Interviews with Commercial Sex Workers
Rwanda’s Community Vocational Training School (CVTS) is built of exposed, cracking mud bricks. Its five rooms are impossibly dark, as if the tin roofing has sucked all light upwards. Vertical iron bars brace the few, scattered square windows.
CVTS, a sewing school for widows, orphans, and former prostitutes, is the Global Grassroots project site where my co-worker Caitlin and I have been teaching a basic English class to increase students’ employability as seamstresses. To get to class we take motorcycle taxis across Kigali: through Kibagabaga to Gisozi and down a steep, red dirt path between banana trees.
Most students study and work in the wide, roofed area just outside the front door. The sounds: sewing machines, chatter in Kinyarwanda, the laughter of girls and women. “To say that I enjoy the time here spent with the other students, that’s not lying,” one woman – an eager participant in our English classes – tells me. “Because I really do feel good and enjoy it.”
Let’s call this woman Rahema. She’s in her thirties and has two children. Rahema grew up in Cyangugu, across the river from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today she wears a wrap skirt of blue fabric that bursts with oversized blossoms. On her t-shirt, President Paul Kagame’s image nods sternly just below her left breast.
Rahema is one of thirty women currently studying at CVTS. She and her classmate Isabelle have volunteered to tell us their stories this afternoon, and Global Grassroots Program Director Gyslaine is seated beside me to translate the interview. I want to know more about their beginnings: their childhood homes, neighborhoods, and dreams. But Rwanda’s conversational taboos are wildly different from the U.S.’s and include questions about parents or family. So much of the population carries the burden of terrific loss – fathers and mothers slaughtered in the genocide, brothers in prison for complicity, daughters lost during the flight into Congo in ’94 or to a recent, untreated bout of malaria.
Rahema is one such orphan. She and her brothers maintained close relationships and helped each other financially after losing their parents. “Do you have one brother with whom you’re especially close?” I ask her.
“My closest brother – he died,” she says. She looks at the dirt.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry.” I look at the dirt, too. Gyslaine doesn’t translate.
Mess-up number one.
We move on. “Before I came [to CVTS],” Rahema tells us, “life wasn’t easy. We just walked around, on the street. I could only buy something to eat after having sex with a man. When I heard that CVTS was teaching women skills … I came to CVTS in 2008.”
The intensity of Rahema’s experiences makes her a challenging interviewee; I feel as if I’m tip-toeing the line between what I want to know and what I don’t want to ask. I learn why Rahema entered into prostitution (she felt she had no other choice) and why she stopped it (CVTS kept her too busy to return home and meet men, and she learned to fear HIV at the school’s trainings). I learn why she’s thankful to have a technical skill like sewing (she feels like a more powerful woman, with a belief or trust in her future). Because of the HIV/AIDS education she received at CVTS, Rahema got an HIV test last year. Her result was negative. “So that was lucky,” she says.
Rahema’s classmate Isabelle is tall and willowy with a calmer sense of movement. She smiles at me, and I feel her eyes settle softly on my face. She keeps her hair cropped close. Isabelle, too, was born in a village far from Kigali, in 1975. She tells us that she didn’t like living there. “My parents sent me away, too.”
Did her family turn her out because she became pregnant out of wedlock? Did she begin her career as a commercial sex worker in her village, then? I wonder these things, but I don’t ask. I guess you and I will never have all the pieces of the puzzle. That’s the thing about telling stories that belong to someone and somewhere else.
Isabelle talks about the things she has gained from her time at CVTS. “I learned how to create relationships with other people in society,” she says. “Because you know sometimes, when people are working as prostitutes, they are always having conflicts with other people in the community. Because you feel shame; you fear that they are always saying things about you. So you become someone who is aggressive.”
Rahema expresses a similar sentiment. When you work closely with a group of women, she explains, “you learn from each other about love. You feel commitment to each other, and you feel compassion for each other.” The friendships she has built at CVTS have provided her with a model for positive relations with the rest of her community.
Isabelle found CVTS through neighbors who’d heard of an association that provides technical training to female prostitutes. She remembers the very date that she enrolled: March 4, 2010. “[Before CVTS], I was capable of nothing other than having sexual relations with men. But now I have my work; I have skills.”
Isabelle’s biggest financial challenge is supporting her children. She has two sons (ages 14 and 10) and a daughter (age 3). I ask, “Where do you find your happiness in life? Is work as important as family?”
“I can’t say that my children make me happy,” Isabelle explains. “First of all, I had those children when I wasn’t planning to. Secondly, I would not say the children make me happy because I haven’t yet found the means to take care of those children.” She tells us that when she goes home, her kids come to her and ask her for things she doesn’t have – like money to enroll them in primary school. Because she cannot give them the things they want or need, Isabelle finds more pain than happiness in her relationship with her kids. “It sometimes makes me regret and wonder why I had those children.”
I’m floored for an instant. Then I feel ridiculous for the privileged assumptions that led me to think of such a question. Now, by the time of writing, I’m floating somewhere in between.
Isabelle explains further. She worries in particular about her young daughter. “At this time I don’t have the means to educate her or help her to prepare for her future. So I worry that she will face the same life – she will work as a prostitute. She, too, will have an insignificant life.” Significance: privilege’s bedmate.
Isabelle says the sewing skills she’s learned at CVTS, however, are an unambiguous source of joy. She repeatedly thanks Global Grassroots for supporting the project. In her entire life, she had never attended a day of school or received training of any kind. “After the 35 years that I’ve lived without having anything to do or knowing any skills in my mind – now I believe that if God is willing, in the future I will find [my own sewing] machine … so that I can make money for myself using the skills I learned here. Then I will be able to raise and educate my children well, so they will be responsible children without working as prostitutes as I had to my whole life.”
Rahema, too, is hopeful. She plans to find a job at a textile company and recently passed a skills exam at Kigali Design. I love the last things she tells us about sewing, before our three rounds of emphatic thanks and handshakes and goodbyes.
“Something that makes me feel happy,” Rahema says, “is when you take a piece of fabric and cut it into different sized pieces. Even if you’re the one making it, you look at the pieces and feel like: am I really going to make a dress from all these strange pieces? You don’t believe it. Then… you have a dress. It’s kind of a strange thing, and it makes me happy.”
“So it’s sort of magical how the different pieces come together?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, “how the pieces fit together.”