Allen Avenue Was Just a Street, Then it Became a Lagos Red-Light District
It’s 10.30 pm and Anna (not real names) likes to start her night early, she has already been with one customer today and was ready for her next. Standing at almost 6 feet (1.83 m) tall, she is a beautiful woman. There was this pleasantness about her that I found intriguing.
Her makeup is flawless, not the gaudy colours people imagine prostitutes wear. I expected a hardness that should come from standing by the roadside waiting for the next customer, less than 30 minutes after finishing with the last strange man. But she talks about work and life selling sex to men on Allen Avenue without any decipherable defensiveness.
Driving down Allen through to Opebi, I notice the days when all the girls walking the streets look clad in cheap clothes and bright makeup is long gone. Now they wear expensive-looking hair extensions and save for a few, dressed in what could pass for stylish day clothes, the only thing giving the girls away is the way they peer at motorists. Anna and the other women I spoke to that Sunday night were willing to talk about their job, not explain or defend.
I found a parking spot and walked towards Allen/Opebi, circling the roundabout on foot more than once, its not quite a peak period.
A policeman observing me, approached “young lady are you new here?’ I never see your face, and I know everybody for here. You be new asewo for here?” he said with a snicker that almost sent me running back to the safety of my car.
When I told him I was just a tourist who also writes, he didn’t seem to understand. ‘Asewo’ is the street word for prostitute in many parts of Nigeria.
A Collaboration Of Sorts
“On these streets, we all look out for each other, everyone you see met here works well with others. The girls like to use Uber or yellow cab drivers they trust. Their job is dangerous because ritualists are part of the people who come here. So they only ride with drivers they know and call when they sense trouble.”
This was what Sunny, an Uber driver who prefers to work from the Allen/Opebi roundabout at night because of the steady flow of customers and the busy nature of the area makes it safe to park his car said in response to my question about work at Allen Avenue is like. I sit with him on the bench in front of a building that is a furniture company in the day but a hot spot for the women at night. He adds that everything there is a professional ‘ it is strictly business, I don’t know anything about anyone.’ The area is littered with local fast food stalls selling Suya, noodles, tea, Asun etc
Only the Smart Thrive
The women are careful where to stand ‘sometimes cars run over girls on purpose, these streets are dangerous, that’s why I stay where there are people and lights, I also never go home with any client no matter how much he offers. We use the motels around, if a customer suggests we leave this vicinity, I walk away. I hear of girls who go with men and never come back. No one cares about Asewo. You have to look out for yourself”. Many more times in our conversation, Anna brings up the importance of caution on the job.
A brief history
Allen Avenue is a popular Street in Ikeja Lagos, In the day it is a busy high net worth business district with almost all Nigerian banks and telecommunication company branches there. Other businesses include high street fashion retail outlets and other heavyweight businesses. At night, it assumes a new complexion and the neon lights of the strip clubs that only reflect at dusk is lit. It is arguably the most high-earning place for street prostitution in Lagos, it is historically one of the earliest places brothels thrived perhaps, because of its proximity to the state capital, Alausa.
The Afrobeat Connection
The late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the king of afrobeat a man notorious for his wildness when it came to self-expression lived in his house, popularly known as the Kalakuta Republic. On February 20, 1978, he married 27 wives in a single marriage ceremony, most of them were his singers and backup dancers. Though he divorced all of them before moving to Kalakuta in 1983, he replaced them with more women, though this time choosing not to marry any more wives.
Neighbours insist that his lovers were one of the first to start walking the streets at night as a side hustle when the late singer started touring less.
I visited the museum and the pictures of the dancers are still captivating, with bright eyeshadows, lean and toned bodies. All confident and carefree.
Baba Ojo, 76 who lives on the same street gave me his own account of the history of sex work in the area. ‘his children and the government have cleaned up the place. In the 80s all the Asewo and Area boys were living there. At night the girls will stand on the road. Some of them were already Asewo before they joined his band anyway. That was how people started coming to Allen to carry girls.’
The guide at the Museum, however, debunked Baba Ojo’s story ‘ the girls were singers and dancers and are not the reason Allen became popular as a place people come to buy sex, he did not come to Allen with his 27 wives’ He blamed the Pekas (spelled Peka, but pronounced Pekas) bar for the rise in street prostitution in the area.
