Money and men are in no short supply in the petroleum-rich Angolan enclave of Cabinda. Workers from the petroleum industry, truck drivers, merchants and some 60,000 soldiers and police are based in the area; and sex workers from the country's poor and unstable neighbours are crossing Cabinda's porous borders, trying to make ends meet.
Since 2001, when Angola' s long civil war ended, many people from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo have arrived in Cabinda, Evaristo Lucas Kanica, the coordinator of a Red Cross AIDS-prevention programme, told IRIN/PlusNews.
Cabinda's Comandante Jika neighbourhood is home to the famous bar and brothel Berlita, named after its late owner, a former sex worker who became rich and married. The bar is vibrant, despite its seedy and stale appearance; and the rooms are no better: stuffy, filthy, with a dirty foam mattress, and empty condom boxes under the bed.
With a population of 350,000, Cabinda's prevalence rate is estimated to be 3 percent - the second highest in the country.
Young women looking to make money
It's two o'clock in the afternoon. The sun beats down on a huge, fetid garbage heap near Berlita's, but the bar is dark and cool. During PlusNews' visit, the sex workers were young Congolese women in search of quick money in Cabinda, which is home to a rebel movement seeking autonomy.
They speak in their home languages of Lingala and Kikongo, a little bit of French with some Portuguese words thrown in.
"The Angolan prostitutes pretend they don't work at the bordellos; they send the Congolese girls to come talk to us. They're more open and have no problem talking. They don't know a lot about AIDS or condoms, but they’re eager to learn," Kanica told IRIN/PlusNews.
Business is slow in the early afternoon. The women play cards, drink the local beer, fix each other's hair and do their nails in the courtyard.
Twenty eight-year-old Stephanie* explains that she pays 200 kwanza (US$1.30) a day to use a room, and sees between 10 and 15 clients a day at a thousand kwanzas (US$13.00) each - she insists on sex with a condom at all times. On a good day, she can earn as much as US$180; she plans to save her money and open a shop.
The most popular worker, according to Manel*, the manager of Berlita, is 19-year-old Yvette*, who arrived three months ago. She can charge five times more than her colleagues and says she is able to send as much as US$100 a month back to her family in the DRC.
Photo: Mercedes Sayagues/PlusNews
|The office: where the sex workers do business|
In places patronized by businessmen and petroleum industry workers, sex professionals can charge as much as US$ 80 per client. In other places, says Kanica, sex with a condom costs one thousand kwanzas (US$13), and two thousand (US$26) without.
"Men come day and night, at all hours, they're always coming and going," says Kanica. "Soldiers are based here for two months, they go on leave to enjoy life, go to bars and only leave when they've run out of money."
In three months, young women can save as much as US$500 – a huge sum in their countries. They are recruited informally through friends. Most are single, but often they get themselves an Angolan boyfriend to help them spend money.
Police also make them spend money, harassing them over expired visas. One of the women had been arrested the day before, during a raid – she paid a 5,000-kwanza (US$66) bribe and returned to work.
The National Institute for the Fight Against AIDS (known by the Portuguese acronym INLS) will soon be releasing results of a survey of seroprevalence, and knowledge levels among sex workers in the provinces of Luanda and Cabinda.
The new study surveyed 998 sex professionals in Luanda and 367 in Cabinda.
Back at Berlita, Manel says that he supports the Red Cross programme: "Here, arms are prohibited and condoms are mandatory." Manel sits near the door leading from the bar to the rooms, handing out Red Cross condoms and receiving money.
The sun is still high in the sky outside, but the uniformed clients are already beginning to arrive. Three women head to the dance floor. Others go to fetch buckets of water for their bathrooms.
A fight breaks out because of a debt: slaps, shouts and profanities are exchanged, and the women grilling chicken and fish at the entrance to Berlita watch disinterestedly.
A soldier in camouflage clothing pays Manel and goes to one of the rooms with Yvette. Ten minutes later he comes back out, zipping up his trousers. An hour and several beers later, he chooses another woman, pays Manel and disappears into one of the rooms.
It's an afternoon like any other at Berlita.