19 May 2007 04:24


  • Title: [SW Column] (Toronto Star) Africa's aging harlot keeps red light glowing in a desert wasteland
  • Posted by/on:[AMJ][Monday, August 14, 2000]

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of SW.

Africa's aging harlot keeps red light glowing in a desert wasteland

Rosie DiManno

  The women cost less than the bar drinks in steamy Djibouti, where the only business is pleasure

DJIBOUTI - It's the last port of call for alcohol.

All heat, no warmth. Dance with me sailor?

Djibouti, a miniature nation tucked into the Horn of Africa, is a one-industry town and its business is pleasure.

At Club Las Vegas, the long-legged Ethiopian girls dance together, their arms wrapped around one another's waists, preening and posing in front of a mirrored wall, eyes heavy-lidded, cheeks rouged and lips glossed, with dreamy expressions on their faces, imagining themselves any other place but here.

They wear tight little dresses that would get them stoned as Jezebellian whores back in their rural villages, diaphanous blouses tied at the midriff, stiletto sandals, bangles on their arms, slave bracelets on their ankles, crucifixes at their throats. Good Christian girls washed up in Gomorrah.

Their parents believe them to be working as domestics and shop clerks, happy for the money their daughters send home every month. Money that's earned on their backs, in the grunting company of strangers.

``This isn't Paris,'' observes Louis Savelli, the Corsican proprietor of Club Las Vegas. ``These aren't girls who make $100 an hour, with five or six clients a night. They're $5 prostitutes who are lucky if they get one or two men a week.''

``Too many pretty girls in Djibouti.''

Savelli, who's been in Djibouti for 16 years, insists he's not their pimp. ``They work for me, yes. But they're here to make sure the men buy drinks. That's how I make my money. Where they take the men when they leave here, and what they do with them after, is none of my business.''

The men lurk in the shadows about the room, their features indistinct, appraising the merchandise. When a girl slithers over, coquettish, she will immediately cock her thumb to her mouth, gesturing for a drink, a question mark hanging in the air. Tequila-lemonade is the libation of choice, and Jasmine behind the bar makes sure the girls sip slowly, while their men-friends are urged to drink-up, drink-up, pound that whiskey or whatever they're having.

If the approaching girl is not to the customer's liking, he'll flick his fingers in a curt go-away motion. Dismissive, cold.

Later in the evening, when the sailors and Legionnaires begin to arrive, the proceedings get livelier. The men in uniform - or out of uniform - are less discreet. They know the girls by name, have their favourites. They dance to the hip-hop tunes being spun by the DJ, although this activity often consists of bumping one another, man-to-man, chest-to-chest, or simply jerking around solo.

But they slow dance with their girls, in proprietary fashion, deluding themselves into believing these women actually care for them. The delusion is often mutual.

``No, I don't really like them,'' whispers Haymanat Gatente, a 22-year-old Ethiopian farm girl who's been working as a prostitute in Djibouti for the past two years. ``But I need them. I have seven younger brothers and sisters at home. My father's dead. There's no work in our village. My family would starve if I didn't send them money every month.''

It's really quite a noble thing these girls do, these Ethiopians and Eritreans and Somalis (the girls don't mix ethnically because of ancient cultural enmities), offering themselves on the altar of the sex trade, clandestinely, recreating pseudo-families among themselves here in Djibouti, large sister clans.

Although a handful of girls have hit the jackpot - marriage to a Frenchman - in the end almost all of them have only each other.

``I dream all the time about going home,'' sighs Tigesti Tamene, a pretty 23-year-old bottle-blonde with long, clicking fingernails. ``In a few years maybe, I will be able to go back, get married, have children. Be like everybody else.''

She licks her blood-red lips.

``Go back to looking the way I used to.''

Long before Bugsy Siegel carved Las Vegas out of the Mohave Desert, Djibouti had already made a bad name for itself, here in the crossroads - and crosshairs - of coastal Africa, where West faces East and never the twain shall meet.

Tangiers was more bohemian, Casablanca more mythologized. But Djibouti has been as constant and grateful as an aging harlot, her moist embrace a tonic for merchant seamen and French Legionnaires, oil riggers and roustabouts, desert rat adventurers and the scions of wealthy Arab families.

The former French Territory of Afars and Issas (French Somaliland) - Djibouti means ``my casserole'' in the Afar language, and why it was thus called remains a mystery - it has been likened to Saigon, circa 1950, its Gallic elegance faded to shabbiness, splendidly seedy and grasping, unapologetic and unrepentant.

On one side of town, still, are the European expatriates, somehow come to rest in this sweltering port.

On the other side is the more squalid African quarter. Beyond the quarter, on the outskirts of town, is the sprawling squatter encampment known as Balbala, originally developed on the other side of a barbed-wire barrier erected by the French colonial administration to prevent migration to the capital. In 1987, a decade after Djibouti gained its independence, the barbed wire came down.

There were doubts that Djibouti, which has no industry and no manufacturing, could survive without the $100 million a year the French had been pouring into it. But, while maintaining a position of strict regional neutrality - refusing to support armed groups opposing the regimes in neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia - the tiny nation-state, a free-trade zone, dug in its high heels as an oasis of pleasure: gambling, booze, broads.

At independence in 1977, there were 15,000 Frenchmen in Djibouti. Most of them moved on, bugged-out. But there are still some 2,500 Foreign Legionnaires and regular French troops in barracks here and a constant flow of sailor visitors from military ships dropping anchor and the merchant marines. Djibouti is, fortunately for its economy, strategically situated near the world's busiest shipping lanes and close to the Arabian oil fields.

From there come the fleets of tattooed customers, hungry to satisfy all their desires at once, slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am, glug-glug-glug.

The spectre of AIDS has barely impacted on business. Armed forces personnel are lectured about the disease on base, of course, and provided with condoms.

But no one seems unduly concerned that Djibouti has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world among young adults. The United Nations has estimated that 13.9 per cent of Djiboutian females between the ages of 15 and 24 are infected. The percentage is higher among prostitutes.

At the same time, the government - perhaps unwisely - has tried to eradicate the sleazier bar trade, and the attendant prostitution. This is, after all, a nation where 94 per cent of the 600,000 citizens are Muslim. Many residents are horrified by the sleaze and the sex and the booze.

The government last year passed a law which made the sale of alcohol illegal everywhere but in private clubs, restaurants or hotels. The authorities shut down 40 unauthorized bars, claiming they were dens of prostitution, drugs, drunkenness, fighting and pedophilia.

Said Interior Minister Abdallah Abdillahi Miguil, as he announced last October's bar clampdown, wherein hundreds of foreign prostitutes were rounded up and forcibly sent home: ``These activities are shameless activities that I cannot name.''

Within a few months, most of the bars had reopened and almost all the girls had returned.

``Where else would we go?'' asks Gatente, as she slides off her stool, dance floor-bound, a sailor tugging at her elbow. ``If there was someplace else for me, I'd be there.''





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