The darker side of tourism in Kenya

Mtwapa is known as a party town of Kenya. But as tourism thrives, creating jobs in the region, there is a darker side; the sexual exploitation of minors.

Mtwapa is known as a party town of Kenya. But as tourism thrives, creating jobs in the region, there is a darker side; the sexual exploitation of minors.

It is just gone midday and people are already tired and exhausted from working in the hot sun. For seventeen-year-old Francis* the day is just beginning having slept late after a busy night. A boy his age should be in school but Francis is one of many young males who have come to Mombasa in search of easy cash through selling sex. Surprisingly some of them come from quite well-to-do families, dropping out of school to venture into this world.

Francis is woken by a phone call from Swaleh*, the pimp who gets him clients. He never knows who the client will be but he meets Swaleh at their usual pick up place from where they proceed to the venue.

Depending on the client and time spent with them, Francis can make around 20,000 Kenyan shillings in one night after deducting Swaleh’s commission. Francis is using his earnings to take a hairdressing and beauty course.

Unlike his peers Francis does not do drugs, most of his money is spent on the latest clothes, make up and body makeovers to ensure he is up-to-date in this competitive trade. His efforts pay off because Francis can be mistaken for a beautiful young girl with his big made up eyes and light brown complexion. His soft musical voice sounds like that of a choir girl.

After the pick-up, Francis is taken to a house in Nyali which belongs to Swaleh where he will entertain the client.

Sex tourism

“The young boys cannot enter hotels without identification,” says Swaleh, “nor are they allowed to visit guests, so what I do is use my ID to pick up clients from the hotels after which I either take them to my love nest where they can indulge in anal sex. Or I take them to a more discreet place and wait for them outside as they finish their business, but most of the time I take them to my house and they both pay me for its use.”

Swaleh is a self-professed international pimp. The slim built man of Swahili/Arab origin conducts business in Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. He specializes in male to male sexual hook ups. His clients prefer underage small boys.

Swaleh, 32, is also a man who has sex with other men, and he is proud of his sexual orientation. He got into this business when he saw the need and demand for young boys. His clients are mostly closet homosexuals and bisexual men, never women.

Young boys, according to Swaleh, are easy to seduce and don’t get pregnant; they are less costly to maintain and take care of unlike girls who have a lot of expenses. When he realizes a boy has potential he recruits him by wooing him with money and other incentives. “I do not coerce the boys to work for me,” he says.

Risky sexual practice

Swaleh is proud of his work and says he goes the extra mile to educate the boys on safe sex. “I take them for check-ups regularly especially after they have had several unprotected encounters,” he says.

Francis and his peers ask their clients to use protection but the clients rarely agree. As a result they don’t always practice safe sex and will forgo using condoms if the pay is more or when they have anal sex because they mistakenly believe anal sex does not transmit infections.

Fauz Ibrahim, Kilifi county AIDS/STI control officer, says: “Poverty is the driving force for young boys engaging in selling sex and the fact that the region is a tourist hub is not helping things either. Some of the tourists who come to our country are known paedophiles in their countries. They escape to countries in Africa and pose first as tourists then as investors. This way we unknowingly embrace them not knowing they can affect our children negatively. As it is we are risking losing an entire generation to HIV if this issue is not addressed.”

Tourists used to be able to receive sex workers in hotel rooms but posters now warn them against this and are distributed along all beach hotels in the region. One hotelier, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “This business is no longer tolerated in the hotels so it has been taken to secluded beaches and homes which act as sex dens and brothels.” These brothels are so inconspicuous they can be mistaken for any home in the neighbourhood.

But Swaleh makes it clear that tourists are not the only problem: “Most of my clients are not tourists contrary to what has been perceived. Most of my clients are rich locals some of them married, others politicians and generally well-off members of the community who either have the money and want to try something different or are closet homosexuals or bisexuals.”

Child sexual exploitation

Francis started by living with a friend in a male brothel in the Mombasa docks but currently lives in another brothel in Mtwapa. He says: “I started sex work when I was 13 years old and it was due to peer pressure. I had come on holiday when schools closed and the friends I made while in Mombasa largely influenced me to be what I am today. I went back home and my mother noticed my change in attitude, dressing and behaviour and when she questioned me I ran away and came back to Mombasa.

“There are many challenges that we face in this business and that is why I prefer to be pimped rather than working on my own. When you work solo, the money is not as much as when you have a ‘gawadi’ [pimp] and he always treats us like a brother.

“Clients don’t like to use condoms and because they pay more for sex without protection, I agree. I know I can get HIV but I know God loves me so he will protect me. Other boys already have it and they continue to work as they are on medication.”

Justin M Nyaga, from Kilifi County Office Commanding Police Division, admits the issue of child exploitation is particularly bad in Mtwapa, Watamu and Malindi. But they have limited resources and personnel to address the situation.

He says: “The government has very good laws and provisions against child sexual exploitation, however the burden of proof lies with us and it is normally very hard to collect evidence in such cases and even if it gets to court then the offenders are given cheap fines which frustrate our efforts.”

The internet does not help as it has fuelled the rise of child pornography and exploitation in the area. And incidences of children coerced into selling sex certainly go unreported because the middlemen and pimps are often close relatives of the children.

According to Nyaga this trade is thriving because community members are afraid to speak about it for fear of being labelled whistle blowers and in some cases the young boys involved are even engaged in this activity with their families’ blessings as they help in providing for their families.

*names have been changed

Read more stories about HIV and young people


  • comment-avatar

    Sidi, this is good work! I am happy that this story has finally come out. Keep it up!

  • comment-avatar
    catherine 4 years

    great article

  • comment-avatar

    what a story, wonders shall never end.