Hotspot: In search of work, Kenya’s beach boys, who sell jewellery and other wares, are drawn into sex tourism and trade. Photo: Dan Baciu
It never occurred to Mohammed that he was about to become a victim of human trafficking. “I thought I had found real love,” he said, “and I could now send enough cash for my family in Diani, where my siblings stay. [Instead] I found myself giving out my body sexually to women in a foreign land.”
Mohammed, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was a beach boy, one of many young men in informal work on the Kenyan coast, selling wares
ranging from locally made jewellery to madafu, a popular coconut milk. The beach boys also find themselves drawn into sex tourism, which is prevalent in Kenya’s Coast province.
Aged 23, Mohammed found himself entangled in a sexual and economic relationship with a 63-year-old Italian woman, who lavished him with gifts. “When she proposed I move with her to Italy, I did not object.”
She helped him acquire a passport and a visa to relocate. But when he arrived in Italy, he said he was forced into sex work, with the woman acting as his pimp. “I craved to go home. I was eventually deported because of the lack of proper papers. It was the best thing that happened to me.”
Mohammed’s story is not unique. Kenya is witnessing a wave of beach boys travelling from the coastal regions to live with sponsors, often much older, mainly European women who have travelled to Kenya as tourists. Many of the beach boys, most aged 16 to 25, are persuaded by the prospect of a lavish lifestyle or good education and leave with them.
The Kenyan coast — from Mombasa to resort towns such as Malindi and Diani — has long been known as a hotspot for sex tourism.
This has included the exploitation of children, particularly young girls. In 2006, a joint study by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the government of Kenya estimated that a third of all girls aged 12 to 18 in four coastal districts were involved in trading casual sex for cash. In 2018, Trace Kenya, a local NGO that works to end child trafficking, estimated that as many as 100 000 children — girls and boys — were being exploited for sex work in Mombasa.
The trafficking of beach boys overseas is just one aspect of the larger phenomenon of sexual exploitation of young people, driven by the inequity between local poverty and the tourists’ relative wealth.
Robin Omeka, of Anika Initiative that uses art to campaign on social issues, said the limited opportunities in the formal and informal sectors makes them susceptible to being trafficked. He said the trend has even become culturally accepted; families are sending their sons to the beach to become attached to someone from abroad and bring money home.
A beach boy who doubles up as an agent, helping with paperwork, flight bookings and hotels — in his own words, he “links up his colleagues to rich white women” — argued that they choose to travel abroad, especially those who are the only breadwinners for their family. “In most cases, they come to me for help. I am only trying to save them from a lifetime of poverty through connecting them to rich individuals,” he said.
It is difficult to know how many beach boys have been trafficked. The Kenyan government reported identifying 383 victims of human trafficking nationwide in 2020, of which 155 were men or boys. In 2019, 227 male were identified. Teen Watch Organisation, an NGO based in Ukunda, has rescued 230 beach boys who were trafficked in the past two years alone. Many cases also go unreported.
The beach boy agent said he alone has helped more than 60 boys last year to find hook-ups, most ending with a “stable” source of income in Germany and Switzerland’.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.
This article was produced by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. It has been edited for length. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies.