Content Note: This article contains a description of a murder.
In the late 1950s, Rhodesian settlers established Chiredzi, an agricultural town in Masvingo province in southeastern Zimbabwe to provide health, education, retail and entertainment services to the newly launched and expanding Hippo Valley sugar estates. In Chiredzi, seasonal African workers on short-term contracts, especially weeders, irrigators, and cane cutters, were housed in Tsovani and after work went to the Chigarapasi Beerhall built by settler farmer and businessman Digby Nesbitt in 1960. Highly visible among the patrons were sex workers who established a thriving business at the beerhall, and were hugely important to the development of the town, though they are not always seen that way.
In this article, I will look at how sex workers are remembered in Chiredzi. I will especially consider Molly, a sex worker who made a significant impact on the town, whose ghost was said to circulate until the 1990s, and after whom a street has been named. The story of Molly reflects the important contribution of sex workers to the economy and life of Chiredzi town. Across the world, the social and economic contribution of sex workers has been undervalued, but considering the role of sex workers in Chiredzi history attempts to change that narrative, restoring sex workers as important actors historically, and now.
The history of Chiredzi is reflected in place names. To a large extent, the names of places in Chiredzi mirror the history of settler colonialism, they are a blend of Shangani (the local African ethnic group) terms, names of white settlers, civil servants, and African workers who contributed to the establishment and growth of the sugar industry in Zimbabwe. White settlers’ names were assigned to low-density suburbs, formerly reserved for whites, while African names were allotted to African residential areas. In this manner, place names in Chiredzi reveal the history of colonial domination and these naming practices resemble many other former colonial towns in Southern Africa. Yet some streets have been named in honour of sex workers. In July 2017, the mayor of Chiredzi, honoured two sex workers, Molly and Hilda by officially naming streets after them following a sex workers’ petition for town authorities to reopen the beerhall. Molly Street leads from Chigarapasi main entrance to the west of the town. Fittingly, the street is currently home to hundreds of sex workers who have chosen it for its proximity to the beer hall, allowing for timely service to clients. Hilda Street starts at the back of the beer hall to the east of the town. Whilst no narratives exist on Hilda, the legend of Molly dominates Chiredzi oral histories.
Molly was brutally murdered in Chiredzi in 1966. Her boyfriend, a coloured man and a popular gambler known as Dovol, accused her of cheating, tied her to a bed, locked the door, and torched her house. Dovol lived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-biggest city located 335km from Chiredzi. He travelled to Chiredzi for gambling at the end of each month. In his absence, Molly would continue with her sex work at Chigarapasi. On the night Molly was murdered, Dovol had travelled from Bulawayo to Chiredzi for gambling. That night Dovol lost to another man. After the gambling session, Molly hooked up with the gambler who had just won and took him to her house for work. Dovol followed and torched Molly’s house.
There is not much information in local narratives about Molly’s background, but memories about her work and death have persisted in the community, through narratives and myths. There are numerous stories about Molly’s ghost appearing at the beerhall in human form until the late 1990s, hooking up with men and sleeping with them at her gravesite, which local residents tell with awe. They claim that her ghost disappeared in the late 1990s when her relatives conducted a traditional ceremony at the beerhall and took her spirit home to rest. Authentic or not, the continued circulation of these stories show the close relationship between sex work, town development and socio-economic life in Chiredzi since the colonial period.
Molly lived on in a different way too. After her murder, local residents began to informally refer to the street where her house was located as Molly Street. As scholar Nna Uluocha suggests African naming traditions have a tendency to name places based on geographical attributes or an occurrence related to the place. The official naming of the street by the municipality in 2017 therefore was a formalisation of a name that local residents had adopted for nearly five decades. But these naming practices, official and unofficial tell us a lot about sex work in Chiredzi and across Zimbabwe in the past and the present.
First, honouring Molly and Hilda by naming streets after them reveals the critical role that sex work played in urban and economic development historically. From the 1950s, sex workers contributed to the development and growth of Chiredzi and the sugar industry. As seasonal migrants, most workers left their wives and families in rural areas. Some were long-distance labour migrants from colonial Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, who also left their families behind. The migrant labour system created demand for sex work, which challenged the criminalisation of sex work in Chiredzi. In turn, sex workers stabilised labour supply for the sugar estates. The availability of sex workers ensured that workers remained on the estates for longer without returning home to their wives. The legend of Molly attests to how sex workers carved their niche in the development of new towns. While migrant labour moved, sex workers bought houses and permanently settled in towns, in the case of Chiredzi, sex workers residing in the vicinity of the beerhall led to the growth of the town.
Second, the naming of Molly Street, both informally by Tsovani residents from the 1960s to now and the formalisation of the name by Chiredzi municipality in 2017 is instructive in the present. It is an acknowledgement of sex worker belonging in Chiredzi and dismantles stereotypes attached to sex work. It also points to the need for governments to decriminalise the trade. Interestingly, the local community in Chiredzi normalises and supports sex work due to the decline of the formal economy in post-colonial Zimbabwe. An informal but resolute alliance of local residents, retailers, house owners, politicians, and sex workers successfully lobbied for the reopening of the beer hall in 2016. This was because the closure of Chigarapasi resulted in the departure of many sex workers whose presence sustained the survival of other livelihoods that relied on the beerhall, for instance selling food. The Chiredzi rental market also relies on sex workers. The economy in Zimbabwe is such that people cannot bank their savings, so sex workers pay rent daily in order to secure accommodation and a place to work that is close to the beer hall. They pay much higher rates than they would if they could pay monthly, and so are desirable to landlords. Sex workers are important to politics too, they are voters and their support is sought out by politicians during political campaigns. They normally vote as one block because politicians promise them free land to live on, funding for supplementary income-generating projects such as small-scale retail businesses, and HIV/AIDS health care including access to antiretroviral therapy and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). The community, therefore, argued that the closure of the beerhall violated residents’ rights to the town and their livelihoods, and the beerhall was reopened in 2017. In Chiredzi, sex work is socially accepted as a form of work and sex workers have claimed their rightful place in urban development.