The noisome ambience reeked of marijuana and cigarettes as our correspondent walked down Ipodo Street on Tuesday evening.
Sitting on the outskirts of Allen, Ikeja, Lagos, the busy street is one of the few places with a semblance of bustling life characteristic of Nigeria’s economic capital since the state went into lockdown about three weeks ago.
Dotted with all kinds of small shops and few residential buildings, Ipodo Street is a melting pot for kerb-crawlers, miscreants and commercial sex workers once night falls.
As of 8pm that day, nothing significant has changed in the crowded hood despite appeals for social distancing to slow down the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Hi, Hello,” three ladies walked up to our correspondent while sauntering around a storey building in the middle of the street.
“Let’s go to my room,” one of them in her early 20s, Blessing (not real name), muttered as she led our correspondent to a small, dingy room on the first floor of the brothel housing an expansive bar on the ground floor.
“I don’t lick am o,” she remarked leisurely while approaching the room.
“They say COVID-19 is everywhere but e no fit catch me by God’s grace,” she added dismissively, agreeing to treat our correspondent to a blowjob when he insisted.
“COVID-19 never reach Nigeria,” Blessing declared as she asked our reporter to sit on her medium-sized bed littered with clothes. “How many people have you seen contracting it in Nigeria?” she queried when told the virus had infected hundreds of people and killed about a dozen in the country.
Blessing strongly believes coronavirus is a ruse and a conduit for diverting public funds. “I hear e don dey many states. Na lie. Na money dem (government) they pack. They go steal tire. They go chop the money forever.
“If coronavirus dey, we wey dey here, why we never contact am. The thing no dey anywhere for Nigeria,” she said.
Fun goes on amid lockdown
On Tuesday, March 31, a day after the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s (retd)lockdown of Abuja, Lagos and Ogun commenced, the National Coordinator, Nigeria Sex Workers Association, Amaka Enemo, said sex workers in the country had suspended activities.
Enemo told The PUNCH that although sex workers offered “essential services,” they would remain indoors because their services involved “substantial bodily contact,” adding that the association had sensitised its members to the dangers of COVID-19.
Enemo had said, “There is sensitisation across the country including within our network. Sex workers also offer essential services. However, there is no way sex workers can do their work without bodily contact. So, they are staying at home to watch what happens.
“The government has announced a lockdown and as law-abiding citizens, we will not flout the law. If the government says sit at home, we will all obey because nobody wants to die.”
“Abeg, forget that thing; (there is) nothing like coronavirus in Nigeria,” Blessing reiterated, dismissing the national coordinator’s statement. “I told you that government is just using it to steal our money.”
“Do you want short time?’ she asked in obvious desperation to get down to business.
“It is N2,000,” she concluded without waiting for a response.
After haggling back and forth, she agreed rather reluctantly to collect N1,000 offered by our correspondent.
“Hey! Na because of this COVID-19 you com dey price am like this, abi?” the light-complexioned, short lady marvelled. “Ok, let’s do it quickly so I can go outside to look for another customer,” she added, handing a small bottle of sanitiser to our correspondent preparatory to the ‘action.’
“I only use the hand sanitiser for customers like you who believe there is coronavirus in Nigeria,” she noted, indifferently.
Our correspondent at this point backed out to the disappointment of Blessing who lamented she hadn’t got any customer all day.
“I wouldn’t have wasted my time talking to you if I knew you were not a good customer. My manager would think I had a customer already,” she thundered.
Manager, sex workers cut down charges
About to exit the brothel, some sex workers loitering around the alleyway surged forward to engage our correspondent.
One of them, about five-foot tall, donning a pink skimpy skirt and see-through top exposing the better part of her cleavage, wanted to take our correspondent to her room.
Our correspondent, however, insisted to have a discussion with her over the transaction at a corner outside the premises where a tall, lanky man in police uniform was puffing away on a cigarette. She agreed.
“Give me N3,000 for 30 minutes,” the young woman, identified only as Ruth, demanded.
As part of the terms and conditions of the deal, Ruth assured our correspondent of as many rounds as possible while the duration lasts. “But if you ‘come’ early and you can’t regain your stamina, na your luck be that o,” she added amid wry smiles.
The price was eventually reduced to N2,000 and after a second thought, she accepted the offer citing low patronage for her decision.
When the transaction appeared to have been finalised and Ruth wanted it sealed in her room, our correspondent digressed into COVID-19.
“Coronavirus no dey anywhere,” she asserted confidently. “I wan carry am sef if hin dey. No virus fit infect me because God made it clear that my body is not for the devil; it is not for sickness. It is for Him.”
She continued, “Some of my friends who believe the virus is real had left. For those of us here now, we don’t believe it exists. Let’s go inside; I will give you hand sanitiser.”
Ruth later walked away to scout for another prospective customer when she realised our correspondent was non-committal.
