Queen Nyasulu has had it both ways. After selling her body on the streets of Karonga in northern Malawi, she is now happily married to the only man she loves, John Nyasulu. The 44-year-old Queen has been a queen both on the streets and in her husband’s heart. James Chavula writes.
Call her Mrs Nyasulu. After 10 years of practising sex work on the streets of Karonga and beyond, Queen Kayira has found happiness in wedlock.
This may be the stuff movies are made of—especially for those who believe the nation is God-fearing and sex workers its worst sinners.
Born January 31, 1968, the mother of five cherishes her wedding to John Nyasulu as a miracle. Fortunately, Foundation for Community Support Services (Focus) has immortalised the love story in a video titled The Journey of Queen Kayira.
“Our wedding on December 19 2009 was the best thing that happened in my life. It was a miracle. If I had not said ‘I do’, I would have gone back into darkness where I survived several beatings and broken bottles,” she says.
The Nyasulus tied the knot at Fwira CCAP in Karonga after dating for two years. Officiating a sex worker’s wedding on the church premises could be likened to tearing the thick curtain to the holy of hollies, but nobody cast a stone at them. Instead, the church graciously gave them Karonga CCAP Hall for a reception and the newlyweds filled it with friends, including those who thought marriage was doomed because “Queen belonged to the streets.”
“God might have been happy with our wedding, but many guests doubted that we would still be one body today. Some of the doubters have separated, but we are still happily married,” says the woman who speaks about sex work and HIV during gathering.
Her husband says he is happy seeing her publicly talk about sex work and changing lives.
“I cannot stop her because that is what she was doing before we met. We love each other and she does everything a wife ought to do although she goes to work and leads a prayer life,” says the church elder who teaches at Bwiba Primary School in the border town.
He disclosed that their affair has survived a spate of conflicts, saying: “We have since agreed to stop drinking and always use contraceptives because we tested HIV positive.”
Various studies show condom use is low among sex workers and sexually transmitted infections are widespread. But the teacher said she settled for a “highly at-risk” lover because of many reasons.
“There were many girls. When I asked if she was ready for marriage, she sounded more than willing and she gave me two days to think over it because she thought I did not know what I was talking about,” he said.
And Queen concurred: “He was serious and I wasn’t. All the same, I gave him the benefit of doubt.”
Today, the two are one body for better, for worse. They thank Focus for their turning point. The wife says she started rethinking her life when the organisation sent her to Zambia for behavioural change training. Thankfully, they also co-funded the wedding.
In an interview, Focus executive director Kossam Munthali said Queen is a “shield of hope for sex workers”, for she personifies a shift from risky lifestyles to influencing change.
“As early as 2002, Queen was part of a programme aimed at promoting behaviour change among sex workers and girls both in school and out of school. We are glad that she is a changed woman with a lot to share in these times of HIV and Aids,” said Munthali.
The sexual reproductive health activist said Focus has employed Queen. This boosts her standing as an authoritative voice when it comes to reducing sex workers’ risk of acquiring or spreading the virus. Her outreaches convey two vital messages.
First, she urges girls to abstain, value their bodies and stick to one partner because having more sexual partners is the reason HIV is still haunting us. Second, she encourages sex workers to always insist on condoms because life is a precious gift and money cannot buy a replacement.
However, it is her daring plea for Malawians to “start treating sex workers like any other person” which caught the ear of Paramount Chief Kyungu during her World Aids Day early this month.
Where Chief Kaomba and other custodians of culture equate sex work to “Sodom and Gomorrah”, Kyungu said he wants them to be treated as partners in the fight against the pandemic.
“Zero infection can only become a reality if sex workers are fully engaged as partners, not as the ones carrying the blame. If we don’t, they will continue fuelling the disease because men continue to seek their services,” Kyungu told the public at the December 1 commemorations.
But the ‘Queen’, who spoke before the Ngonde supreme king, is neither learned nor preachy like most people who take HIV and Aids messages to the end of the country. She is a school drop-out and poor.
She went to Bwaila MCC (now Likangala Secondary School) in Zomba. She dropped out in Form Two after squandering school fees and got married to a man she described as “well-off and famous”.
Unfortunately, the man succumbed to a long illness after spending all their wealth on medical bills. His death, she says, left her and the five children with nothing to fall back on.
She explained: “I asked myself several questions about the children’s future and I had no answer. I was also the breadwinner for my siblings.
“In 1999, I was compelled into sex work because I had children to feed.”
The National HIV Framework for Action shows that a culture of saving and writing a will would mitigate the plight of orphans. As aptly depicted in Kalumbu Kapisa’s film Grown Too Quick, death of parents sometimes leaves children fending for their brothers and sisters before they come of age. This shatters their chances in life.
For Queen, it seems the damage had already been done.
“I started drinking heavily and I became so wild. I feared nobody. I had to make ends meet,” says the 44-year-old.
Ironically, she terms her worst memories the beatings she often suffered at the hands of her clients, including lovers who found happiness in buying her beer even when she had pressing needs.
“I could go home drunk or bleeding only to find my children crying with hunger. I had no peace of mind,” she says.
Queen says her turnaround came when she met her better half at a watering hole near Karonga Turn-off where the districts meaty cuisine meets a unique nightlife culture being dominated by taifas, the sex workers from the neighbouring Tanzania.
“His love made me reflect on my children. Apart from the risk of taking after me, they were a laughing stock because of my lifestyle. I went for HIV testing and was diagnosed positive. I had to make serious choices about my life and dependents,” she recalls.
But old habits die hard. She said their dating days were dotted with break-ups because she still maintained a huge sexual network that she could go out with other lovers when the man was penniless.
“That is water under the bridge. I believe I have the most loving man in the world. I love him entirely,” says the woman from Mwenelondo in the outskirts of the border town.
Today, the retiree has formed a group of sex workers that freely share their experiences and demand justice on issues that affect them. Among other things, the group has been trying to find solutions to the discrimination and seclusion they suffer when it comes to access to health care, treatment and prevention options.
Others have been battling for business loans but say they are being denied economic empowerment due to their mobility and lack of property worth collateral.
Like most of her colleagues, Queen says she has tried and failed to get the vital start-pack from money lending institutions in the district. Now they run a tailoring shop and salon to keep them busy and to generate money.
However, she feels money alone cannot persuade sex workers to quit like she did. She argues change is a long journey, not an overnight step.
Concurring, Pakachere Institute for Health and Development Communications executive director Simon Sikwese says loans can only help make sex workers independent, aware of their worth and start protecting themselves.
Apart from her religious duties, Queen has worked with World Vision Malawi, Action Aid and Coalition of Women Living with HIV/Aids (Cowlha) in reducing new infections, stigma and orphanhood.
She also chairs Lusako Peer Educator.
Thus, the once-despised Queen is a classic example of sex workers with the potential to transform the high risk sector still groping in the dark while the country’s laws as well as their enforcement remain restrictive and discriminatory.