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‘Without Money There’s No Love’

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It’s a transaction that happens across Africa every day. In South Africa they call them blessers; around the world they’re known as sugar daddies. Men with deep pockets exchange money and gifts for sexual favors.

It may be a transaction as old as time but it acquired the euphemism of blessing.

It all started on social media: where women post about their expensive lifestyles on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Last year, a Facebook page called BlesserFinder Mzansi (the nickname of South Africa) started – labelling itself as a travel/leisure page. This is one of hundreds of matchmaking sites for male and female blessers. And this is how it works.

The blesser sends an inbox message to the page describing the kind of person they want. They then explain the body features, age and how much allowance they are willing to pay.

The name and profile picture of the blessers are not revealed. The posts start with the words “Advert Alert”, then a screengrab of the description of what they want. Those interested, respond and are hooked up. Most of the men on the site describe themselves as travellers, who go on domestic and international trips and need women to go with them. They promise expensive clothes and shoes in return.

The administrators of the site, which has more than 50,000 followers, call for “morals to fall” and it is also open for same-sex hook ups.

Danger lurks in these sites as many are unregulated; women who respond to the Facebook messages could fall into the trap of human traffickers disguised as blessers.

A blesser can have up to 10 women.

“I did not choose to become a blesser; God appointed and blessed me to be a blesser,” says Serge Cabonge, a Congolese blesser, in an interview with South African news channel, eNCA.

Nothing is for free.

“When you ask for my number, I tell you straight away I can’t give you my number for free. You need to pay tax before you get it or you need to show me that you can do certain things. Why do I feel the need to do things for the girls? If you don’t do it, you’ll never be around them. For 75 percent of women in this country, without money there’s no love,” says Cabonge.

Cabonge takes the women on extravagant shopping sprees for perfume, designer shoes and clothes. He also takes them to fancy restaurants and pays their rent.

“When I pay for your rent, I expect to get benefits. I look for sex, nothing else,” says Cabonge.

But not all the women would be counting their blessings when they return from those expensive shopping trips.

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the blesser-blessee phenomenon is also considered be a key factor in the high HIV/Aids prevalence in young women, with the rate of new infections being four times greater for women between the ages of 15 and 24 than that of men.

These relationships thrive on gender and economic inequalities.

“It is also important to note that it is not only indigent women whom are affected but also educated graduates who are unemployed. This is also compounded by the fact that women are more likely than men to be unemployed,” says Kerry Oosthuysen, a lawyer for the Commission of Gender Equality.

“The economic and discriminatory environment faced by young women provides the optimal breeding ground for desperation, for quick means to a glamourous lifestyle of high-end bags and expensive dinners. We urge societies to instill a value system and ripe economic arena where young women are empowered to demand their rightful place within the labor force and relationships,” she says.

Churches are also against it.

“Transactional sex is an abomination to God. It never was his design for sex. Sex is to be enjoyed, not endured for financial gain, by the heterosexually married only. Fornication and adultery are spelled out clear as sins in many parts of the Bible. The Bible is not in support of the blesser-blessee phenomenon. The call for support of those in need is extended to Christians and everybody that has been blessed with riches but never in exchange for anything but blessings from God (Deuteronomy 15:11),” says Musawenkosi Dube, a believer from an Evangelical church in Swaziland.

Would You Carry A Child For Someone?

The Blessed

Amanda Cele is an unashamed blessee. She vows to never date a penniless man.

It’s around 6PM on Friday at Booth Night Club in Sandton. A petite woman, in Valentino stilettos, a sequin silver dress and a Peruvian weave, walks in. Her name is Amanda Cele, and she is blessed by a man with money.

“I bought these shoes for R6,000 ($450) the dress was R1,800 ($135) and the hair was just too cheap, it was R2,500 ($190),” says the 27-year-old Cele.

Cele is one of thousands of blessees in Africa. She was born in Umlazi, just outside of Durban. She moved to Johannesburg at the age of six. Money makes her tick.

“I also like tidiness and intelligent people who challenge me to think and learn,” says Cele.

Blessee is a hard label to bear and one that she will likely carry for the rest of her life. She has been called all the names under the sun, including: gold digger, slut and prostitute. She is unashamed.

“I don’t care about critics. I’ve heard the worst comments on social media, even when I walk into a shisanyama or a mall I get nasty comments from people. I’ve heard people actually talk s**t about me and I let it go. Negative comments don’t bother me,” she says.

“I do get emotional sometimes and like any other woman I do scream, kick and shout. But then what makes me get up in the morning is the negative energy that I get from people, if I had it easy in life I wouldn’t be as strong as I am.”

“The only thing that bothered me was when the media published a story saying I was shot and found dead, when I was actually sitting at home watching TV.”