The businesses that profit from the red-light district
Peka Hotel is a bar, restaurant, and m(h)otel known as the home of sex workers and a place people also allude to being the reason for the notoriety of the sex trade in the area. The bar manager working that shift, a man who identified himself as Paul was quick to declare‘ we are not working with the girls, we do not know them, we only sell drinks, and we run a hotel, and referring me to other motels around. When I request to see the h(m)otel, he does not respond... I ask the security men, and they are also disinclined to show me the main hotel. I found the doorway leading to a dark unusually long passage by myself ‘It's ironic to note that the motel shares the space with a church. Anna told me some girls attend, but there are also regular members.
The faded paper pasted on the dark wall read that room rates is N7000 per day and no short time. This is hard to believe because all the girls and patrons point to the motel as the safest place to do business.
My request to be shown a room was met with reluctance by the receptionist and Paul joins us.
The room had fading paint and a blanket with the word ‘GUCCI’ written on it. The girl repeatedly told me the air-conditioner was in good condition. I could tell that was the most important thing for their customers.
I left Peka to join Anna where she is standing, and as we wait for her next job. She is in her late 20s, works as a qualified nursing practitioner in the day. ‘I am the oldest of 8 children. I come to Allen Avenue on my off days and do this work for money. She has held this second job since 2016 because her income as a nurse is not enough. Her friends and family in Festac Town do not know about her other life. ‘When it’s 11 pm and I don’t get any serious customer, I will go to the bar and sit down, when the club crowd comes out; there will be a surge of customers, there is work in Allen, I don’t worry when it starts slow.’.
After a while two ladies join us, ignoring me, they ask her who I was, she told them i was doing a story on Allen avenue. I briefly chatted with the two ladies, one is Sarah a Ghanaian who works more as a stripper and joy who was at to hook up with a client. She works from the Jolly Friends brothel around Oba Akran but is at Allen to hook up with a wealthy client.
Sarah prefers to strip, she strips at the Unique Gentlemans Club, one of the first bars to get a license from Lagos State to operate legally. According to her she earns a monthly income of N70000, gets lots of tips, doesn't have to worry about police and charges higher for sex when patrons decide they want to have sex with her after her stripping duties, though the club takes a percentage, she still gets to walk away with some good money. She rarely goes home with clients except when the money is good and the customer is a regular. She invited me to come to watch her anytime I want.
Police is Your Friend
The women who work around Allen/Opebi enjoy the security of police protection. This protection comes with the uncertain outcomes of police raids. During these raids, they arrest any sex worker in plain sight.
The policeman that approached me because he noticed I was a ‘new face’ said ‘every day new girls come here.’ He knows almost all the girls and does his job of protecting citizens. ‘these girls are nasty girls, do you believe most of them do not wear panties’ he told me with an odd smile ‘ We are here with them to ensure this place is safe, we settle their petty fights and keep dangerous criminals away.’ Anna tells me she is careful around the police because many girls have been arrested and even after giving the policemen sex they still take them to KiriKiri maximum prisons, and they are left to rut there for years. Sex work is still illegal in Nigeria.
I visit Sarah Strip Club on a Wednesday, I had called her, and she told me to come in a little early. because it was a weekday, I expected a small crowd, but corporate type workers still thronged the place. Adult content was playing across several screens. The dark helped to make the place comfortable, and I imagine it wouldn’t look great in the day. Sarah joins me, and I notice a few people watching us with curiosity, There at least a dozen other girls.
I do not know what she will say about me, but she hugged me like we were friends and asked me what I needed to know, she describes her job stripping and sometimes sleeping with customers in the rooms the club provides for that purpose with clinical precision and iciness that had nothing to do with me or the questions.
Someone you love is a sex worker
Joy who is one of the girls willing to talk tells me no one in her family knows of her type of work, they all believe she works as a caterer in Lagos. ‘ my children must never know about my work. She shows me her pictures of herself and her family on Instagram. ‘ I send money to my aunt who cares for my 10-year-old twins. I intend to stop this work in less than a year’ She works full time from her room, attending to customers on demand. ‘ I do not have off days. When you take too much time off, you will lose money and customer.
. I make close to 300k a month after paying my daily rent of N 3500 and feeding.’
Someone you look up to is a patron
He introduced himself as Saheed. Anna left me to go talk to him. He was seated in a dark area in front of a hotel. Anna tells me he is a ‘big’ customer, someone the girls give preference to. ‘he pays well, and he is a good man’ Saheed is sitting beside Sarah after a while I got to know the two ladies were going with him to a brothel for the night.
