It was a Saturday night around 8pm and I was doing the unusual thing of taking my doctor’s advice and going out for a walk in the evening. It was nighttime in the capital city and not the safest time to be out and about, but it was cooler than the day and the streets were nearly deserted with a mid-weekend quiet.
A blue taxi (government licensed) passed by, stopping about four meters from me. A very stylishly dressed young lady emerged from the back door of the taxi, and started skipping towards me, waving her hand up and down as she approached me.
I removed my hand from my knife, realizing this was no robbery attempt. Still, I was puzzled, so I said, “Good evening. Do I know you, dear?”
“Not yet!” she replied with a smile.
Then it hit me: I was in the right place, at the right time, heading in the right direction, towards the hotels and casinos. But I was not the right type for her type of clientele. However she did fit my type of clientele!
Thandiwe, as she was called, is a young lady in her late 20s who goes by the street name of Bertha. She is what I affectionately call a Spanner Girl. Where I live all the mechanics and most of the lorry (truck) drivers have a “go-for” who gets what they need and who hands them spanners (wrenches) when they are working. These young men have the professional title of Spanner Boy.
Thandiwe, on the other hand, is a prostitute of the traveling type. Spanner Girls work the international lorry drivers’ trade routes throughout Africa. She, like her sisters in the trade, waves down a lorry driver at the entry point of the country or of a major city and, after negotiations, takes care of all his needs, stays with him while he is traveling in country, and on occasion travels with him into neighboring countries. Most Spanner Girls prefer to stay on their home ground and pick up a new client to return to their home city; otherwise they have to return home by bus or some other vehicle. There are a few Spanner Girls who, having a good client, will actually agree to wait at the border for him to come back through and be picked up to resume services. Services rendered are not just going out to the bars, dancing, and having sex, since lorry drivers can find those at any of the stops they make. Spanner Girls provide other services, like buying food, cooking hot meals, keeping the lorry clean, and washing the driver’s clothes. These services are all provided within the agreed-upon budget: everything that is expected of a happy homemaker without the home part.
Spanner Girls, as a rule, act happy and encouraging. If the lorry has a tire blowout during a trip and needs to be changed, they may joke and laugh while boiling water and getting soap for the driver to wash up. If the driver is lucky, they can even sing and hold long conversations in many languages during the trip, not just to pass the time, but keep him awake on the long hauls. All the time, however, the Spanner Girl is keeping an eye on the rearview mirror for her next potential client. They are in demand and do a good business.
What brought this Spanner Girl to the city streets? Thandiwe said she was off the road for now, taking a few days off. She wanted to be with her mother and children for a while, so she was trying her luck with the international resort’s trade. She told me that was where the real money was, not in the local clubs and bars. After introducing myself and telling her that I was a priest out for my evening constitutional, she seemed to be more relaxed than disappointed at the loss of a client. Thandiwe asked me if, since we were heading in the same direction, we might walk together and talk; she had questions she wanted to ask. So off we went, me in my workboots with the gripping soles and she in her petite ladies’ sandal with the five-inch heels. A strange sight for vehicles passing by.
As we walked, Thandiwe told me more about herself, her family, and desires than a new client usually feels free to share. She stopped her story often to ensure that she was clearly understood. I listened. Thandiwe spoke of her family life and how, now that she was back in town, she could enjoy making breakfast for her children and getting them off to school. This meant that her mother could sleep until 7 a.m.! For Thandiwe, the wellbeing of her mother, two children, and two younger siblings were the most important things in her life. It was her responsibility before God to take care of them in the right fashion. She always made sure that she got home by 4 a.m. to start breakfast so that when her boy and girl woke up she was there, at home, to tell them to get washed and dressed and eat breakfast — what a mother is supposed to do.
Thandiwe asked if I knew of a job for her that would allow her to be free of the life of the road. I sadly informed her that I had none available at the time, but would keep a lookout for her. I asked what she was good at and she laughed, but then she sighed. Thandiwe admitted that as far as skills went she was very inadequate. She spoke of how she had to leave secondary school when her father died of a long illness and of how she had needed to bring in money to support her family. At least she knew her siblings and children would be healthy and educated.
She then asked me about HIV, and spoke of her fears of becoming infected. She told me of other girl friends from the trade who died from it and how she missed them. She told me that so many of her workmates were fearful of knowing if they were HIV positive that they would not get tested. If they knew, they would still have to go to work but now it would make them feel guiltier when they were pressed by men to have “live sex,” or sexual relations without a condom. This costs more but increases the risks of STD infection. To agree to live sex while knowing you were already HIV or Hepatitis B positive was overwhelming for Thandiwe’s circle of associates, but most chose to do what they needed to do to get by for today without much thought for tomorrow or the plight of others.
When we reached the roundabout that headed to the hotels in one direction and my friary in the other, Thandiwe informed me that she was Catholic but had stopped going to church years ago. She feared that others would see her for what she was and chase her away. She said that she taught her children their prayers and pushed them along with her brother and sister to go with her mother to church every Sunday. Thandiwe wished that she could go with them.
“Would you go to church dressed as you are tonight?” I asked.
Thandiwe laughed, her shoulders shaking up and down. “No!”
“If you left the jewelry home and dressed like every other mother who went to church with her children, how would anyone know?” I asked.
I could see that Thandiwe was leaning towards going back to church with her children. Possibly she might even go tomorrow morning. I looked into her eyes and could almost see the idea ping-ponging back and forth in her mind. No, but maybe yes?
Thandiwe thanked me for the conversation. She promised to try to get back to church on Sunday, but for now it was Saturday night and off to work for her. She needed money before going home.
It was then that one of those non-cerebral ideas hit me — the ones that go straight from your heart to your mouth without ever going anywhere near your brain.
“Thandiwe,” I asked, “what is the cost of one and a half hours of your time?”
Thandiwe was shocked into momentary silence, her mouth and eyes making big round “O”s. After closing her mouth she said, “Father, how you can ask me that? You’re a priest!”
“Yes, I am a priest,” I replied, “a priest who wants to give you the money to get you off the street tonight, so you can now go home and get up to go to Mass tomorrow with your family. Mass should most likely take only that much time. So young lady, how much are we talking about here?”
Thandiwe told me the price and I gave her the money.
“Thank you,” Thandiwe said, tears in her eyes. “I promise I will be at church tomorrow!” Then off she walked, away from the hotels. There was no doubt in my mind that she would go to church. There was no doubt that it was money put to a good cause.
Prostitution in the world I live in is not a glamorous choice. Prostitution is a rough and brutal trade of life for income. These are women who found themselves forced into prostitution by economics, their family, or by other men and women. It is not pretty, but neither is it pretty to watch your family, especially your children, starving in a city’s poor compound without water or electricity. Thandiwe and others caught up in the life of sex for income need not just your prayers, but your help.
Reprinted with permission from CapuchinHIVAIDSServices.org.
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