The scenery in Zanzibar is great, clean beaches, white, tiny sandy islands, amazing wildlife in both the sea and land, its rich history, and all other fascinating caves and places are always the best attraction to foreign visitors, especially Westerners.
But beyond the scenery, there is an all-time attraction that is currently growing, drawing international tourists to Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar.
Dubbed a ‘sexcapade’, it is also possible to brand it as ‘love tourism’ as the female sex workers largely come from Tanzania mainland, only stay in Zanzibar when tourist influx is compelling and go back to the mainland during low season and Ramadhan.
Pesa nje nje
The story of Zanzibar’s sexcapade made me think of Rihanna’s song, ‘We found love in a hopeless place’. Most of these mainland ladies go to Zanzibar in search of quick money, offer their bodies as service, and make $100 to $300 per day from single customers sometimes, to help them and their families survive.
But some end up in love relationships, get emotionally entangled, get married, and produce children. Others are not so lucky, they are stuck in sex tourism for years on end.
“I met Julian’s dad in Zanzibar back in 2014 when he and his friends came to explore the best scenery of Zanzibar,” explained Susan.
She added that “It was my normal workday mingling around the dancing floor of Tatu pub and restaurant in Stone Town as I was searching for my next customer,”
Susan from Arusha, Tanzania, and Liam, a tourist from the Netherlands, met and fell in love, and started a love relationship in Zanzibar. When Liam’s holiday on the spice island was ending, he asked Susan to marry him.
“I said yes, and we processed my passport and visa so I can go back to Rotterdam city in the Netherlands with him, where I would get to see his family, get married and start a family,” she says.
The two did get married in the Netherlands, bore their only son, Julian, and lived happily until Liam travelled to Ethiopia for work and met another African lady with similar magic and juice. Susan moved back to Tanzania and went back to her usual business as it was hard to get a job, and she was not used to hustling.
She left her 6-year-old son with his dad.
When Susan came back in 2021, she brought two new ladies, Monica* (24) and Rose* (22) from the mainland to start the sex tourism business on an island with more than 50,000 tourists a month mainly from European countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Netherlands, Scandinavia countries, Poland and others.
“When they first arrived, Susan introduced them to me, I was shocked to see her back in Unguja for her old business,” said lady who is a hotel attendant in Stone Town.
She said she knows a couple of mainland women who like foreign tourists that come to Zanzibar mostly during the high season for sexcapade.
“They usually stay together, one might rent a room not in fancy hotels because they can’t afford, just a $19 to $25 per day hostel. But old ones like Susan stay in rented houses on interior streets and host a few others. They might even be eight to ten of them living in a single room,”
“When I visited Zanzibar sometime last year, my usual convenient hotel was full but the owner linked us, my friend and I, to another mainland girl who was staying near Forodhani and was okay to share a room with us.”
“We had no choice but to accept and it was only for a few days. I normally move around anyway, we mainlanders got to stick together,” Happy told me
As we were chit-chatting she mentioned that this time around ‘pesa nje nje’ Swahili for money everywhere. I was curious. “What do you mean?” I asked, then she was hesitant, since she thought we too are in the Island for the sexcapade business.
Happy shared her story that a friend of hers introduced her to the business back in 2019. Back home, she lives with her grandmother and a young brother who all depend on her to bring bread home.
They are from Singida, but Happy moved to Dar es Salaam for a shot at a better life and after a few bartending gigs in Sinza streets, she met a friend called Neema who shared with her another job she does in Zanzibar.
“Neema only told me of places I could find customers and I wanted to make more money for my young brother and grandmother back in Singida,” she explains.
Where and how they meet
One night inside a not so fancy, nor new pub, very traditional, I was sitting on a deck near a small bar enjoying a glass of soda and a nice ocean view when a white man from Norway who introduced himself as Richard approached me and offered to buy me a drink.
Richard wasn’t the only white man who offered the same and even asked if ‘I wasn’t in service today’ when I rejected the offer. I tried not to be offended and asked the bartender at the deck why that was.
He said the bar is known to be a meeting point for sex tourists both sellers and buyers. That’s when I noticed there were too many locals both female and male none of whom offered to buy me anything.