There’s no doubt her life has been tough. A few days after her 13th birthday, both her parents died. Cele was raised by her older sister.

“She had a baby and wanted to go to university but couldn’t. It was tough but it is things like this that make me not give up. Just because I grew up in a tough situation doesn’t mean I can’t be a better person.”

As if that was not enough, at 19, she became a mother.

“I had just finished school, I was staying alone and worked as a bartender, I did everything for myself; shopping and clubbing. I would steal money at the bar like nobody’s business. Then I fell pregnant, but I don’t have any regrets about it.”

A turning point was when her then boyfriend abused her physically and emotionally.

“I was like screw this relationship thing, I am done. There were times when I would look in the mirror and hated myself because I couldn’t see anything beautiful about me. I was 24 years old with a child; I couldn’t sit down and cry forever, I had to pick myself up, put on make-up and continue with my life.”

“I’m grateful I went through that relationship because now I look at men differently. I still think that I never really fully healed, I just need to get rid of the anger I have for men. There’s still bitterness inside me.”

“I had different types of men approach me and most of them would play with my feelings, fool around with me and after having sex they’d dump me. This got me thinking, ‘why can’t I get something out of this as well?’ We always have sex for mahala (free), why don’t we do it for our own gain?”

She has one main blesser and others on the side that she sees less frequently.

Cele met her first blesser on her way from work to a taxi rank. Her blesser agreed to give her R5,000 (around $400) a month.

Today, she receives an allowance of R20,000 ($1,500) a month. The oldest man she has dated was 72 years old.

“He’s dead now. He died a few months ago,” says Cele.

“I like them older. I can have a civil conversation with Jacob Zuma and we’d get along so well. I can’t stand men who are in their 30s.”

Cele knows her blessers are married.

“I know that they are not going to leave their wives for me, so let me eat their money. I’m happy with that. You need to be understanding when he’s not able to spend time with you and that’s the painful thing about it, especially when you start catching feelings.”

It can be dangerous.

In May last year, she was reported to have been assaulted by her blesser’s wife at her apartment in Sandton. Another myth, says Cele.

She calls what is frowned upon for being equivalent to prostitution a lifestyle choice – with no strings nor regrets. If Cele grows tired of one blesser, she replaces him with a new one.

“If I see that the insecurities are becoming a problem, I’d rather we stop seeing each other, but obviously I have to find a replacement before I leave. I wouldn’t leave just like that. I’ve been in a situation where the man got attached and the insecurities were getting too much,” says Cele.

“I know people who work seven-to-five and still have problems; you find that they have been working for years but still can’t afford a simple Toyota Corolla.”

“If I had to open my Facebook page now, 90 percent of the women there are people who are saying that they want blessers, and its working women, some are even married but going through a tough time.”

In the world of blessers, there are four levels. Cele is a level three blessee and her favorite holiday destination is Langkawi in Malaysia.

All she has to do is to be on call 24/7.

According to reports, some blessers are abusive and refuse to use condoms.

Cele has a certificate in beauty therapy that she says is lying under her mattress waiting for a rainy day. She wants to become an entrepreneur, like South African media mogul, Basetsana Kumalo.

“People don’t know that I have dreams and I’m actually working on them now. Being independent won’t mean I’ll stop being a blessee, that’s the part that people don’t understand.”

She vows to never date a penniless man.

“I have fallen in love with broke niggas because of the good sex. I don’t care about how he treats me; I am not going to eat good treatment. Now, I have to prepare for a gig and dress smart. Am I going to wear treatment? What will happen when the weave is worn out and needs to be changed?”

“Here’s my phone I got from a blesser who makes things happen,” she says picking up her black iPhone 7 worth R22,500 ($1,700).

Cele’s dream husband is Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote; she hopes he will read this article.

‘My Family Thought I Had Lost My Mind’

Blessing 101

Level one: A blesser buys you airtime, data and gives money for transport.

Level two: Buys you handbags; shoes from brands such as Louis Vuitton; Peruvian and Indian Remy weaves, as well as lace wigs.

Level three: Holidays to Dubai and Thailand, a monthly allowance of R20,000 ($1,500), a car and an iPhone.

Level four: Buys you a house under your name and gives you money to start a business. If you are lucky, he will introduce you to his wife.

Billionaires

Quote Of The Day

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”

– Unknown

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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’

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Kamweti wa Mutu with his two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, with their Golden Retriever, Nalia, pictured at their home in Nairobi; image supplied

Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.

By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.

Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.

Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.

Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.

Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.

“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.

Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.

The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.

“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.

Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.

“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.

Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.

When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.

While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.

“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”

Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.

“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.

With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.

“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.

Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.

“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.

The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.

“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.

At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.

“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.

If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.

“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”

An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.

“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.

Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.

“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”

In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.

Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”

As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.

With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.

“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”

Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.

Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.

– Marie Shabaya

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