The Tsinai Agbe area exists as a sprawling, illegal network of organised gangs, traffickers and victim;: a place where reporters and outsiders are outlaws, threatened with violence.
Welcome to Ashaiman! Ashaiman, in case you didn’t know, is home to the biggest conglomerate of brothels in Ghana. It is home to over 200 women and girls who, appear to have sold their souls to the devil, leading painful and degrading lives. Here, poor women and vulnerable girls are traded as commodities.
They have become products, bartered, haggled over and ‘sold’ as quick routes to making money. Souls do not count here. Only bodies. Bodies that are debased over and over, irrespective of the social cost to self and society.
The Tsinai Agbe area exists as a sprawling, illegal network of organised gangs, traffickers and victim;: a place where reporters and outsiders are outlaws, threatened with violence. A place where politicians and police are bribed or compromised, and helped to turn their eyes the other way as an estimated 200 women, some under the age of 18, sell their flesh for as little as GHc10.
Over the past three decades, the area has grown in the shadows, being left to fester. State and private initiatives have failed to tackle groups of petty criminals who now control territorial authority and resources. And a growing cultural stigmatization of those involved has bred disinterest and fostered exploitation. Today, younger and younger victims come from further afar.
Tsinai Agbe itself thrives off a self-perpetuating, city-wide mentality of hypocrisy, crime and ignorance. It is a word not used in public; a pit that many profit from, yet, one that most, including the local media, seem to turn a blind eye to.
Life in Tsinai Agbe
In front of a densely packed collection of tin shacks, women watch passing men, waiting for someone to make eye contact with them, and to, quietly, usually, signal to them that they are available to yield their bodies to quench their lust for a fee.
To be sure of what you are buying, some of these scarlet ladies go as far as exposing their boobs and, in some case, vaginas, in front of their cubicles. Their costumes vary, mostly: red jeggings, skimpy pink dresses, glow-in-the-dark bras, and diverse clothings that exaggerate their over-bleached skins, even in the dark. Their faces painted heavy with make-ups, they speak a babel of languages: Twi, Fante, Ga and broken English.
However, some of them dare not move away from their cubicles for fear of losing potential clients. Everything else-food, condoms, cosmetics are provided for them in their rooms by their pimps.
The women are very creative in their charges. For instance, a client is allowed to pay per 30minutes or per round. Once a bargain is struck, the client does whatever he desires with the woman. Of course, there are agreed limits. If the client finishes earlier than the time he paid for, the party may continue.
“We do things differently here,” says Serwaa, one of the prostitutes who agrees to play with the reporter. “You bargain with your customer in your room. Once you have agreed on a price and the term, you collect the price for that service before you begin action.
If, during the session, the customer decides he would like to do something more than that, then, he more money.”
However, in the brothels, once a man finishes, the party is over. No further negotiations. It doesn’t matter whether the action lasts a few seconds or minutes into an agreed time/session; once you reach orgasm it is over. “The negotiation is very, very important because you have to nail down exactly what the man wants to do to avoid confusion after the act,” Serwaa emphasizes.
Rather startlingly, the brothels in Tsinai Agbe are occupied by women of every age, ethnicity, nationality and body type. Weekend Sun roves round this ‘City of Sex’ to see how the women and their brothels work. The prostitutes, sorry, the sex workers hold nothing back in their responses.
Chinedu (not real name) shows no remorse as to how she came into the business. With Ghana’s youth unemployment at 65 percent (World Bank Country statistics), it’s not exactly easy to find work in Accra. It is even harder if you are a foreigner. “I’m a Nigerian,” Chinedu, 23, an Igbo from Eastern Nigeria, reveals. “And people are generally reluctant to give me job.”
After failing to find a job in Accra, Chinedu decided to head east to Ashaiman – the ‘land of opportunity’ for any young, attractive girl who is prepared to rent out her body to strangers.
“I came to Ashaiman two years ago to work as a prostitute because I can’t find a job anywhere else,” she continues, pleading absolute anonymity. “If I do not do this job, I would have no money. And if I don’t have money, I die.”
In her current line of work, money dominates Chinedu’s entire thought process. She pays GHc10 a day to hire the small room she occupies in one of the side streets in Tsinai Agbe, and charges GHc10 for a 15-minute sex session. But on dry days, she often drops her charge to GHc8.
On a good day, Chinedu could net anything between GHc300-GHc500, but she quickly tells you that the reality of living as a prostitute in Ashaiman doesn’t quite match up to what she has heard about the lifestyles of some of the town’s high-end hookers, who supposedly live the lavish life for just a few hours of work. “I’m still poor,” Chindeu laments.
“But it’s not as bad as [it was] way back in Accra. Any spare money I have, I save. Sometimes, I make good money. Sometimes, I just make enough to pay for the room. Other times, I don’t make anything! There have been days I didn’t get any customers at all.”
Chinedu normally starts her shift at around 4 a.m. and finishes at about 10 in the night. She tries to avoid the midnight shift, for fear of drunken visitors and whatever other dangers the town has to offer once the gangs are out and about. Unlike a number of Ashaiman’s sex workers, she doesn’t have any protection in the form of private bodyguards or pimps. So, she chooses her clientele carefully.
“I can read people, but not always,” she tells Weekend Sun. “Sometimes, I’m definitely scared, because I have no one to help me.”
Regardless of her admission policy, Chinedu always spends her shifts trying to score as many jobs as possible. “I stand in front of my cubicle and make kissing faces to the men who walk past, trying anything to get them to come in,” she reveals a little trade secret.
“Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. When they do come in, I ask for money straight away and lock it away. I can’t trust nobody. Then they take their clothes off and jump into bed.”
Chinedu’s workplace consists of a small, worn-out mattress, brown wardrobe and just enough space for a make-up table and a chair. The room is lit up by a dull blue bulb and sound-tracked ghetto blaster. The lack of anything resembling romance doesn’t worry Chinedu; she tells this newspaper that she is definitely not trying to be a “hired girlfriend”, that is a sex worker who offers the “girlfriend experience” service. Neither does she have time for small talk or foreplay.
“I don’t make any face or noise,” she says, showing no remorse. “I just lie there [during sex]. If I’m not enjoying it, why would I pretend I am? I just look up at the clock on my phone to see when their time is up. I think that’s why a lot of men don’t reach orgasm when they come to me.”
How about her clientele? You ask Chinedu. Her response tumbles out of her lips: “I regularly get young people between ages 20 and 40. Some of them smell badly. But I push the ones that smell too badly away. I don’t accept just anyone.”
Does she enjoy her job? We ask Chinedu. “I like the money,” she says, smiling. “Sometimes, I get sad about [the job itself], but what can I do?”
Unlike Chinedu, Akosua, a Ghanaian prostitute sheds silent tears within her brothel walls when asked to relive her experience so far.
Throughout her interview with Weekend Sun, Akosua seems nervous, answering your questions with short sentences, and monosyllables; and sometimes, awkward silence. At first, this reporter thought her demeanour was a result of morbid fear of the police, who normally raid the area to arrest sex hawkers.
“I can’t recall how I started this business,” she said, rather unconvincingly. “But I’m from a broken home and none of my parents wanted to take proper care of me after their divorce. It was getting difficult for me to feed and clothe myself. So, I had to find something that was going to cater for my needs.”
When Akosua finally decided to go out and start fending for herself, she had no idea where the next few years would take her. The pretty teenager began studying sewing and embroidery at a highly regarded local shop. But it didn’t take long until she began to worry more about the clothes on her back than anything going on in the shop.
“I fell in love with luxury,” she said. “I wanted jewelry, a Mercedes-Benz, Range Rover, gold watches, diamond necklaces … You name it, I yearned for it all.”
The search for more wealth and materialism eventually led her to one of Ashaiman’s popular drink joints, Broadway Bar (not real name), where she began working as a waitress. When it was closed, she looked elsewhere to keep the money flowing.
She was eventually coerced into prostitution. After becoming acquainted with other prostitutes, she quickly became aware that the money she was due to make here if she joined was 10 times the amount earned elsewhere.
“The more I talked with them,” she continued, “the more I became convinced that this job was a better option than working in a bar or restaurant. I was told I would be making more money in prostitution than I ever could elsewhere.
