of both inclusion of people profiled as autochthon populations and the exclusion of those branded foreigners.”
The Chinese invasion may not be as serious as the trafficking dimensions the trade continues to experience.
Across the Mediterranean, weekly, children and adult females are trafficked into sex slavery to European merchants, waiting to use them as human stress balls and money-making machines.
In June, 2017, an operation by the Anti-Mafia District Directorate (DDA) in Cagliari, Sardina, Italy, led to thirteen Nigerian nationals being arrested for alleged human trafficking.
“The operation resulted from complaints filed by young women from Ghana and Nigeria, who were engaged in prostitution at the outskirts of the regional capital (Cagliari),” said a Police statement released afterwards.
Recruited through various mediums, including social media, the suspects are promised non-existent stable work life in Europe, with threats issued if they turned down the requests. Officials say victims are sometimes made to pay between 28,000 and 33,600 dollars to facilitate their travels, as in the case of Cagliari.
Beyond the arrests, trafficking and the illegality tag commercial sex workers in Ghana and other parts of Africa suffer, there are real issues including, but not limited, to psychology on why the likes of Amadi and Tandoh end up on the streets. Mohammed Salim Sulley Wangabi, Assistant Clinical Psychologist at the Greater Accra Regional Hospital, who holds an M.Phil in Clinical Psychology from the University of Ghana, agrees.
“People who practice prostitution are either having some personality disorders or some bipolar cases and in their manic phases. These are usually due to some abuse in childhood or traumatic occurrences. Their coping mechanisms are usually maladaptive.”
Psychological conclusions – such as Wangabi’s – on the why and how Anobah and her likes end up on the streets, may also be a tiny fraction of a bigger pool of factors responsible for the daily surge in the numbers. The trade remains, for most, a means of survival, an escape from poverty, a need being satisfied, and a want finally getting realized.
The space is fuelled by basic nightlife economics of sought intimacy (demand) and ever-present human stress-handling agents (supply) crushing and feeding unhappy waists into straightened or firm credibility around the many playgrounds of the female body part – the vagina, the ultimate conveyor belt of satisfaction.
Genteel or not, sane or abnormal, there is always going to be an expectant increased life span for a trade that has everything to do with whose flaps need an exposé and/or contents willing to be stroked into submission, than with the oft-drummed speeches around decadence, yet to hit home for regular patron Blessing Ayitey, a Steel Bender.
“That is my choice; some don’t like but as for me I don’t see anything wrong with it. You may have [some]one you can be going to or calling,” he says, adding “sometimes, I just want want to release tension so I call her and she comes to my place. Once I use the condom, I don’t fear say (sic) something will happen.”
Back at the Cantonments Roundabout on a Monday, it is yet another day at the office for Anobah, whose cleavage is being hosted by a 38D cup-size bra. Little is happening here today; the cars are yet to screech at the sight of the beauty that abounds.
The exhibition on Anobah’s chest however says enough: Come (cum) one, come (cum) all.