There is more than one way to try to understand the Horn of Africa. You can get only so far looking at the political boundaries of the nations. Crisp geometric lines divide the countries in some areas, whereas in others a meandering border clearly follows a river or a mountain. More telling, perhaps, is the geography of the region: the arid span of desert begins in northern Kenya and then widens east until it swallows almost all of Somalia and is stopped only by the Indian Ocean. Overlay that with a third and perhaps most important schema of population density. You will immediately see first an artery of densely populated towns streaming south from Addis Ababa through Ethiopia’s rift valley, and then another dense conglomerate huddled around Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi.
But a dynamic that cannot be mapped is political stability. On the Horn, rife with internecine conflict that adds insult to the injury of natural disasters, and turns the crises of famine into crises of mass migration, political stability is a relative idea, often as rare and unpredictable as the rains. But these days, Kenya has more than most. So when the largest drought in 60 years hit the Horn of Africa, slashing at the southern part of Ethiopia and threatening the lives of millions in South Somalia, Nairobi is where the people went.
Eastleigh Estates, a Nairobi community with a high Somali population, is known as “Little Mogadishu.” Once an unassuming suburb, it has become an international business hub. Over the last few years, a steady influx of Somali refugees has completely changed the landscape, and then began investing when the Kenyan government gave the district its increased parliamentary authority. Now littered with money transfer organizations and travel agencies, Eastleigh Estates has become a metaphor for the globalized economy, powered by technological breakthroughs.
But that also makes Nairobi one of the most reliable and stable markets in a region that is in many places descending into chaos. The contrast makes for a predictable osmosis of crime that sweeps vulnerable women and children out of the pastoral hinterlands, into the hope of food and work that major, developed metropolitan areas provide, and often into slavery. Eastleigh Estates holds the promise of a job and a life to many such vagrants, and is the perfect context for fraudulent employment agencies.
In addition to the usual trends of brothels, that front as massage parlors and strip clubs, there are growing trends in prostitution even among Nairobi’s wealthiest. The Nairobi Chronicle reported that a growing number of young women in Nairobi are resorting to professional escort services to provide their means. Women post their profiles on dating sites in hopes of attracting a wealthy, Western, “romantic” interest. In the same article, the Chronicle reports, “scenes of octogenarian Caucasians walking arm in arm with young Kenyan girls are quite common in our streets. Maternity hospitals in Kenya are also recording an increase in inter-racial babies born to unmarried mothers.” Even men, according to the article, are selling sexual services to an upscale female clientele who either, in the pursuit of career have not made time for meaningful relationships, or who are traveling to Kenya’s resort and tourist areas.
Nairobi underscores a trend that will likely be repeated and amplified in many regions in the earth in the days ahead. Globalization is not an equal opportunity employer: some areas thrive, but usually at the expense of others. As impoverished and vulnerable masses are drawn into modern-day slavery and, more specifically, into sex trafficking, the effete, wealthy classes engage in prostitution, but by the more civilized monikers of “escorts” and “dating services.” When a region or community suffers the practice of prostitution at the highest levels, it will always rationalize the slavery of prostitution at the lowest. Sex should not be included in the practices acceptable for making a living, or we will turn a jaded eye to those who are, under compulsion, sold by madams, pimps, and bar owners night after night.
This City in Focus comes from The Horn of Africa Region. To read an overview of this region click here.