Today I visited a notorious brothel in the red light district of Kampala, Uganda and I don't care who knows it!
Do you have any idea what a brothel in a Kampala slum is like? Can you imagine being trapped in that environment, too deep in to claw you way out and not even being sure what you would be climbing out to if you could?
And what about your children? Born and raised in a slum brothel. What are the odds that your child will break the cycle and not end up in the same circumstances? Pretty slim I would say.
Except for the amazing efforts of a young lady, Harriet Kamashanyu and her team, Derrick and Allan, at Rhythm of Life.
The team work with sex workers and their daughters deep in the red light areas of Kampala. They focus on health issues for the sex workers and on trying to create educational opportunities for the children in an effort to break the never ending cycle. This really is the front line of charity work and the team deserves our support
With their partners, such as a healthcare organisation called Touch they conduct HIV and STI testing and put the women in touch with hospitals if needed.
Keep in mind that the three team members are all in their twenties. I know a few young people in their twenties. Many are hunting for jobs in banking or management consulting. They think if they wear a suit and tie and go to work in a shiny office they've made it. The RoL team have more impact on real lives in a week than some of these folk will have in their entire career. But they pay a tough price. They juggle studies with this volunteer work. They face threats from pimps and disdain from some of the die-hard sex workers who just want customers. They hardly earn anything. But I've listened to them talk about their work and they are changing and saving lives one at a time. One at a time. It's humbling.
Let me tell you about being an African sex worker. If you are lucky - yes lucky - you live in the brothel in the picture. You pay your pimp/landlord 5,000 Ugandan Shillings a night to live in a small room with may be four or five other women. You pay that whether you work or not, so you had better hustle for business or you'll literally be out on the streets. So you fight for custom against the thousands of other sex workers out there. Fight. Struggle. Hustle. If you are very lucky you might hit the big time and earn 50,000 UG Shillings for a single session. Happy Days eh! How else are you ever going to earn that sort of money (that's about £12 by the way).
And you dull the pain with alcohol. So much alcohol. But not when you are working. Because you've got to keep a clear head or the customers will refuse to pay, trick you, beat you. abuse you. So they might be high on drink and drugs but you are fighting for survival so keep a clear head at night and drink in the day to forget the last night and tomorrow night.
The women we met ranged in age from 16 to 40's. Many had small children running around the slum. Some of the small children had even smaller children on their backs. A lot of these sex workers came from outside Kampala, looking for what the bright lights of the big city had to offer. It turned out what it had to offer was a tiny room in a brothel and a life locked into a cycle of alcohol, sex and survival.
One of the few signs that the world out there has not completely abandoned them is when the Rhythm of Life team turn up with supplies to help them manage their health and advice, guidance and support. And not a word of judgement. These women are where they are. They need support. Thank goodness someone is willing to give them that support as best they can. I attending one of the sessions as the women were taught how to use female condoms. These hardened women who have seen things that I can only imagine giggled like a group of schoolgirls as the healthworker explain some of the, errr, mechanics.
But as Harriet explains, even simple things like female condoms are empowering. The (stupid) men often refuse to wear condoms (can you believe it?!). And the women can't make them. But they can take matters into their own hands and use female condoms to protect themselves. So much of what RoL do is about trying to empower the women as much as possible to make their own decisions.
Sometimes that decision might be that a sex worker
wants to leave the business. But it's not that easy. What are they going to do instead? They have no or few qualifications. There are no jobs. So do you leave and starve (along with your children) or stay and work? What would you do?
I met a sex worker and chatted to her. She a young lady but already has four children, aged between 9 years and 6 months, and she's working again to keep body and soul together and feed her kids.
But when I asked her what her dream is she opened up. She desperately wants to get out. She dreams of starting a hair salon. But it's an impossible dream. She would need 2 MILLION Ugandan Shillings to set up a salon. let's be brutal about it. If she could save 10 percent of her earnings then she might need to have sex with perhaps 800 drunk, drugged strangers to turn that dream into a reality. So it's just a dream.
Except that 2 Million Shillings is about £500 ($750). Yes, £500. If you've got a spare £500 let me know and we'll stop her having to sleep with 800 more men to achieve her dream. Shall we do that? Or is that a bit much for us? How about we go halves on it?
I asked her whether she would really set up a salon if someone gave her 2m shillings. For the first time she became really clear. She said that she would rent a store to work from by that same evening. She wants out. But she dare not believe. She can't let her guard down. How can she hope and then have it crushed?
It's the children though. Rhythm of Life try to help some of the children into schools if they can. They want to break the cycle. Change the rhythm of life for these girls. Open up another route for them.
Sometimes it works. This young lady is now doing A levels and plans to study accounting and finance at University with the help of Rhythm of Life. She is a strong, delightful student and very proud of what she has achieved and so, so thankful for the help she has received.
Huge cost though. It can cost £150 a term in fees to put a girl into primary school instead of leaving them to run around the brothel. So far Rhythm of Life have managed to raise enough money to put 5 girls into schools. They would love to increase this by another five next year. But you're talking big money - that's 5 times £150 per term right there. I mean, who is going to stump up that sort of cash, just to stop a little girl from being prepared for her life as a sex worker in a Kampala slum? You? No. We've got better things to do haven't we. Have we?
I do like these stock photos of smiling little African kids. I've always wondered where photographers get them from. Well I know where this one comes from. These three little girls were playing around the Kampala brothel that we visited. So happy. Having such fun as they skipped around together and laughing at the funny looking stranger from London.
So, which way do they go? School outside the brothel and a chance at a life. Or follow in their mothers' footsteps. My call. Your call.
We can't get to them. But Rhythm of Life can, do and will if we want them too. And if we do, then we'll really touch some lives.
Some people say "what' the point, you can't solve the problem". But I'm not trying to solve the problem. I like the Starfish principle. Tens of thousands of starfish are washed up onto the beach one day. The tide goes out and leaves thousands trapped in little pools of water in the sand. A little girls picks them up one by one and starts putting them back in the sea. Worldly wise Dad says "there's no point, love, you can't save then all. It really doesn't matter". Daughter who knows no better shows him the one in her cupped hands. "Well, it matters to this one Daddy. It matters to this one"