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Tuesday, 03 February 2015 16:16

You might not think so, but I value me because I provide for my family’: Reflections of a Zimbabwean Sex Worker

I tried to cross illegally and failed.  The police found me at the border fence. I tried to cross illegally and failed. The police found me at the border fence. Lulu.Volume 44
Elsa Oliveira[1]

Lulu Lulu


Corresponding Author: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

‘I want the world to know that we value our lives.  That we are human beings that love our families, our bodies and our safety.  What we do to bring bread to the table is seen as being immoral but we are doing this work because we need to take care of what we love, of who we love, of our lives.  Can’t they see this?  Or, do they forget that we are humans that bleed the same blood as them?’ Sitembile, 2014
Currently in South Africa, sex work is considered a criminal offense under Section 20 (1A)(a) of the Sexual Offences Act, Act 23 of 1957.  Although a wide range of stakeholders, including researchers, activists and public health officials, support the decriminalisation of sex work the law remains unhinged. 

Since 2010, as a researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand, I have conducted several participatory Arts-Based research projects.  The body of work that emerges from these projects aspires to support advocacy, research, and legal reform.  The projects also aspire to provide a platform whereby individuals whose voices are often under-represented in research, policy debates, and mainstream media, a space where they can share their respective experiences and knowledge(s). 

To date, the projects have culminated in a variety of outcomes, including public exhibitions held locally and internationally.  The most recent project entitled, Volume 44[3], was a one-year project that worked specifically with migrant men, women, and transgender sex workers in two diverse geographical spaces (urban and rural).  Each workshop site (Johannesburg and Musina) consisted of three separate phases.  Each phase lasted an average of five days and took place over the course of six weeks.  During the ‘break sessions’ between phases, participants received assignments and continued to engage in the production of their individual visual and narrative stories.   A wide range of themes emerged quite strongly in this project, including: migration histories, trajectories into sex work, issues of police brutality, stigma, and living/working conditions.  Although all of the participants in the projects stated that they chose to enter sex work, the decision to sell sex was often analogous to economic hardship(s).  The majority of the participants in the studies are single mothers and/or heads of households who needed to move in order to find work so that they could independently support themselves and their families. 

Too often, public, and political debates around issues of sex work fail to connect and engage with the stories of those actually engaged in the sex industry.  Arguments between pro-sex work advocates and anti-sex work supporters exist in binary spheres.  These distinct and often antagonizing spheres rarely engage in the complexity of what it might mean to be and earn a living as a sex worker.  Although all of the participants in Volume 44 were over the age of eighteen and all stated that they had choosen to enter the sex industry albeit limited options, all believed that the crimininalisation of sex work increased their vulnerability and risk to human rights violations, including access to public health care, police harassment, and stigma. 

Alongside daily photography training were narrative and creative writing exercises.  Initially, these exercises were aimed mainly at supporting the production of photo stories, but as the workshops developed it became increasingly apparent that the role of text in the workshop not only supported the visual component of the project but also- was in and of itself- its own separate platform.  One day, participants were asked to write about ‘A Journey’.  This writing prompt was left wide open for participants to decide what they wanted to write about.  On the following pages is the story of Lulu Lulu[4], a migrant sex worker from Limpopo.  In this story, Lulu offers us insights into her life. She shares stories of loss and perseverance, of love and heartache, and of pride and dignity.  Lulu takes us on a journey of what it means to value oneself and ones family, and the extent to which a mother and daughter will go to ensure that those she loves are cared for.

A story written by Lulu Lulu, a participant of the Volume 44 project.

I grew up in a small village called Mutamangira in the Mutasa District on the outskirts of the Eastern Highlands of the Manicaland Province in Zimbabwe.  I completed my primary education at Pafiwa Mutasa Primary School. My parents were very poor but I only learned of this as I got older.  It never bothered me that I didn’t have a new pair of shoes but when I started going to school I quickly learned that my family had less than most.  In fact, we didn’t have much at all.  Except for love that is.  My father did not have a job and so we relied of what he was able to farm for food and trade.  

Despite our poverty, I felt pampered.  My father had two wives.   I was the last-born child to him and I knew that he loved me a lot.  I don’t remember him much because I was just a small child when he passed but I have heard the story often.  That when my father was dying his last words to my mother were, ‘munazopawo Hamu sadza’ meaning, ‘take care of our precious Hamu’.

