Street Life: 'It was a sweet life'
In this edition of Street Life, GREG NICOLSON speaks to a sex worker from Zambia who wants to go home to her daughter, but is troubled by her turbulent past.
“It’s rare for someone to know you,” says Mary, pausing staring and insisting her story will read like a photo album, a glimpse of broken memories that can’t be linked unless you were there. “You want to experience it? How will you know if you don’t experience it?” She’s been the abused girl, the wayfarer, the mother, the daughter, the friend, the drug-user, the foreigner, the lover, the whore. To know her is to question.
She’s savouring an ice cream, closing her eyes with each careful bite to make the five girls jealous. She laughs off Thuli’s offer to lend her a black clutch and insists her orange shoulder bag will match her black dress. High heels line the edge of the Yeoville bedroom and the movie Shooters plays on a laptop, but the girls are distracted as they do their hair and build stories. “This is where the madness happens,” says Thuli about the one-room flat with hardwood floors and ornate plastering on the ceiling.
Mary’s braids hang over her grey tank top and rest on designer jeans that stretch halfway up her 1.8m slender frame. She’ll wear the black dress that just hides her underwear and hugs her features which she usually wears when they go to Sandton. To show off her legs, she’ll unroll her tights when she arrives, put on her heels, and stand on a corner of Oxford Road until a car comes to pick her up. The charge is R150, or more on a good night.
“This is a stressful job. Sometimes you get arrested. Sometimes a car will pull up and you’ll have a gun to your head. Sometimes you meet nice guys. But it’s very stressful,” says Mary, lying on her bed smoking. “It’s very hard to please different guys. No one’s the same in sex. But I’m a very good fuck, eh.”
Sitting in the smoking section of a Rosebank restaurant under an umbrella to avoid the sun, Mary shakes her head. When she was five she was sexually abused by her aunt. “If you tell anybody, you’ll see what happens,” she was told. She was sent to the aunt on holidays from her home in Lusaka, Zambia, and didn’t tell her parents, who were divorced, what happened. Her aunt forced her to touch when they were alone. “My mother didn’t have time for us. She was a writer and travelled a lot.” Her mother remarried when she was eight and she got British stepfather, “the best you could ask for”, but he too was often travelling.
She met Jerry when she was 10. “He was the first guy who raped me… I never told my mother because he said he would beat me.” He was 22 and raped her four times. The outline of her body is lost under a white, flowing dress that almost covers the stab wounds on her chest as she reaches for her Black Label. Mary’s skin is dotted with pockmarks and scars from beatings and she is missing her top-right front tooth.
When she was 14 her friend told her to dress up and put on heels to go to a disco. “I met a guy,” she says. He followed her to the toilet and “took me by force” before selling her to the club’s drug dealer. “They told me they’d kill me if I made any mistake.” After sleeping at the club for two days, the dealer told her to leave and gave her “a lot of money”. “It really was a lot of money,” she stares. “Shame, that’s the time I said, ‘So you get a fuck and they pay you’.”
She took the money and spent it on alcohol with her friends and brother. “I was mad about money.” When she finally returned home, her mother took her and her brother to the police station for punishment. The cops made them hold large stones above their heads for two hours. “I ran,” says Mary, “I started drinking. And drinking.”
She rents a room above a bar for R350 a month. The women who stay there are expected to liaise with men in the bar and take them to their rooms for sex. Mary prefers the streets where she can make more money, but there’s the risk of being arrested, getting attacked or dumped on the other side of the city. The bar owner said she has to work the bar or leave, so she’s leaving.
After her mother’s punishment, she hit Lusaka’s party scene full-time –“house parties, meeting people” – and eventually dropped out of school. “Life, it was so sweet,” she says, remembering how boys would line-up to be with her. At 15, she met a Yugoslavian who was the life of the party and desire of all the girls. “He picked me out, out of all the girls,” says Mary, smiling. “He took me to the car to fuck then he paid me… He was the one who taught me sex. He was the one who told me what to do.” They saw each other often and she got pregnant before she was 16. The boy bought her an engagement ring, but his strict father refused to let them marry and sent him to Europe. She had a baby girl.