On top of that, they said I would be working for myself, instead of for a boss who would be telling me what to do. The freedom prostitution offers to women is much more than any other job could offer. You can decide when you go to work, when you go home and when to quit the job. Nobody tells you what to do. You’re basically your own boss.
With a salary that dwarfs the salary in most other jobs, and having more freedom than any other job could offer, plus the knowledge that nobody would ever have to find out about it, I decided to take the step”, she said, with a cheeky grin.
What sort of men visit her? A lot are older, she said automatically. “Some of the men would tell me that they came to me because their wives thought they couldn’t perform any longer. So, to convince themselves that they are still on, they come to us.”
In the past couple of years, Akosua says she has noticed changes in the men who come to see her and what they expect. “I’ve noticed that the pedophile scenario has started creeping in,” she continues. “Recently, I had a man who said, ‘I would like to try a 14-year-old. Can you find me one?’
Two years ago, I remember men who would be upset at the idea that a prostitute they were banging was a child. Now, I don’t think it bothers them.”
Akosua would like to stop working as a prostitute but neither knows how nor what to do next. Would she ever be able to have a “normal” relationship with a man? “Even if I found a man I could tell what I’ve done, at the back of his mind he will not trust me.
It puts you in quite literally a no-man’s land. I will never trust a man again. In fact, I’m almost glad that I have done this because I know what men are usually up to.
Their wives don’t know. The likelihood if you’ve got a boyfriend or husband, of him cheating on you is probably quite high.”
Even with the money she makes, Akosua admits that her job really takes its toll on her, most times. “In the beginning,’ she recounts, “I didn’t have an issue with my job’s social status.
But now, it has become a problem for me. I can see that a lot of my colleagues who have been in the job longer than I are also evidently very embarrassed and ashamed.”
Akosua also finds that, as time goes on, she often spends more than she intends just to try and make herself feel better following a shift. “Lots of mornings, I would feel horrible after doing the work,” she sighs. “So, I treat myself to a nice meal, or some presents, using the money up as soon as I have earned it.
I say the rest of the money with a savings and loans collector (susu) to clear my bills.” She admits to feelings nervous carrying such large sums of money around, aware that “prostitutes living in brothels are targets for muggings.”
Are the Ashaiman Police supporting an illegal act?
In other parts of the world where the police and other law enforcement agencies are uncovering brothels and helping to stop prostitution, sex trade in Ashaiman is booming because, according to some residents, the police are accomplices.
Their reason? Just behind the main Ashaiman Police Station lies what is arguably the biggest brothel in Ghana. Yet, the police have given a deaf ear to complaints about the booming sex trade in the area.
Through a shocking revelation, Akua (not real name) disclosed that the police force has profited handsomely from this sex industry, demanding both payment in cash and kind from prostitutes. For every little cake they make off sleeping with men, the police, they alleged, take a bite.
“Some of the policemen have girlfriends here who cook for them,” Akua said. “When they are on lunch break, some of them come over here to eat. Sometimes, they even have quick sex after eating with their prostitute-girlfriends.”
Describing how these policemen get to the prostitutes in their cubicles, Akua said they mostly take off their upper uniform, pretend to be taking a walk, then, they carefully sneak into the rooms.
Akua also bemoaned that the police in the area were not fighting prostitution and brothels as has been advertised. Rather, they were doing the opposite. “These officers have created and organised a protection network for these open brothels and saloons,” Akua alleged.
“Nobody can touch them. Nobody can arrest them. These girls do what they want because they know they have the backing of the police.
The police officers have also established a cash flow for themselves by covering up and coordinating the activities of these women.”
This disgraceful behaviour, many residents of Ashaiman allege, is the real reason the police has been largely unable to arrest any of the sex workers. Indeed, they say that anytime there is a raid, it is most likely carried out by the police task force.
“When there is an impending break-in of the area, the police will even alert some of the women before action takes place,” Akua insists. “And these girls usually bribe with GHc20, other times GHc30.
“The police only arrest the boys with Indian hemp and leave the women to continue with their business. The police tell whoever cares to listen that they are fighting prostitution. But it doesn’t happen. A lot of them have directly or indirectly invested in the brothels.”
