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Hissing And Sighing: The Lament Of Sex Workers In Sierra Leone

On Lumley Beach, after day trippers have headed home, prostitutes look for customers along a 100-yard stretch of road near some of the nicer hotels as well as near the bars and restaurants along the beachfront.
Simon Akam
On Lumley Beach, after day trippers have headed home, prostitutes look for customers along a 100-yard stretch of road near some of the nicer hotels as well as near the bars and restaurants along the beachfront.

When a man drives by the strip at Lumley Beach in downtown Freetown at night, he'll probably hear a sharp hiss. That's not an unusual sound in Sierra Leone. People hiss instead of whistling — to get your attention, to call for the bill at a restaurant, to buy a bottle of water on the street.

But the hissing along a stretch of beachfront road at Lumley Beach has a different purpose. It's the sound prostitutes make, and they've perfected the hiss. That's why they're called serpents.

Transactional sex isn't unusual in Sierra Leone. Economic opportunities are slim and slimmer. I wanted to find out how these sex workers were faring in a country where Ebola is still surging.

I was nervous as my friend and fixer Umaru Fofana and I walked down from our hotel around 11 at night last week, fearing that the women or the men who stand nearby as pimps or protectors would be hostile.

Fofana is probably the most prominent journalist in the country. He publishes a twice-a-week newspaper called Politico, and files for the BBC and others. He knows this place like nobody else. All day long, as we run into cops or gas station attendants or politicians or nurses or poor folk in the street, they smile and greet him, "Fofana!"

Fofana was uncertain whether the hookers would talk with us. As we approached, a couple summoned us with hisses and come-ons. They flocked to us, wondering if we wanted sex.

I explained that we are journalists, we didn't want to pay for sex and couldn't offer handouts. I told them I wanted to hear their stories. They wondered if my little Marantz audio recorder shot video. No.

They hedged. At first, some wouldn't admit that they were prostitutes at all. They were friendly, but they didn't understand why I'd want to know what they thought.

Ebola is bad, agreed two of them, dressed in tight black tops and colored miniskirts. Ebola is real. Times are harder than ever.

"This Ebola thing is really causing big problems in this country," one woman told me. She had been a waitress and made money doing cleaning jobs up until spring, but those jobs dried up. She turned to the streets. She said more "girls" were out on the street now than before the outbreak.

Customers are hard to find, a slightly chubby 20-something in a low-cut red tank top told me, because the men fear catching Ebola from the prostitutes. HIV is a problem, yes, but not supercommon in Freetown. The girls know to use condoms, she said. She walked down the street to open up her mom's snack shop and came back with a couple of tall Carlson beers.

A gaggle of women and men argued loudly a few feet away. One skinny middle-aged woman kept insisting Ebola was bad, and could I help her with $20, and she doesn't like prostitution. We moved along 20 feet.

Two women leaning against a white sedan just down the beach looked up. Dolled up and gorgeous. "How you doing, baby?" one cooed. I told her about the journalism thing, and she looked bummed but started to chat. She said her name is Fatima. With clanking big bracelets and pink hot pants, she seemed uncomfortable talking about Ebola at first but started to open up. She was upset that the men aren't around as much because they fear Ebola. She agreed business is way down: "Life is not easy for us because of this Ebola."

She told me that some men are offering "small money" — knowing how tight things are, they're looking to take advantage of the situation. Earlier in the day, she said, a couple of Lebanese guys wanted sex for 35,000 leones each. The exchange rate is about 5,000 leones to the dollar. That's $7. Fatima refused.

She's concerned about catching Ebola. "What do you do to protect yourself against that?" I asked.

"When I go home, we wash. We drop chlorine in the water, and then we wash before we go to bed." She uses condoms for protection for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and she hopes the condoms will stop Ebola, too.

None of this, of course, will protect her if she sleeps with an Ebola-infected person. I think she knows this. Her friend, a hairdresser by day, said they can spot a sick person and avoid him. "I dunno," she said. Maybe people who are ill would feel too crappy to want sex.

Fatima said she has a lot of problems to solve, or she wouldn't be on the street. "I have to take care of my baby. My family is poor right now. My mother depends on me." Fatima has a 5-month-old daughter; her mom takes care of the baby. Fatima is the only one in the house with any income.

Some days, no one will hire her. In that case, she said, she goes home and prays, "Maybe next day, God will provide a customer."

Another streetwalker, Zaina, followed us as we headed back to the hotel. I explained what we were doing and asked if she'd talk with us about working the strip. She was so kind — disappointed that we weren't prospects, but, like pretty much everybody I've met in this country, smiling and generous with her time.

The normal price for sex before the outbreak would have been 90,000 leones for a black man — and for a white man, from 150,000 to 200,000 for a "short time," she said. Now, Zaina expects to get only 50,000 for sex with a black man and 100,000 from a white. That's $10 to $20 per trick.

According to the U.S. Department of State, 70 percent of Sierra Leoneans live on less than $1 a day. So I guess this is good money? Hard to fathom.

I asked Zaina if she could show me how the hiss thing works — for my recorder. She was confused. "The thing you do to call guys over — the hissing sound — what do you call that?"

We call it, "call men," she said.

"Can you show me?"

"Hisssssssss!" Flashing a smile, she turned toward the beach, "I'm going."

Back to work.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Graham Smith is a producer, reporter and editor whose curiosity has taken listeners around the U.S. and into conflict zones from the Mid-East to Asia and Africa.