I believe that it was because of my loving home that I was a very smart and active child. I was free to roam on the farm and work jobs that many girls weren’t interested in doing.  I used to herd goats with other children and eventually, I learned how to herd cattle on my very own.  I thought that I could do anything.  I always preferred to play with the boys my age because they taught me ‘tricks’.  During the long hours that we would spend together as the cattle grazed we would laugh and tumble.  We were so innocent and most of us were mostly oblivious to the poverty that we were living. At that age, I didn’t worry about anything.  I was as free as a bird flying on a warm sunny day.

I was six years old when my father died.   Before he died, my family was knee deep in poverty.  After he died, we were neck deep in poverty.   The only people around to take care of my two sisters and I was my mother and this was very hard for her.  My mother worked piece meal jobs doing whatever she could to put food on the table.  Sometimes I noticed that she was sad but she didn’t dwell on this too much.  Or, at least I didn’t notice.  I was young and naïve but somewhere in me I knew that things were hard for us. One of the first times I realized that we were poor was when my two sisters left the the farm in search of housemaid work in Harare.  I knew that they should be going to high school and learned that mama couldn’t afford to send them to school.  She needed them to find work so that we could eat.

Although it was very painful for my mother that my sisters could not continue their schooling, the money and food that they sent back home once they found work made our lives a lot better. Unfortunately, this did not last very long.  When I was in grade five, my oldest sister died unexpectedly.   Mama was troubled and torn to pieces when she found out that my sister died.  It took time for her to come to terms with the death of her daughter.  With the heartache came the looming poverty that we had known after my father died.  It wasn’t long after the pain of losing my oldest sister had begun to subside that my other sister died.  She was married with two kids, both under the age of five years, when she passed.  No one knows what happened to her- why she died.

The news of her second daughter’s death hit my mother like thunder and lightning striking a homestead. My mother was so fragile.  She looked withered like a flower that hadn’t seen water in months.  Her heart was crushed like an orange in a juice squeezer. It was very difficult for my mom to pick up the pieces, but somehow she managed.  She held on for the sake of my other siblings, her grandchildren and me.

Mama used to say that I was her pillar of strength. When she said this I felt her words carve meaning into my heart.  And so, despite all of the misfortunes that we had faced, I made sure that I did my part- I worked hard at school.  I knew very well that mama could not send me to high school but unbeknownst to me, my oldest half sister, the daughter of my father’s other wife, had decided that she was going to try to honor my father’s last wishes- to take care of me- and taking care of me meant, finding a way to send me to high school.   

I passed my junior school with flying colours and soon learned that I would go on to high school thanks to the help of my sister. I began to feel hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel.  In order to go to high school I had to move to Harare with my sister.  My days were filled with housework and studying.  I was happy.  During school holidays I would visit my mom and run around in the village that I called Home. I could see that my life changing for the better and I had great plans to look after mama and give her a rest after I was finished with school.  Everything that I did was with the goal of helping mama. I still remember the feeling in my belly that seemed never to go away.  The feeling of excitement, fear and hope was my internal light- the flame that kept me strong- the flame that led me to believe that I would make life better for all of us one day.

But, during my fourth year in high school my sister passed away- the very one who was covering my expenses so that I could attend high school. When I heard this news, my head felt as though it stopped working.  I felt such turmoil, and for a moment, I felt as though life was cursed.  That my families’ life was cursed.  I had soo many questions, most of which were impossible to answer.  I wanted to know why this was all happening.  What had I done to deserve all of this loss and pain?  What had mama done?  Could a deal with God be made to stop the pain from continuing?  These questions, and more, looped around in my head like a broken record.  I feared what would be of me; what would be of mama.  This was our last hope for a better life; a life where I could maybe buy a new pair of shoes; a life that would offer mama the help she needed so that she could grow old in peace.  During the first days after my sister died I tried to pretend and believe that I was dreaming and that soon I would wake up, go to school and that life would still feel ok.   But the nightmare was real.  It was very real.  My life felt like hell on earth.  I felt like an egg that was tossed in a hot oil pan.  After being passed around from one half sibling to the next I decided that I would just return back to the village.  My dreams of going to University shattered like a fine bottle of wine that had stood untouched for years only to find its demise in the tremors of earthquake.

