Published December 14, 2010
We found Bebe at her tent in the camp on the grounds of an elementary school, L'École Guatemala in Petionville, the more trendy suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince. She was dressed in tight blue jeans and her signature black fishnet blouse that did little to conceal her white bra. She wore no make-up. Her perm was overdue, so she combed her highlighted hair into a fashionably untidy bob, ducking into the back door of her tent to grab a broken sliver of mirror that she used to inspect her appearance. The backdoor was a new feature of her tent.
The last time we were there, the tent had only a front entrance which led into a tiny kitchen and waiting area where she kept her buckets of water and the home brewed liquor that she sold. The second section of the tent, separated by a flap doorway, was her bedroom, congested with piles of clothes, a few suitcases and everything else she owns. Her guests would have to walk through the kitchen area to get to the bedroom. Now she had created a back door into the bedroom, allowing access to that area from outside.
These days, two of Bebe's three sons, a four year old and a nine year old, were living with her. They stayed in a small tent next to hers. Given the nature of her work and the need for discretion, Bebe had likely put in the back door to allow her to leave at night without waking her children or drawing attention. Bebe has been a fulltime sex worker since 2006. Before that, she was only casually involved in the trade.
The father of her children, who had been caring for them since before the earthquake, sent them back to her a month ago, telling her that she was the one who gave birth to the children, so she needed to take responsibility for them. Bebe and this man apparently split before the earthquake because he was not happy with her work in the sex trade. She said she had tried to hide it from him, but eventually he found out. They separated before the earthquake. He took the children while she provided money and visited them regularly.
With her two younger boys now back with her, she managed to get this small tent. The boys do not know what she does to make ends meet. As we talked she used euphemisms to talk about her work when they were around. "My business," she would say, or, "The thing you know I do."
As we walked through the camp towards the entrance, Bebe's ease with the gauntlet of men, sitting around and scrutinizing the world as it passed by, was apparent. I watched the faces of the men in her wake. They stared at the sway of her backside and grinned, that look of men sizing up a woman, and amazed at the attention she was getting with our camera following her. The Bebe I have come to know moves through the world as if she owns it. Her head is never bowed, her pout is perpetual and her smile is quick, confident and contagious. These men probably suspected what she does for a living, I am certain, but they couldn't be absolutely sure. Bebe said that people in the tent camp do not know. She explained:
"The last time you guys came, they were asking what these three men were doing visiting me in my tent. I told them that one of you was my cousin and that you had come from the States because you had heard that I was dying, and you came to see me to make sure I was okay," she said, laughing and shaking her head. "So that is how I got them out of my business."
We walked up the hill away from the newly built high walls around the school compound that have replaced the earthquake-damaged low walls that used to be there. My thought was that the school was planning to get the tent dwellers out of the area so they could have their schoolyard back. The new wall was a clear sign. Bebe said the school may want the campers to leave, but because it was a public school and therefore property of the state, it was one of the safer places for displaced people to live. The government could not forcibly evict them even if the school officials did their best to make things uncomfortable. She did not seem worried about having to leave.
Bebe's middle son is attending school at l'École Guatemala; her youngest is not yet old enough. If he were, she could not afford the fees. But having the children with her had made things more complicated for her, she said. She could not work in the day as she used to, since she needed to stay in the camp to be with her youngest son.
"Things are hard these days," Bebe told me. The riots and the protests after the recent elections had emptied the streets and there were now few men for her to do business with. Despite the drop-off, she said that she was determined not to take less money from men. She said her "friends" call and ask for sex and she demands the money in advance. If they can't pay, she will decline. She said that the problem was that Haitian men were broke. They offer her only about a hundred gourdes for sex--about three dollars. She also complained that the Haitian men had a predilection for the lighter-skinned women of the Dominican Republican who also worked in the clubs. She said this with a scowl of derision, not so much for the women, but for the Haitian men who would give their money to these foreign women and deprive their own sisters of a living.
She said that the Canadians, the Europeans and particularly the UN Troops based in Haiti were better clients, but they were still cheap, and that she and the other women had long decided they will only look for American men. Americans pay as much as $40 for sex, she said. I asked how she found these Americans. She explained that there are a couple of clubs in Petionville that Americans frequent. One is the Barracks, a club that became popular after the earthquake and the accompanying influx of humanitarian workers and NGOs. The other, called the Jet Set, has always been a popular hangout. The clubs used to be free, but now there's an entrance fee. She went over the math of the challenges she faces. The cover charge now is 250 gourdes; she has to spend another 300 gourdes for drinks, and then she must hope to get a man interested in her.
