‘I knew it was a risk’: A Nigerian migrant sex worker in Ghana

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Diamond, a Nigerian sex worker in Kasoa, Ghana [Kent Mensah/Al Jazeera]

How one woman made a desperate cross-border sacrifice to build a better life for her family and get them out of poverty.

This article is part of a series on intra-Africa migration.

Accra, Ghana – Diamond’s childhood dream was to become a famous hair stylist and make enough money to travel around the world, connecting with other businesswomen and empowering vulnerable girls.

She never imagined then that at age 32, circumstances would leave her closer to the women she wanted to help than the ones doing the helping.

The second of seven children, nicknamed Diamond (real name withheld to protect her privacy), was born into a poor family in Nigeria’s Delta State but dreamt of a better life.

​​“I love styling hair so I decided to learn it as a profession and to become popular across the world,” she smiled, reminiscing to Al Jazeera. But her excitement dims when she recalls that due to a lack of funds, “unfortunately, I couldn’t see my training through … There was nobody to help me.”

At 16, she became pregnant with a man from Benin City. A second baby arrived three years later. But he left them for another woman, kicking Diamond out of the house.

Then in 2010, tragedy struck when the 20-year-old’s father died, and circumstances that were difficult became unbearable.

Diamond’s brother, the eldest sibling, squandered the little savings their father bequeathed​​ them, leaving her the sole breadwinner. Desperate to provide for her mother, siblings, and children, she took on low-paying or menial jobs, depending on handouts from the neighbours to get by.

But it was not enough.

Her mother’s health was deteriorating and medical bills to help her weakening heart were piling up. None of the younger siblings had work, and Diamond’s two growing children needed money for school fees, food, and clothes.

She became desperate. So, in November 2019, she made a difficult choice.

“My family was battling financial problems, and someone suggested I come to Ghana to do kpokpor [prostitution],” Diamond said.

Her best friend told her about a Nigerian acquaintance in Ghana looking for call girls and suggested it could be the solution to Diamond’s financial problems.

Although initially hesitant, she says life’s pressures, like going to bed on an empty stomach, forced her to accept sex work as the light at the end of the dark tunnel her life had become.

“I knew it was a risk,” she shrugged. “But isn’t taking risks all that life is about?”

Choices and regrets

A week after the conversation with her best friend, Diamond made a call to Auntie Angela, the madam in Ghana, to accept her offer to be a call girl. The terms of the deal were for Diamond to work for three months, earning an estimated 600,000 Nigerian naira (8,900 Ghanaian cedi or $780) for Angela. After that, Diamond would be free to leave and work independently.

“She promised to give me accommodation in Ghana, transportation to and from work, clothing and any other necessities that may arise while I was doing the sex business,” said Diamond, her short hair dyed blonde and flanked by two sets of matching earrings.

So she borrowed money for the Ghana trip.

Three days after calling Angela, she embarked on the road journey with 10 other Nigerian women, all headed through Benin and Togo towards Ghana’s capital Accra where they would begin working as migrant sex workers.

“We had no travelling documents and experience,” Diamond shared. “I was scared we could be arrested and returned to Nigeria anytime we got to the checkpoints.”

“The French language was a problem for us. They [officials] wanted to know our mission in Ghana. We lied that we are traders. They took money from us in Benin and Togo before allowing us to continue to Ghana,” Diamond added, sharing that because they had no form of identification, they bribed border officials to cross.

In Accra, they were received at the bustling Tudu truck station near the Central Business District by a man who took them to their madam in Kasoa, a peri-urban town of about 120,000 inhabitants, 33km (20.5-mile) drive from the capital. A hub for trade and commerce, Kasoa is home to people from several Ghanaian ethnicities as well as foreigners from Nigeria, Liberia, Togo, and Ivory Coast.

Diamond shares her tale of hope amid despair at an obscure drinking spot in Kasoa, Ghana
Diamond shares her tale of hope amid despair at an obscure drinking spot in Kasoa, Ghana [Kent Mensah/Al Jazeera]

A booming trade

Prostitution is a thriving business in West Africa, especially in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, whose economies were ravaged by civil wars that all ended in the late 2000s.

A January 2023 study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), estimated that there are 2.5 million female sex workers aged 15 to 49 in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although commercial sex work is illegal in Ghana, it is a booming business in areas like Lapaz, Cantonments, Osu, East Legon, and Kasoa where select local pubs are often inundated with young girls in revealing clothes seeking potential clients.

At their residence in Kasoa, Diamond and her 10 friends shared a single room containing just five thin mattresses without bedsheets on the floor. It felt like a prison – no TV or radio set or chair. The paint on the wall had faded with marks of dirty human hands. The room was poorly ventilated with a rusted, noisy ceiling fan. The only window had a net meant to prevent mosquitoes and other insects from entering but that was torn.

“I was promised heaven but I came to meet hell. I was very disappointed when I was ushered into the room,” Diamond said, shaking her head and sipping her energy drink. “My madam lied to me. She was only interested in exploiting us and the money.”

Despite the disappointment, Diamond hit the ground running – to make money for her children’s education back in Nigeria. But after a week of working, she realised her madam was not fulfilling her side of the bargain.

“She was taking all the daily sales. She was not providing us with food as promised. She gave us as little as 10 cedi [$0.87] a day as transport [cost] – that can take us to the pubs, but not back. Meanwhile, she doesn’t want us to touch the daily sales. We survived on tips from clients.”

Did it not cross Diamond’s mind to flee, far beyond her madam’s reach?

“Well, I could have, but remember I was only an alien resident, one without any resources or legal documents for that matter. It wasn’t like I had any options,” she said.