Schools in the city of sex
The Ashaiman cluster of basic schools is the biggest in the municipality. But any visitor to the town will instantaneously notice the distinctiveness of its location.
With deep-throated calls to potential passengers by conductors, hundreds of commercial buses load passengers at the main gate of the school – the centre of the town. Added to this daily hustle and bustle in that part of town, is a market that opens every day. In the midst of this disturbance are the basic schools.
If noise is the problem, some pupils have to contend with, some face a more serious situation that could potentially harm their psychological growth.
Just from the main walls, pupils study in a school building surrounded by the wooden shacks used as brothels in Tsinai Agbe. With child psychologists referring to ‘impressionable years’ as the most delicate period of an individual’s life, Weekend Sun approached a group of young boys who attend the school to test their impression of the environment they study in.
They were tossing around a football beside the school.
This newspaper asked the pupils whether or not the prostitutes who work around their school disturb them. We were taken aback by their responses. Never in your wildest imagination would you think the kids could have an idea of what prostitution is.
“No,” one of the boys says in Twi, pointing at some of the shacks. “The prostitutes don’t disturb us. They do their business over there. Men only come there in the evening.”
His friends grinned in agreement as it became clear that the boys were not ashamed of their knowledge. It was obvious that they were used to seeing men going in and out of the brothels.
One of the boys even said he knew one of the prostitutes. “One of the prostitutes is my brother’s friend,” he said confidently. “My brother sometimes sends me to deliver messages to her.”
To these young minds, there is nothing wrong in what they know and are exposed to. Asked if they liked the school, one of the boys shrugged indifferently and explained that his parents put him there because it was close to their house.
The school’s teachers are not oblivious of the negative influence that the exposure to the world of prostitution may have on their pupils.
One headmistress, who spoke under anonymity, said that, in the past, the brothels were the school’s only neighbours.
“At the time, she continued, “we always warned our pupils not to go to the shacks because they knew what was going on there. We did not want the boys and girls wearing skimpy dresses in the brothels to corrupt the children.
“But some of the brothels were demolished when a certain project started. Some of the residents who lost their houses during the demolition also moved down here. So, right now, it is a mixture of brothels and residents.”
Psychological Effects of Prostitution
“Prostitution causes deep psychological harm,” Dr. Narh Puplampu, a medical consultant and psychologist said. “The words that are said to these women on the job, the names they are called by their [customers] and pimps hurt them emotionally.
They are frequently abused physically. Not to mention the fact that the shelf life of women in prostitution is short – even if women manage to stay alive in it, they don’t last a long time.”
Dr. Puplampu also stressed on the losses that come with the job. “The losses to the prostituted individual are limitless,” says the psychologist. “They are limitless not only because they are innumerable but also because there is no cap, no ceiling, no time-frame limit on when they will cease intruding into a woman’s life. There also are no socially accepted boundaries which a woman can erect between prostitution and herself.
“The common saying: ‘Once a whore, always a whore’ makes reference to this. A woman may be a former prostitute of several years who worries about the impact of her history on her child, or she may be a former prostitute decades older who worries about the teasing and bullying of her grandchildren.
The major losses here are of safety and security, dignity, reputation and social status. They are old losses and hold no surprises, but they are horrible losses to see projected onto their loved ones.
“It is both heart-wrenching and nauseating to see those they love tarred with shame by association here. Also, in prostitution, men dehumanise women and women dehumanise themselves in order to be able to perform the acts men require of them.
This does not mean that women are made less than human; it means that they are treated as such and operate in an environment in which they must not only accept such treatment from others, but actively seek it and learn to deliver it to themselves.”
Like other social facts, many have wondered why prostitution has thrived in the face of extreme social condemnation. Most have wondered why a practice which violates existing moral, customary, religious, and other social rules exhibits such veritable vitality.
Why have prohibitive rules been incapable of constituting a dissuading force to personnel of the profession and others contemplating entry?
As long as measures are not put in place to end the cankerworm, the lure of money will be too strong a motivator for these women to quit.
Source: Lexis Koufie- Amartey, Senior Correspondent/Sports Editor at The Sun Publishing Ghana Ltd.