I have been to a lot of interesting assignments as a journalist, but what beats them all, hands down, is the unforgettable six hours I recently spent with Mr Stanley Ngara, the 'King of Condoms', distributing condoms to Nairobi’s red light districts in the wee hours of the morning.
Now, a lot of things can potentially go wrong when a young woman finds herself in a car alone with a virtual stranger, deep in the night, deliberately venturing into parts of the city that many people prefer to believe do not exist. But something about Ngara’s warmth and his obvious passion for the job he does and the people he serves, sex workers, quickly put me at ease. In no time, I had taken over his king’s 'crown' and I was handing out the condoms myself.
We encountered mostly women that night, and only a couple of men, although that is not to say that Nairobi has a shortage of male sex workers. You just need to know where to look.
I found the women interesting, and their stories in parts terrifying and achingly sweet.
Like the girl who beamed with such pride when she talked about how she was funding her younger sister’s education at a prestigious national school in Nairobi, and her determination to pay the steep school fees no matter what it took.
EXTRA FOR A FRIEND
“I will educate her up to whichever level she likes because I want her to have better chances in life than me,” she told us.
Or the one who insisted on taking an extra box of condoms so that she could share with her friend who was at the time unable to come pick them up herself.
In that time, I understood the importance of what Ngara does. Some might view him as immoral, as demonstrated by his own admission that his interactions with sex workers have cost him friends, but he is an important ally in a profession that does not have a lot of allies.
He has been fighting HIV from the trenches for decades and he has results to show for it; many of the girls (and boys!) selling sex are HIV negative, and he encourages them to get tested regularly to maintain that status.
He also offers testing and treatment for a wide range of STDs that they are exposed to in their jobs.
Ngara helps working girls stay safe and healthy and if only people would step down from the moral pedestals that have them seething with righteous indignation at the very thought that sex workers exist, they would realise that we are all better off if safe sex is practised across the board.
After all, who would you rather your partner bought sex from; an HIV negative sex worker who gets tested for STDs every three months and insists on using condoms, or one who has never seen the inside of a clinic and has limited access to condoms? Don’t kid yourself.
The very fact that these people are selling sex, many of them in Nairobi’s most high-end suburbs, means that someone is buying it.
There cannot be supply without demand. And they will do it whether or not they have condoms; we are all so lucky that people like Ngara ensure that their stocks never run out.
WHY ARE WE SO SQUEAMISH ABOUT SEX?
While we are at it, we should address why we are so squeamish about sex. Observe how a person buying condoms at the supermarket buries them under heaps of groceries in the shopping cart, and breaks out into a sweat if the scanner does not read the bar code and the cashier is forced to manually key in the code, therefore displaying the condoms to everyone else on the queue. The horror.
The first time I bought condoms was at a chemist, and the cashier serving me asked me how old I was. I told him 25, although I was really 23, but what I should have said was that it was none of his business; buying condoms has no age restrictions.
They are not like alcohol or cigarettes, potentially disruptive intoxicants that could wreck one’s life. These are condoms, which do the opposite - save lives.
More recently, a friend narrated how uncomfortable he had made the shopkeeper and fellow shoppers at a shop in one of these estates in Nairobi when he went in asking for condoms.
With an amused look, he told me how everyone had stared at him like he was nuts, and how the shopkeeper had eventually said in an embarrassed voice that he did not stock rubbers. Why not, pray tell?
Our puritanical attitudes towards sex and sexuality have our heads buried so deeply in the sand that we remain suffocatingly old fashioned and judgemental over anyone with the audacity to have sex if it is not for procreation.
Borrow a leaf from the 'King of Condoms' and loosen up. Shock yourself (and the cashier) by picking up a packet of condoms at the supermarket, and nothing else, paying for it and walking out with a spring to your step. Let no one shame you for enjoying one of life’s greatest pleasures.