By: Teri Fikowski
"Unakwenda wapi?" Translation, "Where are we going?"
I'd seen poverty in my first few weeks in Africa. I mean, who
wouldn't expect to witness some form of poverty in Tanzania having
accepted a six month position as a media rights trainer in the
country's largest city, Dar Es Salaam. But as I observed my
surroundings quickly deteriorate out the window of our van carrying
myself and three local journalists, I became quite aware this was a
different level of poverty. The answer to my question? "Hyena
Ground," a slum in the midst of the urban city setting and my
definition of hell on earth.
It wasn't necessarily the run down conditions that leads me to
describe it as such. Shanty huts, feces alongside makeshift roads,
and utter chaos are to be expected. It wasn't the thousands of flies
feasting on piles of raw chicken meat that from the smell had been
smothering under the sun seemingly all day. It wasn't even the old
Tanzanian man who asked me through drunken slurs to "give him my
vagina" that makes me draw such a conclusion. Rather, it was all
these stereotypical ideas of poverty combined with the reason we were
there; to produce a two part TV and radio series on sex workers in Dar
Don't get me wrong, as a journalist it's in my blood to seek out these
type of stories. That doesn't mean I enjoy the reality that girls as
young as 12-years-old are selling their bodies as a means for survival
for less than 1USD.
Actually in this case I hadn't intentionally sought out the story.
Just the day before, I'd approached a young reporter to see what he'd
been working on. He told me he'd been at a police press conference
where it was announced officers would be cracking down on prostitution
in Dar Es Salaam and charging women working in the sex trade. I asked
who else he spoke to to produce the story and wasn't surprised after a
few days amongst the local media to learn only the one source. I
tried to explain the importance of using multiple sources in a report
and to show all sides of the story. Surely it wasn't a lifestyle
these women wanted to be a part of? He was apprehensive at first;
prostitution is illegal in Tanzania. I asked him if he thought
charging these woman would really create a change in society and was
glad when his response was asking for my help following up on the
press conference the next day.
Entering Hyena Ground, we were joined by the street's Chairman and two
of his employees. That made our total number seven and from what I
was told, necessary. After making our way through shacks where men
gambled and walked over others passed out drunk with evidence of local
spirit in children's sand buckets, we approached some of the "working
girls." One of the journalists translated the interview and I heard
what I'd expected but what seemed to come as a surprise to my
colleagues. These women didn't want to be doing what they were doing.
A life subject to disease and violence wasn't an intentional choice
but they said they had no alternative. Some were paying for school
and refused to have their face on camera. Others were desperate and
needed to feed their children, one which was clinging to his mother's
leg. We were also told police collect a group of women from the area
around once a week and if they can't pay a charge do "bad things to
them." At one point a woman broke down and walked away from the
camera. I placed my hand on her back in a pathetic attempt to comfort
her, unable to offer any verbal support even with broken Kiswahili.
Besides, what could I say?
After some time collecting interviews we grew uneasy from an
increasing large crowd forming around our crew so opted to return to
the van. We would later learn from the Tanzanian Legal and Human
Rights Centre there are few statistics regarding the number of women
involved in the sex trade due to narrowed definitions surrounding
prostitution and human trafficking. Despite a three-year action plan
to end in 2014 providing education to law enforcers regarding the sex
industry, many fail to see the possible indicators of victims.
Needless to say, it's easy to grow pessimistic.
It wouldn't be until a few days later I'd celebrate the report's small
victories when other local media outlets picked up the story and when
my colleagues expressed their interest following up on the accusations
against the police. Perhaps the most significant win is their
willingness to show all sides of the story in the future, even if it's
something hard to understand.
When we drove away from Hyena Ground one of the journalists asked me
what I thought. My reaction was uneasy laughter which was returned
with my first true introduction to Tanzania, "welcome to our country."
Caption photo #1: Two local journalists interview a woman working in
the sex trade at Heyna Ground, Dar Es Salaam.
Caption photo #2: Many "working girls" at Hyena Ground say they are
living in extreme poverty and cannot feed their families.
Caption photo #3: Working conditions for women in the sex trade in
Dar Es Salaam.