Phoebe's story: Using drugs to brave the business

Phoebe Kanana’s story as told to Lucy K. Maroncha, a Key Correspondent from Kenya.

Phoebe Kanana from Watamu in Kenya is a sex worker living with HIV. She talks about her memories of the past – good and bad – her hopes for the future, and how the Omari Project is helping the present become safer.

Phoebe Kanana Malindi harm reductionPheobe Kanana is a sex worker in Watamu, a tourist hotspot on the Kenyan coast. Many young girls visit the coast in hope of finding a white man to take care of them and then fall into drugs and sex work to pay for their habit. Pheobe shares one bed room with her boyfriend and fellow user. She jokes about one day leaving this place behind her with a rich man who can take her away from the situation. © Corrie Wingate for the Alliance.

Every day I curse death for robbing me of my parents. My father died when I was in high school and my mother died five years later. I grew up in a wealthy family. My father was a mayor while my mother was working with a large telecommunication company. All of us went to good schools and qualified well. Perhaps my life would be different had they been alive.

I am 35 years old and a sex worker living with HIV. I am not proud to be a sex worker and would never like my two sisters to know how I earn my living. I have escaped death in the hands of men as I try to revive the glorious life I had when my parents were alive.

I live in a slum in Watamu, where I have to sell sex if only to pay my rent and buy food. I have been physically assaulted and humiliated many times. I use drugs and when I crave, I will do anything to get a puff. I have therefore stolen money from my clients and I have also exchanged sex for drugs.

I became a sex worker after completing high school. My mother was ailing and I felt like I was over-burdening her so I went to live with my aunt in Nairobi with hopes of getting a job. But the job was not forthcoming and some of my friends introduced me to men who would give me money in exchange for sex, and within a short time I had got into the sex business. I suspect that is where I got the HIV infection.

I had to start using drugs to brave the business. Sometimes, I would find a dirty, old man but if he had money, I would give in. This, I could do only under the influence of drugs. I had heard about the coastal region where tourists came with lots of money and would engage young girls in sex work. That is how I arrived at Watamu.

At one point I met an elderly man in his 70s. He asked me to marry him and I accepted and he took me to Europe. But one night he found me dancing at a club and furiously dragged me out amidst threats that I was his alone. Back at home, he grabbed my hair and dipped my head in the swimming pool. After he thought I was unconscious; he threw me in the pool to drown. Luckily I escaped and came back to a cheap hotel in Watamu where I resumed sex work. This is also when I came into contact with the Omari Project, who heard my story and gave me counseling and free condoms. They also talked to me about how to negotiate for safer sex without provoking violence, something that keeps me much safer.

With thanks to KANCO, the Alliance’s Linking Organisation in Kenya, who is delivering the HIV and Harm Reduction for Eastern Africa project, funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.