Each time I saw young women my age walk to school my heart felt as though a thorn branch was beating it.  Mama sympathized with me.  One day, while she was sitting under the peach tree she said to me, ‘murombo haarovi chine nguo’, meaning ‘if you go hunting without a strong weapon you can’t catch a leopard or a cheetah, you only catch rabbits and antelope which doesn’t give you a skin to use as a mat or for clothes’.  A few days after this conversation, I decided that I would go look for work.  Eventually, I found work at a farm that grew and exported flowers and citrus fruits.  My first job was to grade the flowers for local and export sales.  The job wasn’t easy but the years that I had spent in the City taught me important skills of perseverance and hard work equipped with a positive attitude and appearance.  My work ethic and intelligence pleased my boss and eventually he offered me a better paying position.  I became his personal assistant at the farm.  Things were looking up.

One Saturday afternoon while shopping I literally ran into the loveliest and most handsome man I had ever seen. I had never met him before but when I saw him my heart felt as though it was beating out of my dress.   There in front of me stood a handsome soldier of the Zimbabwe National Army dressed in camouflage.   Growing up, I heard a lot of stories about how dangerous and heartless military men could be so I had told myself that I would never date a man in uniform. But, when I lifted my head to look at the man that I had bumped into our gazes locked.  He held out his hand to shake mine.  He apologised for not seeing where he was going and I think that he said other stuff, but I can’t remember.  My brain was mush.  He held my hand for a little while.  Our eyes locked with one anothers and with my belly to my knees and heart thumping up against my forehead I thanked him for his apology and began to walk away.  I didn’t take more than two steps before I heard him saying, ‘wait’!

This beautiful man managed to pave his way into my heart.  It didn't take long to succumb to our love and soon he became my restoration. We dated for several months before I told him about my life.  I told him about all of the death in my family, that I had not finished high school and that mama was poor.  I thought that this would scare him away but he promised to love me unconditionally, and unconditionally he did.
After some months being together, we decided to get married so that I could move in with him into the house that he was building in Harare.  It was a wonderful moment walking into my home with my husband knowing that this is where we would start our own family.

The lord blessed with two boys, who to this day are my pillars of strength.  Oh!  I loved being married.  He was such a kind and generous man.  Our children were healthy, mama was taken care of and my heart felt alive again.  But, as you can likely predict- things in my life didn’t always take the road most traveled.

After seven years of blissful family life, my husband, a medic in the military, was involved in a fatal accident during a peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There I was, a twenty-five year old widow with two toddlers aged six and three all alone.  I knew that I had strength to handle this situation afterall, my mother was my biggest example, but I was shattered.  I felt broken and afraid.  I missed my soldier and I had no idea what I was going to do.

It never rained for me, it poured.  After my husband died I found myself caught in an inheritance fight with his older brother.   According to culture, I was supposed to marry the older brother and if I didn’t, then I wouldn't be entitled to any inheritance.  There was no way that I was going to marry him.  I didn’t marry the family, I married my soldier and that was that.  So, I took him to court.  Only after he was summoned to court did I begin to receive some of what was entitled to me but it wasn't enough to support the kids and myself so I found work at a company that supplied frozen vegetables to South Africa.

After some time, I started my own business of buying and selling imported goods from Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi.  For a few years my business did very well but as the economic collapse of Zimbabwe gained momentum I began losing more money than I was making.  I was desperate.  Mama was getting older and my kids needed to go to school.  A late friend of mine encouraged me to consider a move to South Africa in order to look for work.  Initially, I was very afraid.  I had only heard horror stories about South Africa.  But when duty calls as they say, you go.  I decided that I would try in South Africa.  I left my children with my mother and headed South.

It was a very hot September day when I crossed the border. When I arrived in Musina, South Africa, I was shocked to see the confusion all around me.  People were running around from one side of the street to other, no one paid any attention to anyone and no one had time to answer questions.  It felt dark and desperate.  On a pavement curb, with my hands on my head and a cold bottle of water in my hand I sat wondering what I was going to do.  Where will I go?  Where will I sleep?  Luckily, I remembered a conversation with a friend in Zimbabwe who had been in South Africa before.  She told me that I should seek out work at the bus rank in Musina where food was sold.

