The Prostitutes Are Not Happy. Neither Are Brides. Sex, Love And Ebola

Dec 31, 2014
Originally published on December 31, 2014 5:48 pm

Wedding dress rentals are way down. Condoms are no longer a hot item. And prostitutes are having trouble finding customers.

Blame it all on Ebola.

With at least 300 new cases a week in Sierra Leone, the virus is altering practically every aspect of life. And life, well, life includes love and sex. Even illicit sex.

So we wanted to find out how the epidemic has impacted these more ... intimate facets of daily experience for residents of the capital, Freetown.

We start with the prostitutes who ply their trade on Lumley Beach road — an oceanside strip in one of Freetown's tourist neighborhoods. On a recent night the sex market is in full swing. Men cruise by in cars and pickups. Women in tight tops and miniskirts vie for their attention by hissing — the local version of "Hey, you!"

Technically prostitution is illegal in Sierra Leone, but it's widely tolerated. These days, however, customers are scarce.

"Before, we used to sleep with a guy, and he'd give you enough money and do good things for us," says Tina, a chubby woman in a red tank top. Ebola's toll on the economy has put a stop to that. "We are really suffering."

There's also more competition on the streets. Before Ebola hit, some prostitutes tell us, they had other jobs. Tina worked as a waitress and a maid.

A woman nearby who seems a bit tipsy — she calls herself Mary — adds that a lot of men are afraid prostitutes might have Ebola.

Then there's the haggling. It's worse than ever. A younger woman leaning against a white sedan says that just this night, a Lebanese man tried to lowball her. She says her name is Fatima. She's wearing pink hot pants and clanking bracelets.

"He speak about 35,000 just to have fun with us," she says. That's 35,000 Leones — the equivalent of about $7 in the U.S. She says she countered that her rate is more like $40, but the man told her she was crazy to think she could still get that.

Fatima turned him down. But it was a tough call. She's got a 5-month-old baby plus her mother to support. On nights when she goes home empty-handed she says a prayer: "Next day, maybe God will provide customer for us."

If sex for money is down, what about sex between people in a relationship? One man in Freetown is uniquely qualified to answer that question. When we stop by his office, a coworker points him out: "That's Peter. We call the condomologist."

Peter Mansaray runs a government program that distributes tens of thousands of free condoms across the city. He shows us a brand called Love, packaged in red. "This is what they prefer and it looks very, very appealing. It has sex appeal. Everything is about sex and sex appeal," says Mansaray, laughing.

Mansaray keeps close track of how many condoms are handed out. Hotels — called guesthouses here — are big takers. In a typical month each guesthouse goes through about 40 boxes. That's nearly 2,000 condoms.

But since Ebola started spreading last spring, not a single guesthouse has sent someone by to replenish their stock. They don't get a lot of guests anymore. Mansaray says it's not just because prostitutes or tourists have stopped coming. A lot of locals used to visit guesthouses for a tryst. Homes are often crowded in Freetown, and when couples need private time, a night away is the best option. But that privacy costs money that's now in in short supply.

With so many condoms going unused Mansaray is clearly feeling flush. As we prepare to leave, he presents us with a box of 144 condoms as a "souvenir."

"Er, that's a lot of condoms," we say. "I didn't say use them. I said keep them," he answers.

Not far from Mansaray's office we stop by the shop of Kumba Blessing Dugba, who's grappling with another Ebola relationship trend: People are putting off marriage. That's a problem for Dugba, because she's a wedding planner. She provides everything: decor, catering, gowns.

Normally Dugba would rent as many as 30 gowns this season. At the moment, she's only got four weddings scheduled. Because of Ebola, the government has banned large get-togethers. Couples could just tie the knot without a celebration. But Sierra Leoneans, she says, "want to be together, want to hug the other person. But then because of the state of emergency we cannot gather."

Dugba says it's often the men who postpone the wedding, holding out until they can throw a splashy bash to impress friends and business associates. A lot of women, on the other hand, are pushing for a quick no-frills service. "They're afraid someone might grab their man," she says with a laugh.

As for Dugba, she's branching out into a new business more suited to these unsexy times: home furnishings. With everyone stuck in their houses, she says, at least they'll want to enjoy the coziness of home.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The number of known Ebola cases globally has now exceeded 20,000. The latest figures out today from the World Health Organization also show the reported death toll is nearly 8,000. The virus is still spreading in West Africa, and in Sierra Leone the outbreak is altering practically every aspect of life, including love and sex. NPR's Nurith Aizenman just returned from the country. She filed this report on how the epidemic affects these more intimate sides of life for people in Freetown starting with prostitutes.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: It's after dark, and the nightly sex market is in full swing on Lumley Beach Road. We're right by the ocean, and men are cruising by in cars and pickups. Women in tight tops and miniskirts try to catch their attention.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Hisses).

AIZENMAN: In Sierra Leone, you want someone to look at you, you hiss at them. When they first spot our team, the prostitutes assume we're potential customers, too. The crowd around hopefully.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You need some girls?

AIZENMAN: They're a little disappointed when we explain that just want to talk about Ebola. How has the outbreak affected business? Well, for starters, they tell us, before Ebola, a lot of them weren't full-time prostitutes.

