Thursday, February 3, 2011

When I grow up I want to be _______________.

A) Jobless

B) A mineral runner

C) A soldier

D) A prostitute

E) A cultivator

As we zoom down the broad dirt road of the frontier style town of Butembo shrouded in a cloud of red dust, I always try to make a mental note of all the businesses.

There are a lot of small businesses here as there is no development. Wooden kiosks a bit taller than a child’s playhouse, that sells everything from use of an outlet to charge your cell phone to a “Saloon” to get hair extensions. There are few jobs for non-entrepreneurs.

The main road is about three miles long and every inch on either side is full of vendors. They sell everything from my old Nike “Airs” that I donated to Goodwill after 8 months of running to the blue tattered bleach stained bathmat you donated to Value Village the last time you moved. There are entire blocks dedicated to old curtains, ski jackets, t-shirts, children’s clothes, belts/socks, and old pants. All of the vendors selling like products sit side by side for city blocks at a time; I guess it makes the comparison shopping easier. The things that America and Europe have discarded after a few years come here for a second, fourth, and ninth life. They will be used until they are threadbare rags. An old pair of men’s red plaid boxers will be worn as a little boys shorts and he will wear them every day even when crotch or buttocks no longer exist. I am not sure when clothes get washed as few people seem to have much more than one set of clothing. As I pass a man who is 5’4” in a suit jacket that looks like it was designed for an NBA basketball player, I could not help but think he looked like a child whose parents bought his clothes big enough to grow into. Only this man well into his 40’s and he is not going to grow any taller.

I always wonder how are the business owners doing and are they making enough money to survive? The majority answer seems to be “No”. But still the vendors show up every day and sit side-by-side selling the same goods in hopes of making some money to help them survive.

So what are the job options here?

My best guess by power of observation is that the highest paying job would be to be a mineral runner (diamonds, coltan, and gold among others). The only problem is the payoffs are big because the danger and death rate among the mineral cartel is high. Also, it is not the most ethical business model. The minerals are largely responsible for funding the war. But since a million dollars of minerals a day leave the DR Congo on the black market, someone is getting rich. I am just not sure whom.

The next option would be to join the military or police. When they get paid the make good money, but there is risk associated. With the political instability the “in” party of today can be gone tomorrow and their alliances are shaky at best. There is a great reason you are not allowed to take a photograph of their face, they are all guilty of something and most of them have reformed alliances and melded with former opponents several times.

It seems three really great legitimate businesses are being a major cell phone company, owning a gas station, or owning a hair “saloon” as everyone in the country has a cell phone, all cars and generators need gas (there is little electricity in this part of the Congo), and most women have extensions.

The next most profitable career seems to be a technical skill like being a mechanic, seamstress, a moto driver, or a cook. The pay varies widely, but at least it is a job that usually offers subsistence living…depending on how many mouths you have to feed.

Then you could be a cultivator and sell vegetables/fish at the market. This is hard work and at best subsistence living. If you run a business like this on a one family scale you can bring in approximately $20 - $100 a month depending on what you sell.

Considering that school fees are $60-$90 a month plus a uniform and notebooks, no wonder the average family cannot afford to send one child, let alone 8-10 kids, to school.

So if you are a single woman whose husband died or abandoned you, a young woman who is a single mother by consent or force, and you have no resources, but mouths to feed you can sell banana beer from your home. And if you are a “woman who lives alone” - you sell sex.

Sex. It is like the most versatile and powerful tool in the world. Depending on how it is used, it can be a symbol of love, an income generator, and an tool that takes power from another. In its extremes it can be used to create a future or destroy the fabric of an entire society.

Now first I guess I have to address my own personal bias against prostitution, by that I mean the beliefs I hold about the career and people who work in the profession. And wrongly, my view used to be that the women involved in it are dirty and they had a career choice. That perspective was blown out of the water in Phnom Phen in 2000 on a balmy Cambodian night. As I zoomed down a three-mile stretch of road in the back of a pick-up truck, the entire stretch was lined on either side with wooden shacks. Teens and young women of all sizes and shapes stood on the porches bathed in colored lights. As we slowed to our destination we met an entire family sitting outside in lawn chairs, as their daughter/granddaughter/sister stood five feet away dressed in black tight western clothes and heels “for sale” below a red light bulb.

It happens in every country in the world and it has been a viable career for women for centuries. If it is a woman’s choice to sell sex, she is not kidnapped or forced into it, well I guess she is just being a good business woman working with the most valuable asset she has. Her body. It is just that most of the time if a woman does not have an education, a husband, or there is no job economy it is not so much “a choice” as it is “the only choice” if she wants to eat.

COPERMA has discovered through the grapevine that many of the girl mothers (young women who have children as the result of rape – a few of them by consent, but the man left) with a child to feed they are now accepting money for sex. The girls have little to no education, they have a child, no technical skills, if they go work in the field they face the risk of rape, so I guess they figure they may as well get paid for it. Upset for the girls and wanting to know more about the state of women in Congo in general, we set up a meeting with some local prostitutes.

Amy ran into a guy at our “expatriate” mini-mart who runs a NGO for prostitutes in Butembo. Later, after we had spent the day with him, he revealed his motivation for being the only man who runs a currently unfunded NGO for 6,000 women. When he grew up his mother was a “woman who lived alone” and his mother, brother, brother’s wife, and uncle all died from AIDS a few years ago.

He let us know that in this city of approximately 800,000 there are 6,000 sex workers they officially know of. There are probably thousands of others they have just never met. As we met to interview several of his members in a sort of round table format, we were not sure which questions were taboo, so we just asked. How many clients a week do you have? Where do you work? Are you worried about STD’s? Have you been tested for HIV? Do you have access to condoms and do you use them? How much money do you make per client? How much do you make a month? Are you happy? Do you want to continue doing this business? What would you tell your children if they want go into this business?

Kindly and patiently, they answered all of our questions no matter how stupid or rude they may have been. The women spoke articulately about their situations. “No of course I do not want to be a sex worker, but what other choice to I have? My children need to eat”. Most women had 2-3 clients a week, but some who were quite resourceful businesswomen had up to 5 clients a week. The prices are set individually by the women (there are no pimps or Madams here) and they charge anywhere from $1 - $5 per client. Sometimes they agree on more and they guy does not pay or he pays them less.

The women also commented on the fact that many of them had been raped in the course of every day activities and during work. In fact, the problem is so prevalent that when they have them, they wear female condoms when they travel or walk alone at night. So if they are raped at least they will not get pregnant or infected with STD’s.

After what could have been a heavy interview, we asked the women if they had any questions. “Yes, will you promenade with us?”. After we clarified what “promenading” is we agreed to parade around walk the neighborhood and be seen with them so everyone could know they were hanging out with Mzungus. After, I agreed (or was it that I was suckered?) to buy the women lunch and a drink. I explained when we ordered that I only could only spend $20 for lunch, but the bill was $38 for fried goat meet, fried tilapia, and copious amounts of French fries. A ridiculously expensive for the Congo, that is more than most people monthly wage. Thinking I had a $50 budget to buy the condoms, the lunch left me with $12 to buy 10 prostitutes condoms. It was however a great informal chance to visit and get to know the women personally. Actually, it was a little in reverse asking extremely personal questions and then getting to know then after, but they took it all in great stride.

All in all it was one of the most my most fascinating days in the DRC. It really drove home the point for me that women bear the brunt of war in so many ways. The “women who live alone” are some of the most proactive and articulate women we have met here.

Savvy businesswomen we did leave them with two suggestions use condoms anytime you can and raise your prices.

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