When I made my way to the crowded bus and taxi rank I was so blessed to find a very kind mama that took me in.  She let me stay with her while I got my bearings. This mama advised me to go to Home Affairs and to collect a temporary permit She said that police were harassing foreigners and deporting them back to Zimbabwe.  The next morning, I made my way to Home Affairs and once I had my permit I called my cousin who was working in Thouyandou as a carpenter.  Eventually he found work for me as a care provider for Ruth- the daughter of a Venda mother and Zimbabwean father who were both teachers.

As a mother myself, this was not a difficult task.  Ruth was very cute and we really liked one another.  Along with taking care of Ruth I helped the family with basic domestic chores.  Weekends were hard for me though because I didn't know anyone so I often spent most of my time with Ruth and the family. Although I was grateful for this opportunity, the money that I was earning wasn’t enough to support my family back home.  ‘I have to look for other work’ was a mantra that I found myself repeating everyday. 

While in Thouyandou working for Ruth and her family I met a Zimbabwean woman during one of my trips into town.  We got to talking and eventually I explained my financial stress to her and asked her if she knew what I could do to make more money.  She told me about sex work.  I thought about it for a while and then eventually decided that I would hand in my resignation and try the streets for more income.  It was sad for me to leave Ruth but I had to.  Mama and my kids were my priority.

I kept in touch with the woman who told me about sex work.  She taught me where it was safe to look for clients/work and where my chances of making money were highest.  As a Zimbabwean woman wanting to sell sex you have to think about a lot of things including xenophobia from other sex workers so I made sure to keep away from areas where South African sex workers worked.

After the first few times working as a sex worker I made enough money to pay my own rent and to send money back to my family in Zimbabwe.  I was proud of myself that I could use my body to take care of those that I value- my loved ones.  As time went on, and as I became more comfortable as a sex worker, I began to see the benefits of having my own business.  I could chose my hours, clients and I could work as much or as little as I wanted.  This was invaluable for me.

Sex work on the streets is not easy.  There are bullies, pimps, police and other sex workers that are always looking to harass. Fortunately for me, a few weeks after working the streets of Thohoyandou I learned of a sex work project that was hosted by the Thouyandou Victims Empowerment Programme (TVEP) on behalf of Sisonke. Sisonke is a sex work movement run by sex workers and they had partnered with TVEP to conduct outreach to sex workers in the Province. 

When I first heard about TVEP and Sisonke I was skeptical.  I was afraid that they were an undercover organization that wanted to take us out of the streets, send us to a brothel in Johannesburg and/or deport us back to Zimbabwe, but one day a staff member from TVEP explained the project to us and what Sisonke was all about.  I started to attend Sisonke meetings and soon became a volunteer for the movement.  After a short time working as a volunteer, I was asked by Sisonke to attend a workshop in Pretoria.  I was so excited!  Soon after the workshop I was appointed a peer educator for Sisonke in Thouyandou.  

For the first time in a long time I felt that life was moving in a positive direction.  I was earning money, I was supporting my family and through the help and support of Sisonke I was learning about my rights.  All of this enabled me to reach out to other sex workers and teach them what I was learning about human rights, safe sex and solidarity.  I felt really good about this new role in my life.  This might come as a surprise to you, although it really shouldn’t, but sex workers face a lot of dangers, isolation and human rights violations.  Teaching other sex workers, most of whom have a similar, if not more heart wrenching story than mine, what their rights are is very empowering.

After some time as a peer educator I was promoted to be the Media Liaison for Sisonke in Limpopo.  In this capacity, I was responsible for communicating with media around issues of sex work.  I also helped to organise various projects, including the Volume 44 project that seeks to give sex workers in South Africa a voice through the arts and through research.   As of today, I am the Provincial Coordinator for Sisonke in Limpopo.  As Sisonke continues to grow and as the need for more services arise my responsibilities increase and it is with great honor that I serve my community of sex workers in the battle to stop human rights violations of sex workers in Limpopo and across the country and globe. Sisonke is building a strong movement of solidarity and we hope that one day sex work will be decriminalised.  Until that day, there is a lot of work to do and I eager to be a part of this important movement. 

