Petrol tankers parked nose-to-tail line the five-kilometre stretch of road from the southern Nigerian town of Eleme to its refinery, waiting to fuel up and begin their long journey home.
If the trip runs smoothly, a tanker leaving the big cities of the north at dawn should arrive at Eleme, in the troubled oil-rich delta region, by early evening. The following day the fuel company’s representative fights to get a "ticket" for the driver, authorising the consignment. With the allotted load on board, the gear-grinding exhaust-belching trucks nudge their way out of the depot and into the traffic.
But because things do not usually go to plan, there is a thriving roadside service industry taking care of stalled truckers, refinery workers, fuel dealers and anybody else looking for accommodation, banks, butchers, bars, mechanics, places of worship, restaurants, laundry services, film halls, cell phone kiosks – and sex.
More than 100 women from all over Nigeria work out of the tiny wooden shacks at the heart of the community. They pay N300 (US$2) a day for their rooms - not much bigger than the space taken by a single mattress, without electricity or running water - and charge a minimum of N300 for sex.
Eleme, on the southern rim of Rivers State, one of the four core delta states, is one of the largest of a string of eight truck stops along the 800km route into the north where commercial sex is available.
Rivers has an HIV prevalence rate of 5.4 percent, above the national average of 4.4 percent, but not the worst result in the country; that position is held by the state of Benue, in central Nigeria, with an infection rate of 10 percent.
Rivers, however, is at the centre of delta militancy, in which armed young men have proved themselves willing and able to take on the armed forces of the federal government to press their demands for a fairer sharing of Nigeria’s wealth, almost exclusively derived from the oil and gas of the region.
AIDS and insecurity
Dr C. Okeh, head of the State Action Committee on HIV/AIDS in Rivers, worries that the unrest will have an impact on the fight against the virus. At the very least, "a crisis situation means that you don’t have time to listen to [AIDS] messages – you’re thinking of your immediate survival," he said.
Queen Henry is the peer educator for the sex workers in Eleme, part of a community-based organisation supported by the Society for Family Health, Nigeria’s largest AIDS service provider. For her, the most pressing concern is the insecurity in the area.
Soldiers based at the nearby river jetty, where cargo ships take on fuel pumped from the refinery through a bundle of pipes, each the width of a man’s waist, have decreed an unofficial 9 p.m. curfew on the sex trade. Enforcing it has meant regular raids on the shacks, kicking out customers and beating women not inside their rooms.
But the AIDS message is sinking in, condoms are cheap and available, and the sex workers are organised. Henry has no doubt that all the women she reaches know in theory the importance of protection. "But the problem is you’re not in the room with the girls when they are alone with a customer," she explained. "If eager for money, you do it [without a condom]; if you want to protect your life, you don’t," was her matter-of-fact assessment.
That triggered a mini-debate among the women gathered outside her small kiosk, where she sells tonics and douches. "Two thousand naira [roughly US$17, what some women charge for sex without a condom] cannot cure the sickness inside my body [as a result of HIV]. I have seen money [had a lot of it]; I’m too young to die. It’s not because of [greed that] I’ll go and mess up my life," said Patience Orkah, wearing black hot-pants and a lot of make-up.
All the women agreed, except Charity Ekiti. "All I know is I [get the] money, I f***," she chipped in. "If I don’t die, I still go [will] die. I only know God [won’t] let that happen." Loud and outrageous, it was hard to tell if she was serious. But what she made clear was that she did not bother using condoms with her boyfriend: "It’s not sweet like that."
Why condoms are still an issue is because of men like Umoru, 36, who has a wife in the north but works from Eleme as a tanker driver hauling fuel to the southern cities. He visits his wife every three months or so, and in the interim – "just two or three times" - calls on sex workers and offers double the normal rate not to use a rubber. "They tell me [to wear one] but I no fit do am [I can’t do it] with condom."
He said some of the women would refuse bareback sex, "even if you give them one million naira". But he knows some who are less fastidious, and they are his regular partners. "I fear [but everything that happens] is through God" was how he rationalised the risk.
Chinenye Imoh sits at a table under an umbrella all day, handing out information pamphlets to truckers for the Arewa Society Against HIV/AIDS, a community-based organisation. She has heard all the excuses before, especially by drivers from the more conservative Muslim north, where discussion about sex is less open, literacy is low, and girls often quit school and marry early.
"Some say people [in the past also became] emaciated and died. Others say, ’no sickness wey no get medicine’ [every ailment has a cure] ... but we’re trying," was her upbeat message.