TINA: Some of us, we used to have a job, but now no way. We need to come on the street because of the Ebola because before, for me, I used to work before. I made dresses, waitress, cleaner, something like that. Because of the Ebola, everything stopped.

AIZENMAN: She calls herself Tina. She's a chubby woman in a low-cut, red tank top. She shakes her head in frustration over all the extra competition these days. Ebola has hammered the economy, and there are so many more girls walking the street now, she says. Technically sex work is illegal here, but it's widely tolerated. And she says all these new prostitutes are chasing a smaller pool of customers. Money is tight for men, too, these days. They're not spending on streetwalkers like they used to.

TINA: Before, we used to sleep with a guy, and he'd give you enough money - good money - and do good things for us. But now, because of the situation, so many things break up. So...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We are suffering.

TINA: We are really suffering.

AIZENMAN: A woman standing nearby who seems just a bit tipsy - she calls herself Mary - she adds that a lot of men are afraid prostitutes might have Ebola.

MARY: No, now it's too hard because if you want to go with somebody, people be afraid because they say it's Ebola. And Ebola is a very bad disease.

AIZENMAN: Then there's the haggling. It's worse than ever. A younger woman leaning against a white sedan says that just this night, a Lebanese man try to lowball her. She says her name is Fatima. She's wearing pink hot pants and big clanking bracelets.

FATIMA: He speak about 35,000 just to have fun with us.

AIZENMAN: She says he offered 35,000 Leones just to have fun. That's about seven U.S. dollars. Fatima says she countered that her rate is more like $40. He told her she was crazy to think she could still get that.

FATIMA: They don't know what is going on in the country. They say now Ebola, money disappeared.

AIZENMAN: Money has disappeared. Fatima turned him down. But it was a tough call. She's got a 5-month-old baby plus her own mother to support. She says on nights when she goes home empty-handed, she says a prayer to God.

FATIMA: Next day, maybe God provides customer for us.

AIZENMAN: So if sex for money is down, what about sex between couples, people in a relationship? There is one man in Freetown who is uniquely qualified to answer this question. But he's best reached by day. So I stop by his office in the morning. A coworker points him out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's Peter. We call the condomologist.

AIZENMAN: The condomologist. Peter Mansaray runs a government program that distributes tens of thousands of free condoms across the city. And he keeps very close track of how many are being used, including by hotels. They're called guesthouses here. He shows me a brand called Love, packaged in red.

PETER MANSARAY: This is what they prefer, and it looks very, very appealing. It has a sex appeal. Everything is about sex and sex appeal. (Laughter).

AIZENMAN: Mansaray says in a typical month, each guesthouse goes through about 40 boxes. That's nearly 2,000 condoms. But since Ebola started spreading here last spring, not a single guesthouse has sent someone by to replenish their stock. They don't get a lot of guests anymore. Now, some of those former guests were tourists and prostitutes of course, but Mansaray says a lot of them were locals who live in nearby houses.

MANSARAY: People that live in homes - they live too many in a dwelling. They prefer the guesthouse because not much space, no privacy.

AIZENMAN: So it's even regular couples. I mean, they may just live in a crowded home, and they want some privacy.

MANSARAY: Exactly, exactly.

AIZENMAN: But that privacy costs money that's in short supply, thanks to Ebola. As I get ready to leave, Mansaray pulls a box of 144 condoms off a shelf.

MANSARAY: A souvenir for you. It's a box of condoms, Love condoms, package red. For you, keep for a souvenir.

AIZENMAN: That's a lot of condoms.

MANSARAY: I didn't say use them. I said keep them.

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: OK, thank you very much.

MANSARAY: You're welcome.

KUMBA BLESSING DUGBA: Hello, good morning.

AIZENMAN: Not far from Mansaray's office, I visit the shop of a woman named Kumba Blessing Dugba, who's grappling with another issue. People aren't just putting off sex. A lot of them are putting off love, or at least marriage for love. And this is a problem for Dugba because she's a wedding planner. She provides everything - decor, catering, wedding gowns. She pulls out some of her favorites.

DUGBA: There is this one that sometimes I call it Cutebride because it looks cute on the bread, and it has the sequins and lace. This one I call it Beautyqueen because the brides are very beautiful in it.

AIZENMAN: Normally, Dugba would be renting as many as 30 gowns this season. But at the moment, she's only got four weddings on the books. Because of Ebola, the government has banned large get-togethers. Couples could just tie the knot without a celebration, but that's not really the way here.

DUGBA: A lot of people want to get married. We get a lot of the wedding in Sierra Leone. And we are people who are joyful in Sierra Leone. We want to be together, want to hug the other person. But then because of the state of emergency, we cannot gather.

AIZENMAN: And Dugba says it's often the men who are holding out for a splashy wedding to impress their friends and business associates, and the women who are pushing for a quick no-frills service right away.

DUGBA: Yeah because they are afraid someone might grab their man. (Laughter). So they want to get married now.

AIZENMAN: As for Dugba, she's branching out into new business, one more suited to these unsexy times - home furnishings. With everyone stuck in their houses, she says, at least they'll want to enjoy the coziness of home. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And NPR producer Graham Smith contributed to that story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.