He tells me how grew up in the area, is now a successful business far from Allen but comes here to relax’ since I was a little boy, this place has always been known as the red light district of Lagos. I have travelled the world, but I still find my way here. Rich men crawl out of their beds to come and carry girls from here’
Anna enjoys meeting new people. She says there are some places and men she has interacted with that she would not have met in any other line of business her limited education would have exposed her to ‘ some men are nice and do not treat Asewo like trash, they talk to you and they are not rough. Some are mean and will ask you to do bad things, I set the limits of what I can do. For instance, I don’t sleep with two male clients at once. I don’t do things that are too rough. When I ask her to define rough, she declines to comment with a smile. She is big on performance and showed me her phone where she downloads the latest porn videos.
There are trade secrets
Like any other trade, the women who work as sex workers insist that they also deal with pressure to perform, to succeed. Joy said she used to lack a robust client base or interest. She says there were some days she would not have a single customer, while other girls had at least 4 clients per night. ‘ one day I had a customer, and he complimented me, he said I was the best he had had, he said I must be busy, so I told him I was rarely busy, that people don’t come to me.
“He thought me how to approach men nicely, how to sustain interest, and how to talk. Now I am busier. I have customers who have become friends, sometimes when they are broke they come, and they pay me later. I have never had a customer that refused to pay. I trust my instincts. Joy says some girls work as sex workers for many years with nothing to show for it, ‘ they do not want to stop the work, and they also do not do it well” she thinks like any other job, commitment is key.
Though sex work is not real work to me because I am not proud of my work but I give it my best”.
There are boundaries
Joy, Sarah and Anna met on the job and help each other, they do not think it is safe to call what they have a friendship. Joy works 24/7 from a brothel, Anna works part-time, and Sarah has worked as a stripper in all the notable strip clubs around Ikeja, with street credibility to guarantee her longevity in her career.
Negotiation is a much-needed skill
The women say certain body parts are off-limits and kissing is never involved. They also ensure they get paid before they start work. Sarah is not inflexible, because the lines get blurred when a customer is paying a lot. The women do not kid themselves by entertaining the possibility of finding love from the streets of Allen, maybe a benefactor, but certainly not a serious lover.
Is it really work?
I met Blessing, standing beside a truck, clad in a tight mini skirt as I walked back to my car that night I met Anna and the rest of the girls. She is one of the few who prefer to work alone. Blessing who says she lives around Ogba, a locale quite close to Allen, hawks the popular Agege bread in the day and is not worried about been recognized by people who may know her. She tells me she's past caring what people think, She is a mother of 4 children all under 10 years of age.
She had been the breadwinner before she turned to sex work 2 years ago as her husband who works as a roadside tyre repairman was unwilling to provide.
She goes to Allen to work at night because the proceeds from the Agege bread was not enough to care for her family, she noticed men make sexual advances at her when she sells bread to them offering to pay her money for a quick romp in odd places, in the beginning, she used to tell them off even though she got to know that other hawkers do not mind the extra income from casual sex with mechanics, drivers, etc. Blessing told me her husband hurt her by getting two women pregnant. This was the tipping point for her. Sex work is both a therapeutic and a bill-paying venture. “I can do this work and still do my day job, my husband and I believe neighbours and relatives knows that I do this, he cannot complain, he does not feed me. My only concern is my children.”
Sarah also doesn’t hide her job and it is not because she is far from home.‘I tell people I am a stripper. They are often shocked, but I have no apologies; they don’t know my story. I know it's work. I use my body to make people happy, and I am paid for it. My customers are real people, so it’s real work.’
Joy tells me sex work does not really work because she does not talk about it. Her only relatives in Lagos live around Ajah, they also know nothing of her work.
Allen Avenue at night is a workplace
From the women who work as strippers, those who walk the street of Allen, to the women who chose to operate from brothels. Something is constant; they want to survive. They want to support their families. They won’t discuss their own sexuality. Joy hasn’t been in a relationship for a long time, she doesn’t think it is possible with her kind of work. Anna has another life and would not discuss it. Blessing is still married that is all she would say.
There is no solid exit strategy, just a hope that perhaps one day, a big man will come and do something to change their story.
How much is it?
They all do not think there is too much or too little to charge for sex. Joy ‘Some customers may be stressed from work or family and just need to calm themselves down. Sometimes they don’t have money, but they need it(sex)’. She has accepted as little as N1000 for sex and has also been surprised with over N50,000 ($140)by a satisfied customer. ‘There is nothing God cannot do.’
Nigerian law does not legalize commercial sex work, it is vague if such work is performed by an independent individual who operates on his or her own accord without the use of pimps or a brothel Wikipedia. This is perhaps why the red-light district continues to welcome more women who walk the street at night, alone.
This article has been published by the author(print) on Guardian Sunday paper.