Bebe was confident about her ability to attract clients. Her greatest challenge of late, however, was that with her sons living with her it is harder for her to go out to work. Her friends will sometimes look after them, but these friends were also sex workers and had to make a living. She said she decided to quit her job at a beauty salon because the pay was too little, the owner was abusive and the hours were just too long. She still does hair for people in the camp occasionally, she explained, and makes a little money that way. For a while she also worked in government program called Work For Cash. The job involved clearing the streets of earthquake rubble. She explained that most people did not really work and the supervisors took all the money. She said she had worked for a month and was only paid for 15 days.
Bebe said she is resigned to prostitution despite the hazards. She described a recent incident in which a client tried to renege on the agreed price. When she argued, he began beating her. She had to jump out of his car and run into a camp to get away from him. She shrugged, saying that it was just the way of the business. I asked her if the job was becoming more dangerous. She said it was not, but you had to be careful because money is tight these days. She said that she simply will not accept less money. She has become hard, now, she said. Very hard.
I imagine that Bebe cannot go on like this forever. She is beautiful, her smile is infectious and disarming, her petulance is part of her arsenal of flirtatious gestures, but she is not young anymore.
A month ago, I heard that Bebe had disappeared and that she was not showing up for the recording sessions that I had arranged for her to tell her story on camera and for which she was being paid a small fee. No one was answering her cell phone which was the most reliable way to get Bebe. She finally surfaced explaining that she had been ill--fevers and terrible pains in her stomach. She thought she was going to die. Now she thinks she had a very bad case of the flu. She had been deeply concerned because one of her neighbors had the same symptoms and had died after a few days.
"Thank God, I lived," she said, shaking her head. "I am surprised."
I asked her if she was taking all the precautions she needed as a sex worker. She said she was careful, always careful. She reminded me that she still used her female condom and was adamant about condom use with her "friends". She worked hard to convince me that she is acutely aware of her need for caution, and that she is far more careful about protection than the average woman who does not regard herself as a sex worker, even though she has arrangements with men that amount to the same thing. In Haiti this was becoming more and more common, she told us a few months after the earthquake.
Bebe said she hoped things would change soon for her because sometimes she gets lonely. Then she laughed and said, "You know, when I get lonely, I think about my friends, and I think of the ones who were the best lovers, and I will just call them to see, you know…" Her belly laugh rang through the streets. We all shook our heads. "Bebe."
"My dream has not changed," she told us. "I still want to open my own salon. I need some capital to open my beauty salon. I am good at what I do. People say that. I will be able to make a decent living that way. But I just don't have that first capital to do so. That is my dream. But right now I have to leave that in God's hands."
For now, Bebe said, she will try to get some work at FOSREF, the organization that has done so much for sex workers in Haiti and the place where we first met her. She said that FOSREF has said that it is going to be hiring staff soon. When we met her eight months ago, Bebe was a regular at FOSFREF's LaKay Center where sex workers are taught skills like hairdressing, sewing and how to use a computer. I asked Bebe then whether she was interested in leaving the sex trade to work at FOSREF. She said she would consider it, but she did not think it would pay enough, and she would have to continue to work in the trade even as she did her work at FOSREF. She knew that this would not be acceptable to FOSREF, even though she was sure that some of the women working there had not given up the trade entirely.
For now, her hope was that the politicians would settle the election dispute quickly so that the empty streets could fill with people again. The wealthy area of Petionville that her clients frequent would then be back to normal and she could make ends meet.
This was our first time seeing Bebe with her children. There was a noticeable difference in her manner. She was gentler and her mood seemed lighter. The children, two handsome boys who looked well cared for, tidily dressed and completely comfortable and happy around their mother, were playful and clever with the jokes. As they gathered around her while she did her hair, the three smiles lit the tent. Their laughing eyes were unmistakably those of Bebe. It was impossible not to think of how long Bebe would be able to conceal her occupation from her sons. And if they did find out, what would it mean for them? Bebe had no answers about her future or the immediate future of her children; her view was for tomorrow. Calmer days, no more riots, streets filled with expats, more money in her pocket, a chance to make a go at something else.