By February 2020, Diamond – a lover of music and movies – had finished serving her three months, and had managed to scrape together some savings to send back home.

“It was quite the ordeal,” Diamond paused, trying to hold back painful memories. After scrolling through her phone messages and cutting off some incoming calls, she regains her composure and continues. “But I still tried my best to pay her [the madam] money, handing her every pesewa I made. By the time I was done, I was exhausted, and, frankly, fed up with the work.”

“Sleeping with men for a fee — ranging from 200 cedi [$18] to 300 cedi [$26] per session, and double that for the occasional threesome — wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Now free of my madam’s tentacles, my debt fully paid, I quit the profession and tried to figure out what to do next for myself.”

But then more bad news arrived: the sudden death of her 61-year-old mother on March 3, 2020.

“She woke up one morning to go about her regular chores, I was told, only to collapse in the bathroom and … and that was it,” Diamond said.

That ruined any dreams of a blissful homecoming but Diamond’s consolation was that her mother never knew what her eldest daughter did for a living.

Only Diamond’s younger sister, who now takes care of her children, knows about her real profession. The others, including her two children, think she works as an attendant at a big supermarket in Accra.

“All [my mother] wanted was to have me back as soon as I was done with my endeavours in Ghana,” Diamond said. “That I couldn’t fulfil that earnest desire of hers is the only regret I have in that sense.”

Risky business

When news of her mother’s death came, Diamond briefly resumed her call-girl work to help fund her trip back home – and got help from some friends.

In Nigeria, she initially decided not to return to Ghana, preferring to take care of her children and siblings in her mom’s absence.

But when the harsh financial reality at home deepened, the lure of Ghana returned so she went to her former madam, Angela.

“She promised me free lodgings, and all I’d ever have to pay her back was the cost of transportation to Ghana,” she said.

Once again, the madam reneged on her pledge after Diamond returned to Ghana. That led to a falling-out. Diamond eventually moved out to live on her own, surviving on what had, by now, become her life: prostitution.

These days she lives in a single-room apartment a few metres away that she rents for 200 cedi a month. In it, she has a single bed, a second-hand sofa and a modest home theatre system to enjoy her music and movies.

No longer being at Angela’s beck and call helps her take certain liberties, such as not working when she is not physically or psychologically inclined to. She no longer works the streets at night and clients have to call her to book in advance. She does not entertain customers at her place, preferring hotels or brothels operating in disguise as private movie houses.

On average, Diamond makes $500 a month – that is 13 times Accra’s minimum wage of $39.

But her earnings are not fixed and fluctuate when business is slow or if she falls sick. Still, she always sends something home. “Every month, I remit between $150 and $200 back home to take care of rent, utility bills, school fees, and the children’s upkeep and some of my siblings. I wish I can do enough to cater to their needs,” she said.

Sex workers in Ghana are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and cannot report to the police because they have little legal recourse. There is also the real risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, which Diamond counters by insisting on the use of condoms.

These days, she only engages clients she is already acquainted with and new ones recommended by friends and fellow call girls. But things are not easy.

“There are times when a john would pay for two rounds of sex, only to ask for a third at the end of his second, and will sometimes make you fine by giving you more. Not all would do so politely, with some even resorting to aggression or outright violence,” Diamond said. “Then there are those men who have no intention at all of sleeping with you; all they want to do, instead, is rob you of your valuables, and I’ve fallen prey to such ones at least once.”

Diamond spends time, mostly on Sundays, at a quiet drinking spot in Kasoa, Ghana
Diamond spends time, mostly on Sundays, at a quiet drinking spot in Kasoa, Ghana [Kent Mensah/Al Jazeera]

A million-naira dream

Diamond does not keep a number but estimates that since 2019 she has slept with about 50 men – mostly regular customers. It is a number she does not intend to add to if she has her way. After almost four years, she wants to do something else.

“I’m tired,” she said, banging her right hand on the table, holding her energy drink.

“This is not a life worth living. It only helps keep body and soul together, barely leaving enough to send remittances to my dependents. And that’s why I’m now trying to find a way to return to Nigeria, as quite a number of my peers have done. Also, I miss my family.”

Would she miss Ghana, though?

“I will just miss going to the beach — which, along with watching movies and listening to music, I do for relaxation — and also some good people I have met here.”

“And oh,” she laughed, “I will miss Ghana jollof [rice] too — which I think is as good as the Nigerian version, by the way.”

Diamond currently has $200 in savings. Her aim is to raise 1,000,000 naira ($1,307) to return to Nigeria to operate a pub or clothing business.

“Alternatively, if I get someone to rent a house for me in Ghana, I will bring my kids and start my business here.”

“Someone?” Al Jazeera asked.

“Yes,” she responded, “and that could be anyone, but, specifically a destiny helper.”

The concept of “destiny helper” is one that has surfaced only recently in Christianity, particularly in Africa, referring generally to a person an individual believes God has sent to help fulfil their purpose in life. That help could come in the form of influence, money among other things.

Not long ago, it appeared she had found that person, but it was a mirage.

“I met somebody, a Ghanaian, who promised to give me money for business before he travelled to the United Kingdom. Ever since his departure, though, I have not heard from him … so I just decided to leave him alone. I can only keep praying, hoping that one day God will bring the right person that will change my story,” she said.

Diamond’s optimism, as she speaks about her faith as a Christian and her future, is only matched by the passion with which she speaks about her faith in the future of her children – a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter.

“I would like my daughter to become a doctor and my son to join the military,” she said, a ray of hope flashing across her face in the form of a broad smile. “And, yes, I wouldn’t mind if there is a genuine chance to settle down with a man who loves me. I do believe in love.”

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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