“Do you think I’ll ever get married?” Mary wants a direct answer. She can talk about the most horrifying experience as though it’s just another event, something she’s come to terms with. But ageing alone worries her.
She wanted an abortion when she became pregnant, but her mother convinced her to keep the girl because she wanted a grandchild. When her mother travelled to promote her latest book release, Mary couldn’t cope with the baby alone and wanted to kill herself. Then she met a woman who took the sick child and helped care for her. The woman was infertile and offered to buy the baby for 1-million kwacha and a car. “I did think about it,” says Mary, who hasn’t seen her daughter for four years, “But I can’t. I refused.”
Apart from a stint working for an NGO as a field researcher and another as a thief, since then Mary has survived through her ability to form immediate, but deep relationships with men and friends who support her or by working on the streets as a prostitute. After taking her baby from the woman who wanted to buy her, Mary went to a boyfriend’s house who’d built fantasies of caring for her. Seeing the baby and thinking it was the “master’s”, the guard unlocked the door for her to wait. The boyfriend arrived with another girl and found her waiting. After thinking for an hour, he let Mary and the child stay. They stayed for five-years. He paid workers to help raise the girl and tried to encourage Mary to cook, buying her books and equipment. “He spoiled me, but didn’t want me to learn. My daughter had everything, shame.” She left after he let another woman move in who tried to assert her authority as an unofficial wife.
Born in 1972, Mary’s older than most of the other girls who work the bar and glosses over experiences the others couldn’t have had. She describes the beauty of the mountains in Mozambique where she dated a coffee plantation owner. She was sick in Malawi and had to leave after a friend got drunk off the local brew and walked naked through the village. She’s from an upper-class family, but works and has lived on the street. And the men: those lasting seasons and looking for sex read like an anthology of poems; those lasting years and looking for a wife read like a shelf of novels.
Mary’s taken out her braids and her hair is short and relaxed. She shakes her head and stares to catch up with her thoughts. “Do you know why I came to South Africa?… No?” She doesn’t know either, as though it was a choice of fate. But drugs played a part. She started working as a prostitute on the streets of Lusaka and the first time she tried “rock” was with a friend. “It felt like sugar, so sweet.”
After getting a bus to South Africa four years ago, Mary got lost in the clubs and boarding rooms of Hillbrow, swimming with alcohol and drugs. “I smoked a lot,” she says. She spent days or weeks living in Hillbrow’s renowned venues amassing debts through bingeing and finding ways to pay them off, meeting men, selling her clothes or whatever she could. As elusive as the smoke from her “Starvasent red”, Mary mentions how she became involved in crime and went to prison. Addicted to drugs, she couldn’t work as a prostitute. “I couldn’t fuck, so I robbed.” At one point, a friend said she knew somewhere they could escape the life they were living. She was taken to Krugersdorp where she was sold to a drug dealer for R300.
“He looks like a hobo but his pockets are full,” says Mary. The Nigerian controlled the women and drugs in the area and each morning he’d give his girls, all addicts, a small hit. It wasn’t enough to sustain their addiction so they worked the streets and with their earnings would buy more drugs from him. He controlled their lives, giving them basic clothes and a house to sleep. If the girls wanted to leave or became too demanding, he’d beat them. Mary escaped when she said she was going with a client and got him to drop her off on the other side of town.
Her life in SA continued to swing between living off men who wanted her to stay and those who’d pay R150 on the streets. At the height of her addiction she met a man who said he’d help her ease off drugs and give her a place to stay. But he was an addict himself and supported her habit. When she left him, she took almost R5,000 he offered her to help her improve her life, maybe return to Zambia. But women in the hostel where she went demanded some of the cash. While Mary was sleeping, they entered her room and stabbed her twice in the chest, leaving scars that look like the number 11 centred above her breasts.
Her daughter now lives with her sister in Zambia, and she wants to return, but won’t go back to working the streets. She wants enough money to start a business, “any business”. DM
- All names in this story are changed.
Photo: Mary's greatest wish is to return to Zambia to her daughter. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.