“We do know which months to come but sometimes the locals themselves alert us,” noted Happy
Lexi, a hotel attendant said sometimes tourists ask for the service. “They would ask for a massage and if I do offer such service but when I direct them to spas they normally refuse and request for a person to come to them. I normally call those I know that are around. And they only bring coconut oil and Karafuu oil. There are times the ladies bring nothing with them,” noted Lexi another hotel attendant
Happy revealed that there are few places locals can enter without restrictions especially restaurants with pubs and nightclubs. A few are stationed around Stone Town near the beach, and CCM streets in Nungwi and Paje.
“The problem sometimes is not where to find them but where to go with them after because several three to five-star hotels are strictly off limits,” explained Happy.
Reaction from authorities in Zanzibar
Since they are new and eager for a quick dollar, Rose and Monica were hunting even local customers, which alerted local authorities.
“I did warn them not to show what they are up to with the locals,” said the lady attendant
Like in many countries, prostitution in Tanzania, both mainland and on the island, is illegal. Although in the eyes of the law it is considered minor misconduct under the country’s penal code; to Zanzibar with its culture, religious ties, and history prostitution is a grave offense.
“Mosque leaders approached my boss about their courtesan-like behaviour, inappropriate dressing, walking around the streets half-naked and wanted us to chase them away or have them change their behaviour,” she added.
“It is hard to spot the locals who are into the business, especially females because they don’t rent hotels like visitors but there are famous places here in Unguja that if you spot a local, there is 99.5 percent that she is in the business,” explained Lexi.
Due to nature of their business, the police force says, “It is difficult to know who is in the business. During our normal daily rounds, we might find a room with more than five women from the mainland then you might doubt but they will tell you they work for different restaurants or retail shops,” noted Abdallah Hussein Mussa, Regional Police Commission for West Unguja.
He added that Tanzania has many tourist attractions including wildlife, mountains and hills as well as beaches from Eastern coast to a different parts in Unguja and Pemba.
“What we do is to ensure safety for these attraction sites and tourists as well,” adds Mr Abdallah Hussein Mussa
“First-time tourists always pay handsomely, $100 to even $500 per night sometimes. But those who stay for 14 days and more normally start paying less like $15, not good business,” explained Rose.
Rose says when international tourists form a friendship with the locals they normally go for cheaper ones mostly from the island itself.
Sometimes the ladies are taken by one man and found a group of seven to eight men inside the room all wanting the service.
“There was a time when I had no money and I wasn’t lucky with foreign tourists for a week, so I lowered my standards and went with a Maasai man. He took me to his place, and when I got there I found seven others. The others normally don’t pay or offer you a very low amount,” said Rose.
The ladies shared that they are sometimes exposed to violence, especially if the agreed amount isn’t offered. “I was once beaten by the locals I went out with. I only had an agreement with one of them and when I refused the other two, they beat me up. I ran and went back to the hotel we boarded,” commented one of the sex providers.
Pros and Cons
We often talk of the benefits of tourism but this aspect of sexcapades is rarely mentioned.
Some research findings show approximately 250,000 people travel internationally to engage in sex tourism globally and the industry generates over $25 billion in revenue.
Some say if more love relationships can be forged between Zanzibaris with Europeans, Tanzanians and Americans, Asians, and other parts of the world then it is a welcomed development.
“Even better if they get married and raise a family together. Dollars are rolling in, investments are up, and business is good,” commented Ahmed, a shopkeeper in Mkunazini, one of Stone Town’s streets.
But sexual tourism fuels the spread of HIV/AIDS infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Hotel and hostel attendants noted that some of the people engaged in the business are living with HIV/AIDS and that they sometimes took the liberty of advising the ladies at their compounds on the importance of protecting themselves and their clients against sexually transmitted diseases.
“There was one time they came in a group, as six of them, two were new. I overheard one of the new ladies talking on a phone that she missed her ARVs picking appointment, asking the other person on the phone where she can go get some here in Unguja,” said Lexi.
Lexi said she fears for her people in Unguja since she knows of a few local people that the lady has had sexual relations with during her stay in Zanzibar.
“When the girls are too drunk to be in control they might even get raped and sexual assailants are not always careful in using protection,” commented Husna, a laundry lady at one of the hostels.
“There is a need to provide education or seminars to all the tourists so we can avoid spreading such diseases further on the island. It should be part of the tour package,” advised Husna.