by Terri Fikowski
I’d seen poverty in my first few weeks in Africa. I mean, who wouldn’t expect to witness some form of poverty in Tanzania having accepted a six month position as a media rights trainer in the country’s largest city, Dar Es Salaam. But as I observed my surroundings quickly deteriorate out the window of our van carrying myself and three local journalists, I became quite aware this was a different level of poverty. The answer to my question? “Hyena Ground,” a slum in the midst of the urban city setting and my definition of hell on earth.
It wasn’t necessarily the run down conditions that leads me to describe it as such. Shanty huts, feces alongside makeshift roads, and utter chaos are to be expected. It wasn’t the thousands of flies feasting on piles of raw chicken meat that from the smell had been smothering under the sun seemingly all day. It wasn’t even the old Tanzanian man who asked me through drunken slurs to “give him my vagina” that makes me draw such a conclusion. Rather, it was all these stereotypical ideas of poverty combined with the reason we were there; to produce a two part TV and radio series on sex workers in Dar Es Salaam.
Don’t get me wrong, as a journalist it’s in my blood to seek out these type of stories. That doesn’t mean I enjoy the reality that girls as young as 12-years-old are selling their bodies as a means for survival for less than 1USD.
Actually in this case I hadn’t intentionally sought out the story. Just the day before, I’d approached a young reporter to see what he’d been working on. He told me he’d been at a police press conference where it was announced officers would be cracking down on prostitution in Dar Es Salaam and charging women working in the sex trade. I asked who else he spoke to to produce the story and wasn’t surprised after a few days amongst the local media to learn only the one source. I tried to explain the importance of using multiple sources in a report and to show all sides of the story. Surely it wasn’t a lifestyle these women wanted to be a part of? He was apprehensive at first; prostitution is illegal in Tanzania. I asked him if he thought charging these woman would really create a change in society and was glad when his response was asking for my help following up on the press conference the next day.
Entering Hyena Ground, we were joined by the street’s Chairman and two of his employees. That made our total number seven and from what I was told, necessary. After making our way through shacks where men gambled and walked over others passed out drunk with evidence of local spirit in children’s sand buckets, we approached some of the “working girls.” One of the journalists translated the interview and I heard what I’d expected but what seemed to come as a surprise to my colleagues. These women didn’t want to be doing what they were doing. A life subject to disease and violence wasn’t an intentional choice but they said they had no alternative. Some were paying for school and refused to have their face on camera. Others were desperate and needed to feed their children, one which was clinging to his mother’s leg. We were also told police collect a group of women from the area around once a week and if they can’t pay a charge do “bad things to them.” At one point a woman broke down and walked away from the camera. I placed my hand on her back in a pathetic attempt to comfort her, unable to offer any verbal support even with broken Kiswahili. Besides, what could I say?
After some time collecting interviews we grew uneasy from an increasing large crowd forming around our crew so opted to return to the van. We would later learn from the Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre there are few statistics regarding the number of women involved in the sex trade due to narrowed definitions surrounding prostitution and human trafficking. Despite a three-year action plan to end in 2014 providing education to law enforcers regarding the sex industry, many fail to see the possible indicators of victims. Needless to say, it’s easy to grow pessimistic.
It wouldn’t be until a few days later I’d celebrate the report’s small victories when other local media outlets picked up the story and when my colleagues expressed their interest following up on the accusations against the police. Perhaps the most significant win is their willingness to show all sides of the story in the future, even if it’s something hard to understand.
When we drove away from Hyena Ground one of the journalists asked me what I thought. My reaction was uneasy laughter which was returned with my first true introduction to Tanzania, “welcome to our country.”