In Gulu, it is called chapati. In Karuma, it is called jigi jigi. Two terms coined to mean sex with a prostitute.
In the township of Karuma on the Gulu-Kampala highway, illicit sex is a hot cake. Easy money from thousands of construction workers is fuelling the boom, but beneath the happy-go-lucky surface, one will find heartbreaking stories of betrayal and disillusionment.
On any given day, at a little after 6:40pm, the township will be flooded with people wearing bright-coloured helmets, the sound of gumboots and orange reflector jackets as those on the day shift return and others on the night shift rush to catch the bus to the project site.
Some are late, so they run with stained white and silver climbers hanging lose on their shoulders making that clicking sound like that of a bell. It is used to be typical highway hamlet. Today, Karuma is bustling with life and a population that has more than tripled as a result of the 600MW Karuma Hydro Power dam construction.
According to Karuma LC-I chairperson Severino Opiyo, today there are over 11,000 residents in Karuma in Mutunda sub-county of Kiryandongo district, something that worries him because of the social cost on his area.
“This town has all manner of tribes and languages because of the hydropower project. Prostitutes are everywhere. They rent these small huts; four of them in one yet we have children in this community,” Opio told The Observer.
“They are shameless, even during daytime, you find them bringing men in.”
Many widows, school drop-outs, spinsters, separated or divorced women and school-age girls have been drawn to this place from as far as Nebbi, Gulu, Oyam, Wakiso, Kampala and Mbarara. The attraction is money through sex trade with especially workers on the dam project.
Sino Hydro Corporation, the contractor of the five-year $1.7 billion dam built with financing from Exim Bank of China, is expected to be onsite until the projected completion date of December 2018.
To meet that deadline, Karuma town is, in effect, staying awake 24 hours a day. The more than 6,000 workers from all parts of the country and beyond are either coming or going to work, and they pass through the town all the time.
The project site is never silent; the buzz of activity has had an unintended lucrative spill-off for many, especially sex workers who serve both day and night. In the night, the town throbs with humanity as prostitutes and vendors on the streets frying either chicken or chips compete for attention.
The rolex makers have seen it all; probably because they offer a more readily affordable snack. They tend to be familiar with the faces of the prostitutes.
“These girls you see here are beautiful for nothing. They are all rotten inside. Look at that one. She has just joined the group. They come here to work in the local hotels but end up as prostitutes,” a woman frying chicken said as she sneered at the girls.
Nearby, a tall, well-built woman with heavily bleached skin emerged from Yellow Bar, a few metres away. This bar is one of the watering holes patronised by the dam workers. The woman is known as the manager of the prostitutes and manages all their affairs, the chips lady told our reporter.
Despite her thick Luganda accent, she managed to express herself in a few English words.
“I am Nakigudde from central there,” she said when approached. She preferred to be known by her surname only.
Apart from the sex workers who join groups to stay, chapati seller Peter Ayeng told The Observer that others only arrive on days when the construction workers have been paid. Fresh with cash, many of these workers seek out loose women for a good time.
It is easy to tell when it is pay-day, Ayeng smiled – because then Karuma will be full of bleached, dark, brown and mostly skinny girls who go for the richer class of workers. There are those who he says arrive pale and weary but still get clients.
“They appear and disappear when their mission is done and the cycle continues for another month when Sino Hydro workers get their money. Most of the workers here spend their money on prostitutes and alcohol. Some do not even go for work for days after receiving their pay,” Ayeng said.
Easy and risky sex goes for between Shs 10,000 and Shs 30,000 a night or day. Chinese nationals are an exception; they are charged a stiffer rate, according to mobile money vendor, Simon Mukiibi who operates near the spot where teenage girls and women scramble for men.
Everyday, by 7:30pm, the flesh traders are on the prowl. Some are shy while others giggle or laugh loudly to attract men. At 11.45pm, this writer meets Adong (not real name), an 18-year-old P.6 school dropout from Kamdini in Oyam district.
