NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–At 9 p.m. on a Saturday, a 6-inch glass heel pierces the air at the Pango F3 club. An agile exotic dancer wearing a red G-string bikini gyrates on a golden pole, entertaining the mesmerized clientele.
“Just here to have fun,” says Bhavesh, a regular patron who declined to give his full name to protect his reputation.
The disc jockey plays international hits and the spotlight focuses on Norah, a stripper, who climbs the pole and whips her long weave around as she slides down it. She lands on her head and gyrates upside down. The patrons go wild and queue to tip her 1,000-shilling bills ($12 in U.S. currency) in her G-string.
The 10 dancers work six nights a week, plus have daily aerobics sessions and dance rehearsals, says Sabrina, the dancers’ supervisor and trainer, while monitoring them from the back of the club. She says they declined to give their full names because of the stigma attached to stripping in Kenya.
Relatively new to Kenya, strip clubs are on the rise. Some cite urbanization, Internet advertising and international pressure for their advent. High pay also fuels the industry, as strippers say they can double the money they could earn at other jobs, where they may be sexually harassed anyway.
Yet because it’s a new phenomenon, no clear laws governing stripping are on the books. Advocates propose creating red-light districts to curb illegal activities around strip clubs and granting legal rights to strippers.
Clubs Previously Unheard Of
Seven years ago, strip clubs were unheard of in downtown Nairobi, says Chris Hart, a psychologist. Now, patrons and managers estimate there to be 10 public strip clubs and 20 private clubs, or houses rented for private parties. There are no official statistics yet.
Not far from Pango F3 is a competing strip club, Liddos. The strippers dance on the pole and give lap dances to the predominantly male crowd. At 11 p.m., pornography plays on two 40-inch plasma TVs. At midnight, the strippers remove everything but their bikini tops.
Hart attributes the rise in strip clubs in Nairobi to Kenya’s “catching up with the world.”
Bhavesh and other clients say they discovered Kenya’s strip clubs online. Liddos uses Facebook to update fans about new events.
Mike Katana, Pango F3’s manager, says the club attracts international celebrities such as Wyclef Jean, Shaggy, Gramps Morgan and Akon.
“When they come to Kenya to perform, they also look for their own entertainment,” he says. “They tell their promoters that they want to feel like they feel in Atlanta.”
Hart says strip clubs attract dancers because of the high income. Winnie says she used to be a waitress but switched to stripping at Pango F3 after her manager hit on her.
“If it’s all about my looks, then I’ll make as much money as I can out of it,” she says.
Katana says a stripper’s average income in Nairobi is 10,000 shillings ($120 USD) a month–almost double Kenya’s monthly per capita income. Nearly half of Kenyans live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Lucy, 21, a former stripper, says the job isn’t easy, adding that some strippers use cannabis to help them perform.
“You smile not because you enjoy yourself,” she says. “You are here to please clients and get paid, so you fake a smile.”
Strip Clubs Illegal
Strip clubs are illegal in Kenya. The owners evade that law by registering them as bars. John Ngugi, Nairobi City Council treasurer, says that the City Council must award the bars operating licenses after the liquor licensing board awards the required liquor licenses.
“Our hands are tied,” Ngugi says. “We don’t regulate how people drink beer–if they drink their beer naked or not.”
Police occasionally raid strip clubs, but, without legislation, procedures are unregulated. Lucy recalls a 2 a.m. raid at Barrels, another Nairobi strip club, where police said the club hadn’t paid for its license.
“Police came in with guns and all the strippers were asked to take all their clothes off,” she says.
The police whisked the patrons and dancers to the police station. At dawn, Lucy bailed herself out with her tips but says she left behind eight shivering colleagues who couldn’t afford bail.
Eric Kiraithe, Kenya police spokesperson, says stripping needs clearer regulations, as the Kenyan penal code doesn’t differentiate between strippers and prostitutes. Both are misdemeanors, carrying a 3,000-shilling ($36 USD) fine.
Evan Monari, a lawyer, says no strip clubs existed when the penal code was instituted.
He says the Kenya Tourist Board should work with local authorities to create a red-light district. Another lawyer, Duncan Mwanyumba, says this will reduce illegal activities around the clubs and accord the strippers respect.
Mwanyumba says he and the International Federation of Women Lawyers will advocate for legal rights for strippers and prostitutes at this year’s Koinange Street Festival, a carnival in Nairobi’s unofficial red-light district.