African Brothels with Teenage Guides

Robin: Guide Wonder

Robin: Guide Wonder

“Ethiopian women are really beautiful,” I say to Robin, guide wonder.

“You want to meet Ethiopian women?”


“I can bring you to a good nightclub. Lots of local people there.”

Mark and I huddle up and discuss.

Conversation overview: Could this be shady? I’m not getting a shady vibe. It might be fun to go to a local place and meet locals. Yeah. I don’t know, this kid is a little…something. True. But isn’t this the sort of adventurous thing we came here to do? Yes. OK, here’s the plan, we meet him, and if something seems weird or unsafe, we go home. Deal? Deal.

Gist (for those who scanned or with ADHD): We will meet him and if something scary happens, we will run away.

We agree to meet at the hotel at 9:30 the next evening.

The next evening Axum is in the dark. It has been without power or water for two days. We sit in the hotel bar and sip on beers in the candlelight. Our waitress makes us practice our Tigrinyan pronunciation and when we tell her we are going to a club she laughs at us for an unsettling amount of time. Mark and I are at once interested and half-hoping that Robin doesn’t show.

At 9:30 on the button, Robin excites and disappoints by showing up on the doorstep of the hotel. We step out into the pitch black night. The only light comes from the weak headlights of the tuktuks buzzing down the street and the candles on the tables at the nearby bars. It feels like the end of the world.

Robin points us to a tuktuk and we are introduced to his baby-faced brother and his baby-faced tuktuk driver friend. We all stuff inside and take off. Gangsta rap blares at us and Mark and I laugh at the ridiculousness of this whole affair.

Doing something like this is a bit tricky.

On one hand, what are you traveling for if you aren’t going to take a chance? What’s better than sampling the real local flavor and meeting locals? What’s a holiday to Axum, Ethiopia or Goa, India, if the only interactions you have are with people in your hotel and waiters? As travelers, we should want to explore what we never get in our day-to-day lives.

On the other hand, tell me this doesn’t sound like the beginning of a horror movie: Two Americans disappear after going for a night out with their seemingly harmless Ethiopian guide named after a clean-cut superhero sidekick. It sounds like a movie, because it’s these situations that often lead to major problems for tourists. Sometimes these things really do go wrong.

Nevertheless, adventurous won out over smart, so we buzz down the pitch black streets.

We arrive ten minutes later in what is clearly the red light district of Axum. Our first tip-off were the red lights above many of the doorways. Other tip-offs include dirt streets, vagrants charging at us from the shadows, and loud music pouring out of a nightclub every few meters.

We go into one club and watch a mix of smiling men and women do the Ethiopian dance we saw on a soap opera a day before the power went out. We tried to emulate it, but ended up with mild neck injuries. It resembles a series of epileptic twitches and head snaps that seem rather supernatural. Robin and his brother lay right into the odd dance. Mark jokes that we need to have a mass exorcism. Two male waiters in white lab coats bring us St. George beer. Whether due to our fear of the head snapping or our inability to master it, we leave for another place.

The next place consists of two rooms and another two male waiters in white lab coats bring us beers. Robin asks for my money so he can pay, so that, he whispers, we won’t get the faranji prices. However, I pay for the second round and pay the same price.

All of the men stand along a wall facing the women and spasm and snap in the Ethiopian dance. It’s clear that they are trying to impress their potential partner as would peacocks with epilepsy. The women for their part gaze upon the men with crushing boredom, as though the wall is lined with nothing more than shaky tables wearing plastic sandals.

There’s a different mood in this place and that’s probably because it’s a brothel. We deduce this when we notice that aside from dying from boredom, the women are 1. not drinking, 2. in uniforms, and 3. wearing moneybelts. Occasionally, a woman will give in to a man, sigh deeply, and disappear with him into the backroom, which is separated by a sheet.

There’s an awful lot that goes through your head when you realize that you are in a brothel in Africa. Most of it revolves around a future visit to a doctor where you swear that you didn’t know before you went. Then there’s the concern about airborne syphilis and beer-transmitted herpes. What if a violent fight breaks out and I get killed in the crossfire? I will forever be an after school special to the kids at my grade school and a “you’ll never believe what happened to…” story at the next high school reunion. A headline flashes through my mind:

American Killed in Brothel Shootout, Couldn’t Master Dance

Mark wonders why the men are dancing to impress prostitutes. Shouldn’t they just pay? But truly, their demeanor and sexual segregation compels Mark to say, “I feel like I’m chaperoning a grade school dance…of course it’s a whore house.”

There are other considerations. The women seem interested in dancing with us, two heavy drinking (self-germinating) faranjis in the corner. But we really don’t know what will be expected of us if we have a short dance with someone. I’ve never been in an Ethiopian brothel, so I am unfamiliar with the social protocol. If I dance with a woman for a minute, does that mean I am hers for the night? For longer? I picture myself and Mark working at a souvenir stand near the stelae field to work off our romp. For this and other reasons, Mark and I laugh with each other, yet otherwise remain conservatively curious bystanders. We do win a dance off with a blind man who trips over a bag of plastic sandals he is selling. This will prove a highlight of the night.

Despite our fallback positions, Robin and his brother keep insisting that if we “want a woman” to just tell them. We don’t want a woman, but I do need a toilet. One of the waiters points me to a shed in the alley and I tip toe there like a drunken teen in Camp Crystal Lake.

Ethiopian Brothel Toilet

Ethiopian Brothel Toilet

The toilets I have seen thus far have been on the rough side, and these were in restaurants and pubs. What’s a brothel’s toilet going to look like? When I see it, I dedicate myself to the art of the handless urination. And in my wiggling, spinning and hopping to remove the appendage, urinate, shake, and replace the appendage, I finally master the Ethiopian dance.

We leave shortly thereafter, Mark and I telling the kids that it’s time for the old people to sleep. Robin and his brother seem disappointed, as though the fact that we don’t find women of the evening for the evening they have failed. We assure them this is OK, and we are not just saying that. They have given us a story we’ll tell for the next forty years, or until diseases of the aged make us forget.

Plus, I now know how they learn that dance.

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