She sits on a plastic chair in front of her room amidst other sex workers waiting for customers. The signage on the building aptly indicates the sort of business going on here in Akrabata, Ile-Ife, Osun State. It states: “Mosa fun e to,” which in Yoruba roughly translates to “I have run far enough from you.”
The passage is dimly lit by a blue bulb. An empty chair simply means the owner is in her room attending to a client.
While there have been a series of reports on underage sex workers and many others, this reporter found that the sex trade in Nigeria is not alien to mothers and grandmothers too.
Even amidst the Coronavirus pandemic and the heath protocols demanding social distancing, the night workers continue with their activities. They do not doubt that Coronavirus is real but their trade requires them to take risks.
Unlike in other joints where hip-hop music rules the waves, what you hear here are mostly old tunes by Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Wasiu Ayinde, Ayinla Omowura and other such senior Yoruba musicians.
“Do you want to pull off your clothes or not?” this reporter’s choice for the day asks as they enter her room, indicating her service options. She explains that going nude costs more.
A few minutes earlier, she had deceived the reporter with her ‘asset.’ She is wearing a supportive bra called “push up.” In the room, the reporter finds her breasts saggy. She says it was as a result of her age and child breastfeeding. No wonder her colleagues call her Iya Emma. A closer look indicates she is about 60. She confesses that she has four children and a grandson.
In Ile-Ife, sex workers offer short-time service for N500. However, you can beat the price down if you are going more than a round, such as to N1200 for three rounds.
There are many male condoms on Iya Emma’s bed. She fetches one as she urges the reporter to hurry up so that she can attract more ‘clients’.
“My son, time is not on our side. You like to dey ask questions ooo. Shey na lawyer you be?”
The reporter handed her N1,000 and asks, “How is Emma? Where is he?”
“But your questions are too much,” she replies.
As it is late already, she asks if the reporter is spending the night with her. She says that will cost him N3,000. The reporter says yes and her face brightens up. “That means I have to tell my colleagues goodnight.”
She will give three rounds of sex for the night, she says. She immediately changes the bedspread so that they can enjoy the night.
Iya Emma becomes more comfortable in talking about her life. Emma is in Niger State with his siblings. She had divorced her husband long ago and has had to raise their kids alone.
She had joined the sex trade in 2012 in Niger State. She was pushed into it by her need to raise money so that her kids could complete their education. Emma was seeking admission at that time but later abandoned school for farming. He is now married with a son, she narrates.
“I started in 2012 when I needed to raise money for my first child so that he could go to university. Since their father no longer stayed with us and we don’t know his whereabouts, the responsibility was on me. I was introduced into the business by a friend who told me I had nothing to lose since I had given birth to enough children. She told me Emma, who was 21 then, could take care of his siblings.”
Today, she’s a veteran sex worker and has built a three-bedroom house from the trade.
The reporter asks if her children are aware of her line of business.
“None of them knows till date. That was why I left Niger. I came to Ile-Ife because a family friend knows the terrain here and I can tell you that l have made more money here.”
“My children stay in the house I built in Niger. I go home every three months to check them. By December, I will return home finally and bring an end to this job.”
How has she managed to keep her children from knowing the kind job she does?
“You will find something to tell them. If you were in my shoes, would you tell them you are ashewo?”
Not the only mother in the business
It is already 11:30 p.m and she is curious that the reporter has not asked for a condom.
“Will you just sleep like that? It’s late already, let’s start now or are you tired?”
“I am wondering if I really want to do this with my mother’s age mate.”
She is not offended by the remark. Instead, she asks the reporter to look at it as a business transaction.
“I have many of my son’s mates who patronise me. I treat them like my sons. Many of my colleagues here don’t treat young men like that,” she says.
“You mean you’re not the only elderly woman here?”
“No,” she says. Susan, whose room is next to hers, has three children. Susan is not around now because she had gone to Ibadan to see her children. Susan’s husband had died in a road accident, the reason she got into the trade.
Iya Emma says many of the prostitutes in brothels that she knows are mothers.
“It is only the small girls running after Yahoo boys and rich men that don’t have kids. Many of us here have nothing to lose. We have children and are raising them well.
“I can’t deny that there is money in this job. On a good day, I make as much as N15, 000. There are occasions when your good customers give you more money than you charge. Such people come too sometimes when they don’t have money. When they have money, they will pay for the previous service and give you extra too.”
It is 1:15 a.m. and the reporter is falling asleep. She notices and asks again if nothing is going to happen. But the conversation is interrupted by a knock on the door. The reporter is afraid, wondering if he is safe.
“I beg give me small tissue and one condom,” a tiny voice says from the other side of the door. “My condom don finish.”
“That’s Folakemi,” Iya Emma says to the reporter. “A man must be passing the night with her as well.”
Although Folakemi is young, she is a mother of one,” Iya Emma says after attending to her.
Iya Emma wakes up around 4:17 a.m and notices that the reporter is awake too. Why did the reporter sleep without asking for sex? she asks again, looking incredulous.
The reporter explains that he had had a busy day before coming to the brothel.
“At least you gave me a place to lay my head and I can always come back for sex. It may even be tonight.”
She laughs. “You are not serious. Are you still tired this morning?”
The reporter notices a banner of Jesus Christ in the room. When she stands up from the bed, she kneels down beside it to pray. Obviously, she does this every morning. The reporter wonders what her prayer points are. Asking for forgiveness for her career choice? Thanking God for bringing a customer who paid but didn’t ask for service? Or praying for her children in Niger State?
Then the reporter caught a part of the prayer asking God to protect her against the coronavirus.
“Father-Lord, accept all my prayers in Jesus name,” she concludes aloud.
She notices the reporter smiling and asks why.
Does she take other precautions against the coronavirus aside from prayers?
She explains how sex workers operate. They take risks, she says, but they are also careful.
She says patronage reduced during the coronavirus-induced lockdown. However, the night workers charged more to compensate for the reduced turnover and the increased risks.
“Some customers ran away during the period but we have no other job. For me, I always wash my hands and use hand sanitisers. You have spent the night with me, how am I sure you don’t have any sickness worse than Coronavirus?
“Because this place is hidden, it saved us from harassment during the lockdown. Even when police visit, some of them collect money while others will enter the room with any of us for service. That was the sacrifice then. Everyone here has hand sanitisers for their customers.
“Life is risky and to make money is not easy. But as I said, I have achieved a lot between 2012 and now. By December, I have to go back home and stay with my kids. What matters most is having a roof over your head and I have achieved that from this business.”
At 5:30 a.m, the reporter says good bye to Iya Emma and promises to return another day soon.