She is out in the cold waiting for a man. Unlike other girls, Adong is eight months pregnant and a bit withdrawn, chewing something green and leafy. It forms a bulge on the side of her mouth as she speaks.
Mairungi, an addictive sleep depressant, is a common drug used by most prostitutes to keep awake. Adong started selling her body just six months ago. Until then, she had led a relatively calm life with her boyfriend – a worker on the dam.
Then he left. She was two months pregnant. “I was working in a ‘hotel’. I used to earn only Shs 40,000 per month. This man came to me and said he wanted to love me and make me his wife. When I moved in to stay with him, I left my job because I was pregnant and always sickly,” says Adong.
Her lover had moved her into a grass-thatched hut for Shs 25,000 in Karuma town but left when his contract ended, without paying the rent.
“He told me to look for the father of this baby I am carrying because he is not ready to be a father to my child. He left me just like that and never came back. He has switched off his phone number that I know.”
All she knows is that he was from somewhere in central Uganda. Adong is terribly worried that her child will grow up without knowing its father.
“I don’t know where their home is but I know he is a Muganda. I tried asking from his friends and they didn’t know either. What will I tell this child when he or she grows up and begins to ask me about the father?” she wonders with tears forming in her eyes.
Because she feared going back to her alcoholic, widowed mother in Oyam, Adong lingered around Karuma with hopes of getting a job as she awaits the birth of her baby. She desperately needed a job. A friend introduced her to prostitution.
“I asked my friends to get for me any job to do because I did not have what to eat and the landlord was chasing me away from the house because I did not have a husband or someone to support me with rent. I came to my friend here and she asked me to join them in prostitution if I wanted money.”
So, Adong joined. She now hangs around and lives in Karuma Cheap Lodge for Shs 12,000 per day. It is easier for men to come to a lodge with a prostitute, she says.
Adong’s story is hard luck one. She comes from a family of 12 children. When her father died, her mother turned to booze, became an alcoholic who abused her children. She blames her situation on her mother not caring for them.
“When my father died, I was still young. My mother resorted to alcohol. I stopped in P.6 and started to look for ways of survival. She only cares about money and how a child gets the money they take to her is not her problem.”
Because she does not have money, this lost soul fears to return to Oyam. She is also concerned about what her mother will think; especially the inevitable questions about the father of the child growing in her womb. At her young age, Adong says she has been used by several men who fail to pay her at the end. Some have been violent.
In the third trimester of her pregnancy, she thinks about the birth of her child. She has not decided where she will deliver from. Karuma Cheap Lodge would be uncomfortable for the baby.
And Adong shares a room with another ‘working girl’ to cut costs. When she gets a man, which she says has become harder due to her condition, her friend steps out. Adong has modest plans for now: make Shs 60,000 to start renting her own house after birth.
Emily Akello, the manager of the lodge, says the prostitutes here come from far and wide.
“For me I work in the lodge and my job is to welcome whoever comes as a customer. These girls who come to hire the lodge beg me to allow them use the rooms for prostitution with the promise that they will pay me after getting a man to sleep with to get the money to pay the lodge. These women have different backgrounds. Some are divorced, others are widows, and some have given birth to children but is at their parents’ home.”
She adds that most of the women suffer in the hands of the men who sleep with them and fail to pay yet they cannot claim the money since prostitution is illegal in Uganda.
“I feel pain when they explain their situation to me. Some are suffering because a man can sleep with her and refuse to give her the money. She has to just let go because, as a woman, she cannot begin to fight the man to demand for the money.”
Akello adds that most of the women are exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and that syphillis is rampant. Many cannot pay for treatment.
Disease-ridden as the chips seller said, Karuma’s working girls could very easily be part of the country’s HIV/Aids statistics released by the Uganda Aids Commission (UAC). The UAC says that 570 girls and young women aged 15 to 24 get infected with HIV every week.
Knowing this, one can only wonder what the power dam project has brought upon Karuma.