Sisonke is also helping to build bridges of understanding and compassion across sex workers regardless of nationality.  There is nothing worse than being chased by ‘your own’ people.  I can say that an improvement between South African sex workers and non-Nationals is improving in Limpopo and this is important for so many reasons.  How can we protect one another if we are divided?  Unfortunately, xenophobia is a big problem in South Africa but we are doing our best to address this issue in our own way.

There was a time when I used to think negatively about sex workers.  I would look down at ‘those women’.  I judged them as immoral and I would almost cast them as not being valid citizens of the globe, but this is NOT the case.  Sex workers are human beings that want nothing more than to take care of themselves and their familes’.  We, sex workers, do a job that allows us to earn money.  The reason for working is no different than anyone else’s reasons for working.  It’s just that what we do seems to bother so many people.  Everyday, we are willing to put our lives at risk- even though we shouldn’t have to- to take care of what we value most in this world, our children.  Our Mama’s.

As a result of my sex work earnings I have built my mother a five-bedroom home equipped with furniture and electricity.  My kids are going to school and everyone in my home lives a comfortable life.   Since coming to South Africa my life has changed for the better. I look forward to giving my children a good education and I am so happy that I get to look after mama as I always dreamt of doing.  My family doesn’t know the work that I do, as I know that this will cause them extreme heartache.  Perhaps one day I will tell my mama or maybe, I will keep this as my secret.  Regardless, I am proud to be who I am because who I am is someone that values herself, her family, her community, and the world in which I live.  People don’t need to approve of my choice to be a sex worker.  All I ask is that people think about my story and try to understand that I am just a person trying to take care of who she loves and in doing so, I shouldn’t- sex workers shouldn’t- have to face the dangerous, painful and humiliating abuse that is so often sent in our direction.  The law needs to protect us because we deserve to be protected.  It’s only right.  We’re not the enemy. 

The criminality of sex work that involves consensual adult sex not only increases the risk of human violations towards sex workers (and, clients), it does little to address the injustices that sex workers face at the hands of corrupt police officials and the public at large. 

Like Lulu, many migrants moving to South Africa engage in informal livelihood strategies. Migrant populations, especially undocumented migrants, often find the informal economy sector more accessible than the formal employment sector. A growing body of research on sex work in South Africa clearly indicates that migrant sex workers experience challenging- and often times- dangerous, unsafe, unhealthy, living and working conditions (Nyangairi, 2010, Richter et al. 2013; Oliveira, 2011; Scorgie et al. 2013, Vearey, 2013).  Furthermore, research clearly shows that sex work is a viable option for many migrant’s as they seek to support themselves and their families back home; nonetheless, the current environment in which sex work takes place subjects migrant sex workers to a high risk of violence, discrimination, and HIV (ibid).

Life stories, such as this one, contribute to on going research about migration and sex work; moreover, it poignantly declares evidence for the need to decriminalize sex work. 


Nyangairi, B. (2010). ‘Migrant Women in Sex Work: Trajectories and Perceptions of Zimbabwean Sex Workers in Hillbrow, South Africa.’ Unpublished.

Oliveira, E. (2011) ‘Migrant women sex workers: How urban space impacts self-(re) presentation in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.’  Unpublished.

Richter, Marlise Chersich MF, Temmerman M, Luchters S. 2013 "Characteristics, sexual behaviour and risk factors of female, male and transgender sex workers in South Africa" South African Medical Journal 103(4):246-251.

Scorgie, F, Nakato, D., Harper, E., Richter, M., Maseko, S., Nare, P., Smit J., Chersich M.F. 2013. “’We are despised in the hospitals’: Sex workers’ experiences of accessing health care in four African countries”. Culture, Health and Sexuality. Apr;15(4):450-65.

Vearey, J. 2013. Migration, urban health and inequality in Johannesburg.  In:  Bastia, T. (Ed).  Migration and Inequality.  Routledge: London: 121-144.

[1] Elsa Oliveira is a researcher and PhD student at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at Wits University.  She has been engaged in a variety of visual and narrative methods projects with migrant sex workers in South Africa since 2010.

[2] Lulu Lulu is an activist, mother, friend and daughter committed to the idea that all persons, regardless of work choice, receive dignity and respect.

[3] For more information on this project please visit: http://www.migration.org.za/page/about-vol44/move

[4] A pseudonym selected by the author of the story.

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