On Toyin Street, about 300 metres away, a sex worker, popularly addressed as Slim, agreed to cut N3,000 out of the N8,000 she normally charges for an all-night romp.
Like Blessing and Ruth, Slim also attributed the discounted price to the effect of coronavirus on their business.
“No dey fear coronavirus. You no fit catch anything wey no dey,” she stated in presumption of this correspondent’s follow-up question.
Slim disclosed that the fear of contracting the virus had scared many customers away and disrupted influx of clients into the facility.
From four customers on average daily, the 22-year-old said she hardly got one offer these days.
“We used to pay N4,000 to our manager every day but now it has been reduced to N2,500 because of low patronage. On Sunday, I didn’t have any customer, so I was unable to pay the manager but he recorded it for me as a debt.
“I am praying to have good customers this week. Things are hard this time but we have to survive,” she stated winking a face filled with frustration.
Asked if they had been facing harassment from policemen patrolling the area to enforce lockdown, she said, “They don’t enter here even before the coronavirus issue started. Police have good relationship with the owner of this place.”
No kissing, blowjob please
For a first timer, it takes intelligence from ‘an initiate’ to unravel what goes on behind the red gate of the ‘coded’ brothel located on Obafalabi Street, Ojodu-Berger.
A warm smile from Showbaby (as she preferred to be identified) and soft music playing via her small mobile phone welcomed our correspondent into a small but tidy room inside the facility. A standing fan stationed at a corner of the room kept the place cool and comfy.
Asked why she and her friends were still operating at the brothel despite the fears of COVID-19, she said, “Wetin be coronavirus. No be wetin government wan use steal money. I no believe am o.”
“They have been using it to steal money and that was why they had to extend the lockdown for another two weeks. I don’t believe in it,” she added, bluntly.
No doubt the lockdown has affected their business in terms of patronage even though she didn’t admit expressly.
She later conceded that patronage had dropped, especially because the bar within the premises where they get most of their customers had been running skeletal operations.
In the past, one would hear music blaring from loud speakers from a distance, but now, only people familiar with the terrain would know that such a place exists and still catering to the needs of ardent customers.
“How you want am; short time or till day break?” Showbaby asked in a cheerful mood. She pegged the price of short time at N2,000 but after much haggling, she reduced it by half.
“As everything dey lockdown now, make I just manage am,” she said as she took her seat on the bed.
When our correspondent expressed preference for romance only, she said, “That one too dey, but na im dey take time pass, so you go add money.”
After few minutes of haggling, she agreed to do same for N1,000, stressing that she wouldn’t have gone below N1,500 but for drop in patronage. “But there will be no blowjob and kissing,” she added a caveat.
“We no dey do those ones for now but I go make sure say you cum’,” the chubby dark-complexioned lady noted on why those two options had been removed.
She however got angry when our correspondent offered N500 for a romance.
When told to manage it since patronage had dropped, she said, “Which yeye coronavirus? You for tell me since say na N500 dey your pocket. I for no allow make you waste my time,” she said as she opened the door and took her phone.
“If I insult you now people would think I’m not fair,” she ranted while reporting our correspondent to her neighbour, who was also waiting patiently to have her own customer.
Across the stretch, some of the workers still had customers trickling in though not as many as they would have been if there was no lockdown.
Sex workers’ coordinator, doctor, police react
Reacting to the failure of some sex workers to comply with the social distancing practice, Enemo told Saturday Punch on the phone that many Nigerians had also flouted the lockdown directive to contain the spread of coronavirus.
She said, “When government said there is lockdown, people are still moving. So they (sex workers) are human beings like every other person. We are trying to send palliatives to them.
“There is shutdown and you advise people to respect that but you cannot force them. It is their health and they are not doing it for me. I cannot be going out to enforce it because I will also be putting myself at risk.”
A public health physician and Head, Medical Centre of Federal College of Education, Akoka, Lagos, Dr Rotimi Adesanya, stated that commercial sex workers defying lockdown order were putting themselves at high risk, noting that using hand sanitiser wasn’t enough to protect them from contracting COVID-19.
He said, “As everybody is being advised on social distancing, commercial sex workers too need to observe it. They are putting themselves at high risk. All over the world, COVID-19 is a reality. The countries that have everything are suffering today how much more Nigeria that does not have everything to protect the citizenry.
“They should be on lockdown for their own safety. The nature of their job is such that they are meeting with strangers. They are more at risk than any other person and using hand sanitiser is not enough because it can’t stop sneezing which may arise during bodily contact with customers.”
The Police Public Relations Officer in Lagos State, DSP Bala Elkana, explained that sex workers were not exempted from lockdown, adding that police would raid any locations where they operate.
Elkana stated, “I just heard from you that they are still operating. I am not aware of any area where commercial sex workers are operating now because the lockdown order is applicable to everybody. If we have information about where they are operating in violation of the lockdown order, we will definitely enforce the order. They are not part of those exempted from lockdown by the President.”