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Misplaced morality and the women of Uwanja wa Fisi

Hamza and his friend cracked jokes as we walked through the Tandale slums, but their laughs were stifled as we reached Uwanja wa Fisi.  They persisted in their banter to lighten the mood, sometimes teasing me because wazungu (white people) like me don’t frequent this area for business; most male foreigners seek the company of women in the upscale hotels in Dar es Salaam’s beachside areas.  However, as we  turned a corner and proceeded down a series of thin alleys, it became evident that they shared my discomfort.  The cement walls were lined with dilapidated doors.  A few were open, and the bits of bright Tanzanian sunlight that stole inside revealed tiny rooms, many with blankets on the floor, some with an old sofa taking up most of the space.  One or two were occupied by women, sleeping soundly on the floor.

Tandale, like many low-income neighborhoods or “slums” in sub-saharan Africa, is characterized by its open sewers, substandard housing, and lack of access to clean water.  It also contains Uwanja wa Fisi, a key site in Dar es Salaam’s sex industry.

At the end of one alley, a woman was sitting outside washing clothes, an empty soda bottle at her side.  Upon noticing our approach, she cheerfully greeted me and asked if the other two had brought me for business.  Laughing, they explained that I was a student interested in public health, and I was passing through to see the infamous Uwanja wa Fisi.  The woman, who I will refer to as Rizki, was soon joined by several other women from nearby rooms.  Although somewhat uncomfortable about talking at first (prostitution is illegal in Tanzania), they were willing to discuss the circumstance faced by sex workers in the area.

Most of the women have children in school.  Sex work is profitable, relative to trading small wares and selling food on the street.  But they are aware of the risk of contracting HIV, syphilis, and other sexually transmitted diseases.  And they deal with the social repercussions of their work on a daily basis, ostracized from the community on moral grounds.  Even the name Uwanja wa Fisi, translated as “Hyena’s Playground” in English, is a derogation that reflects society’s moral evaluation of the ways that people here behave  –  like dogs.

Under the ancient tenets of Manichaenism, the world is divided into two spheres: pure good and pure evil.  The two forces are in perpetual opposition as the forces of light are slowly returned from the material to the spiritual world where they were derived.  This religion has had great historical influence on contemporary tropes, including the semi-metaphorical battle between lightness and darkness, the division of Heaven and Hell, and the demonization of the flesh and its temptations.  Manichaenism spread quickly around the world, becoming one of the most widely practiced religions at its height.

Why were people so accepting of – or susceptible to – this philosophical and religious trend?  One reason may be that the model of good versus bad is among the easiest ways to conceptualize the world around us, incorporating meaning into our observations of people and events.  It mobilizes social and political forces within communities and between nations, justifying the formation of relationships between allies and enemies.  While this philosophy can serve as an easily applied moral framework, it blurs the complexity of people’s circumstances and actions.

Many times, the political meets the social as international policies make moral denunciations about individuals within local communities.  The Bush era Anti-Prostitution Pledge demanded that institutions receiving US funding agree to a declaration against prostitution, placing severe limits on the approaches they can take to HIV prevention and poverty alleviation among sex workers.  In July 2011, this requirement was dropped for US institutions, but it can still be applied to foreign institutions receiving US funding, blocking them from employing some of the most effective intervention strategies (read more at the CHANGE website here).  Rather than empirical data or rational assessments of efficacy, the policy seems to be derived from a Manichaenistic worldview condemning those engaging in sin.*

On the basis of cultural relativism, or even simple practicality, there is little that we as Americans can do about the cultural orientation of Dar es Salaam residents toward prostitution;  change will require organic intellectuals from within.  But we can speak up against our own government about policies that ostracize women like Rizki in Tanzania and other nations affected by HIV, poverty, and socioeconomic inequality.  Rizki and many of her fellow residents of Uwanja wa Fisi have yet to receive HIV educational services, advice about safe-sex strategies such as microbicidal gels and female condoms.  Furthermore, they are perceived as social deviants, rather than people struggling at the intersections of poverty and gender inequity.

Most women like Rizki, who sells sex in Uwanja wa Fisi, charge about 4,000 Tanzanian Shillings per client.  At the October 2011 exchange rate, that is less than 2.50 US Dollars.

Paul Farmer put it well in AIDS and Accusation, his acclaimed book on HIV in Haiti:

“The highest rates [of HIV infection] observed were in female Haitian prostitutes (53 percent), underlining for some their role in the transmission of HIV.  Few observed that high rates of seroprevalence among prostitutes might simply reflect “occupational risk” – an increased likelihood of coming into contact with a seropositive man” (p 130)

Sex workers are indeed an important link in the epidemiological transmission of HIV, and they are an important target for prevention interventions.  But until we look beyond their role as carriers to recognize their susceptibility as people responding to the conditions of poverty, we will be missing the mark in our fight against HIV.  This change can start with attention and organized activism to change the current US policies that perpetuate a Manicheanistic view of sex workers.  As the world population hits 7 billion this week, remember that we all deserve the right to appropriate health services, resources, and information, even (and especially!) women like Rizki.

*For further reading on the similarities between Bush-era policies and the principles of Manichaenism, see the various works of political writer Glenn Greenwald.

About Cory Rodgers

Cory is a premedical student working on a community health project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania under the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award (Fall 2011 - Summer 2012). He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with majors in Biology, Africana Studies, and the History & Philosophy of Science, and he conducted an undergraduate research thesis in Medical Anthropology. His goal is to practice as a physician and public health worker within marginalized communities. He is writing as a Sex and Justice Issues Analyst to explore women's health issues in the context of oppression, violence, and moralization. He enjoys watching Australian rules football and drinks his tea with milk and salt.

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  1. I absolutely enjoyed reading this scintillating piece, Cory. I commend you for being able to gather this important research and it so well. As an international student who has done public health research in Kenya, I am aware of some of the challenges faced in the pursuit of such important work. Most communities, at least where I am from (Kenya), tend to not talk about these issues.

    I am just curious if you have any knowledge of whether or not these women have access to protection and contraceptives?

    • Thanks Leila! I agree; the early phases of any cross-cultural interview can be awkward, especially when the focus is something as stigmatized as prostitution. The women at Uwanja wa Fisi opened up once I explained that I was interested in health issues, but they talked mostly about things relevant to public health (sex education, condoms, disease risk, etc). If I had pressed them for details about their emotions, thoughts, or opinions about stigma, I may have faced more resistance. But this was not intended to be research so much as reporting about their circumstances in Tandale.

      Regarding access to reproductive health resources, these women have no more access than the average Tanzanian. Condoms can be purchased in some shops and public places, but actual use of these resources is limited by low income and lack of information about the risks of STIs and AIDS. While some low-budget community groups may provide services or put on awareness-raising performances from time to time, there is no coordinated, sustained, or large-scale program set up to mitigate sex workers’ risk or alleviate their poverty. And the government has done little more than declare prostitution illegal. There is one group that is trying to change this (and it was started by a former sex worker in Uwanja wa Fisi!), but again, funding is a major issue. See Elisa’s website at:


  2. Wow! She is impeccable! I really commend her for taking such a necessary step. I’m from Mombasa, Kenya and although prostitution, like water, is everywhere nobody is helping out the sex workers with something as fundamental as protection. Even the mere purchase of a condom in the shops is so frowned upon in the culture there. I know it might sound absurd for many people here how this is so, but I’m sure Cory, being there, you must have noticed some of these things I am telling you.

    Is there a way we can connect her to some organizations here in the US, so that she can be supported doing that very important and critical initiative she is running? I would love to help, mind brainstorming with me…We can send out emails and such.