She arrived in Tanzania three months ago to work in a dance bar, and looks over her shoulder warily as she tells a fellow-Nepali her name.
Slim, and dressed in a short black dress with golden sequins, she had stood out among the 12 other young Nepali women on stage. She was shimmering and radiant, her eye makeup smoky giving her a seductive look, long black tresses flailing with every pirouette.
She has many admirers in the audience, made up mostly of Indian Tanzanians and Africans. The regulars adorn her with garlands and a fake crown after the performance. That is her only tip.
The Nepali dancers perform to musical hits from back home like ‘Simple Simple Kanchiko Dimple Basne Gala’, ‘Chyangba oh Chyangba’ and ‘Musu Musu Hasi Deuna’, and the songs have become popular even in the dance bars here.
Nepalis in the audience get nostalgic for home, but their consciences are seared by the presence of these vulnerable young women driven so far away from home to seek jobs here in Tanzania. The women say they were forced to migrate because of the lack of opportunities back home, they get a three month advance and appear happy enough with their earnings.
Some Nepalis in the audience feel it is wrong. But another says: “Who am I to make judgments saying it is wrong or right just because it makes me sad to look at fellow Nepalis?”
At immigration in New Delhi and Mumbai, Nepali women are singled out for special scrutiny because many of them have poor documentation. “There are more than 50 Nepali girls going to Africa every month,” one Indian immigration official told this reporter in Mumbai recently. “If you are a Nepali, do something for them.”
For bar-hopping Africans and Indians in Dar es Salaam, ‘Nepal’ has now become synonymous with ‘dancing girl’. The Nepali word ‘kanchhi’ is part of the vocabulary of Dar es Salaam’s nightlife.
There are some 60 young Nepali women in dance bars in Dar es Salaam alone, there are more in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and even Congo and Madagascar. In July, 10 Nepali women dancers in Nairobi were arrested by Kenyan police for being in possession of heroin.They were from Baitadi in the west to Taplejung in the east, and had come to Africa in search of employment. Many have been tricked by middlemen who have promised them jobs in Europe or America, but bring them to Tanzania and Kenya where Nepalis get visas on arrival. They are then forced to work in ‘Mujra’ bars which are essentially fronts for prostitution and are patronised mostly by Indians.
They make the equivalent of Rs 32,000 a month, and say they could never earn that kind of money back home. “Circumstances have driven us to come here to work,” says one of the women, careful to be away from close circuit surveillance cameras. Taking photos is prohibited, and this reporter was asked to leave after taking a picture with her phone of the stage (left).
The girls are vulnerable because they work without permits, some are exploited by their handlers and abused, often sexually. Their passports are seized, and they are locked up in closed compounds. It is common knowledge in the bars here that ‘dancing girl’ is a euphemism for ‘prostitute’, and customers bid for girls who are most popular dancers.
Nepal’s political instability has hurt the investment climate, and the country never reaped the peace dividend from a conflict that ended six years ago. And as long as jobs are not being created back home, Nepalis will continue to migrate abroad at the rate of 1,400 a day. An increasing number of them are now women, lured by middlemen to the Middle East or Africa.