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I escaped death in Uganda. Now I'm a sex worker in Kenya.

I escaped death in Uganda. Now I'm a sex worker in Kenya.

Ugandan LGBT refugee Salim Kakooza explains how he ended up a sex worker in Kenya. It was a survival mechanism he adopted after fleeing Uganda in early 2015 to escape from men his homophobic father had hired to kill him, he says.

By Simon Kwesigabo

Map of Uganda shows Mukono just east of Kampala, but not Busia, 170 kilometers miles away on the Kenyan border approximately at the final "o" of Mukono. (Map courtesy of Redefine School)
Map of Uganda shows Mukono just east of Kampala, but not Busia, 170 kilometers miles away on the Kenyan border, approximately at the final “o” of “Mukono.” (Map courtesy of Redefine School)

Salim Kakooza, age 28, a Ugandan refugee in Kenya, came from the  family of a wealthy Muslim businessman in the Mukono district near Kampala.

“Salim Kakooza” is a pseudonym that is used here to protect him from any reprisals or other attacks.

This is his story:

My family learned I was gay in 2014 from neighbors who attended Kyambogo University in Kampala at the same time that I did. After they learned that, my family — especially my dad — wanted me dead.

I was arrested on homosexuality charges in November 2014, while I was still at university. My father told police that I should be tortured until I declared that I was not gay any more. My father is so rich and famous that no one questioned anything he said.

I pleaded with my mom, but she didn’t help. She only said that my father had invested a lot in me and had planned to make me his heir. But now look at what you have decided to be,  she said.

Salim Kakooza (Photo courtesy of Simon Kwesigabo)
Salim Kakooza (Photo courtesy of Simon Kwesigabo)

Police tortured me as my father ordered.  I started feeling pain deep down in my testicles. After a few days of that, I told them that I was not gay any more. I was released and taken home. My family treated the injuries that I had suffered during the torture. 

But a few days after I got home, where I was behaving normally and on good terms with my family, I couldn’t resist being the person I was. I decided to invite my gay friends to visit me when my parents were away. My friends  arrived and we had fun. Unfortunately for me, my parents’ household help was still in the house, keeping an eye on me.

My friends departed in the evening and my parents returned. The next day my dad called me into his bedroom and asked me about the friends that had come around. He accused me of associating again with the people he had previously punished me for seeing.  This time he ordered me to leave his home.

He said that if I should ever be seen in that area, he would order me to be killed.

I packed and left home, carrying just a small bag. I went to a gay friend’s place in another city. I stayed there until the end of December 2014.

At that point, my mom called me and told me my dad had ordered some people to kill me and make me disappear by any means necessary, because I had shamed him and the entire family. He had learned where I was. Now his hired killers were heading my way.

I shared that bad news with a friend. He told me I should go to Nairobi to the UNHCR [the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees].

On the night of Jan. 3, 2015, I fled to Busia [on the Kenyan border], where I boarded a bus that took me to Nairobi, which I had never seen before. On reaching the city early in the morning on Jan. 4,  I asked people where the UNHCR headquarters were and went there immediately.

HIAS logo
HIAS logo

I was received and registered by that agency. I told them how I had been tortured and then threatened with death by my father. Within a few months I was receiving financial support of $60 a month which was roughly Ksh 6,000 in Kenyan money. The money came from HIAS, which works with the UNHCR.  [Formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS was founded in the late 19th Century to work with Jewish emigrants from Imperial Russia. Since then, HIAS has helped to resettle nearly 4.5 million people worldwide.]

The Ksh 6,000 a month didn’t cover all my needs. I would buy food for roughly Ksh 3,000 a month and pay rent of Ksh 3,000. But I had no money for bedding, toiletries, clothing and medicines.

I got to know a few friends in Kenya and they introduced me to others. They gave me gifts, including money, for a while. But that didn’t last.

Then I was promised large amounts of money in exchange for sex. I didn’t feel good about that at all.  Among other things, it can lead to problems such as sexually transmitted diseases and even AIDS. I was HIV-negative when I was tested in Uganda. I haven’t been tested yet in Kenya.

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I decided that trading sex for money could sustain me. For a while, anyway, it worked well for me. I would travel to the coast, where there are many white gay people who offered me money.

I came to depend even more on sex work after HIAS had to reduce the monthly subsidy from $60 to $40, which would have forced me to choose between paying rent and eating.

I continue doing sex work so I can stay alive while I await relocation to a safer country, which I’ve been expecting will be the United States.

I still have several steps ahead of me in preparation for relocation — a final  interview at HIAS, two interviews at the U.S. Embassy for evaluation of security issues, and a final medical exam.  That assumes the United States is indeed the country I’m assigned to and that it will again accept refugees after Trump’s current 120-day suspension of the refugee program.

In the meantime, although I don’t like doing sex work, I feel that there’s nothing else for me to do to continue living while I wait.

The author of this article, Simon Kwesigabo, is a Ugandan refugee recently relocated from Kenya to the United States.

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