Zanzibar. Beneath pristine beaches, cute stray cats, a customers-filled pizzeria, and daring sports beautifying the coveted Forodhani Garden, mesmerising and dumbfounding its visitors, lies a secretive criminal ring that lures unsuspecting and runaway boys under the age of eighteen and forces them into prostitution.
It is a well-connected network involving multiple actors, including recruiters, agents, sellers and buyers. It targets vulnerable boys who spend their day and night at Forodhani, located inside Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town, who find refuge there after quarrelling with their parents, oblivious of the risks they run into.
The Chanzo investigation, which involved discussions with victims, their parents and volunteers working to disrupt the criminal ring, revealed that recruiters present themselves to the boys in the dead of night as Good Samaritans, welcoming their soon-to-be prey to their homes, promising them food and shelter.
Upon arriving at their homes, this publication learnt that the abusers would treat their guests with kindness, giving them two or three days to familiarise themselves with the places before they embark on their criminal scheme to abuse their victims sexually and sell them to other prospective buyers.
Based on interviews our team conducted with some of the boys who members of the syndicate trapped, The Chanzo learnt that the men would provide their victims with an energy drink mixed with alcoholic substances that would intoxicate the boys, allowing their hosts to rape them.
Ali* is a sixteen-year-old boy from Chwaka, a town in the southern part of Unguja island, whom members of the criminal network recruited and subjected him to forced prostitution before he was rescued by volunteers who were tipped off the existence of the syndicate.
Ali had run away from home after arguing with his mother. He spent three weeks in the hands of his predators before he was rescued.
Raped before sold
“On the third day at the man’s place,” Ali told our journalist from a safe house, “I woke up feeling heavy pain, and after spending some minutes wondering what might have happened to me, my host told me he had raped me.”
“I didn’t believe him,” Ali narrated his ordeal with pain, “so he showed me a video he took while performing the act. He told me that I must do what he pleased from there on, threatening to share the video widely on social media should I refuse.”
Ali became a sex slave for his master, who would call prospective customers, inform them of the boy’s presence, and showering sexual praises on his newly recruited product. On the fourth day, Ali was sold to another man, who took him to Michenzani, a town in the city centre.
While there, Ali was also sold to another man, who now took him to Taveta, a town few miles from the city centre, to have henna, used mainly by women, applied to his waist to appear more attractive to customers.
“I was sold to four different people from there,” Ali, a slim boy with a tired-looking face, narrated, tears watering his fear-stricken eyes. “My owner would give me between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000 after every act. I’m glad I’m now safe [after being rescued].”
Police in Zanzibar declined to respond to our questions, which sought to know if they were aware of the criminal syndicate recruiting boys for forced prostitution, saying that they’re not in place to comment as they don’t have a complete picture of the situation.
Sitti Abbas Ali is the Director of Community Development in the Zanzibar Ministry of Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, who told The Chanzo that she was not aware of the presence of the criminal syndicate, assuring this journalist that her department will collaborate with law enforcement organs in Zanzibar to investigate the reports.
“We’ll also convene a meeting at the ministerial level to discuss these reports in detail and see if we can launch an operation to identify all the houses where these practices occur,” Ms Ali promised. “Let me also urge anyone with any information that would help us accomplish this exercise to present it to us, and we shall act on it.”
While cases of sexual abuse against boys and girls are prevalent in Zanzibar, this is the first time that reports have emerged suggesting the presence of an organised and coordinated scheme to lure boys as young as fifteen into forced prostitution in the isles.
A report released by the Office of the Chief Government Statistician of Zanzibar on January 17, 2023, stated that some 1,360 incidents of abuse were reported in the archipelago in 2022, with 1,173 of them, equivalent to 86.2 per cent, concerning children. The incidents included rape (651 incidents) and sodomy (200 incidents).
This gloomy picture notwithstanding, stakeholders have acknowledged several strides that Zanzibar has made in its efforts to end the scourge of child sexual abuse, including setting up special courts to deal with issues of gender-based violence and violence against children.
However, the new reports that The Chanzo has unearthed suggest that authorities in the isles need to change their approach to addressing the malaise by viewing it less as the result of some amoral individuals within a community and more as an organised crime.
Ali and his colleague would still have been in the hands of their abusers were it not for the efforts of a group of bodaboda riders who volunteered to investigate a case of a missing child, which led them to the network.
A member of the group who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation told this journalist that tracking child abusers was not in the initial objectives for starting the group, which aimed entirely at following the theft of motorcycles, which has become increasingly common in Zanzibar recently.
Ali’s case came to the group’s attention almost three weeks after his family reported him missing. The group tried to find the boy unsuccessfully. But as luck would have it, on November 12, 2023, they encountered a boy who was held by the network but managed to escape.
“When we found this boy,” our source informed us, “we managed to go with him to the house where he was held in Kisauni, miles from the city centre. When we got there, we found Ali was there, with many other people in the house.”
A tumult broke out among the men, but members of the group managed to arrest one member of the criminal network, whom they presented to the nearby police station so that the law could follow its current.
The Chanzo asked the man why he and his colleagues do this. “Because we have children too,” he responded. “Children lured into these criminal networks are so young that no parent would wish their children to face that fate. It is also against both humanity and Islam to subject a child to such a treatment.”
While happy that Ali and his colleague had been rescued, this man fears that a lot more boys could be in the hands of abusers, analysing that the problem is so big in Zanzibar that people even discuss it openly.
“You’d hear in a discussion that so and so is living with this boy in his house as if it is such a normal practice,” he said. “These stories are all over the place. You hear them everywhere, which, fortunately, makes it easy to rescue the boys for anyone interested.”
Trafficking in person
Mr Edwin Mugambila is the Chief Executive Officer of Tanzania Relief Initiative (TRI), a Dar es Salaam-based non-governmental organisation that works to prevent trafficking in person in Tanzania.
He told The Chanzo in an interview that Ali’s story is a classic case of illegal human trafficking as the children were recruited, transferred and harboured, noting that the perpetrators can be charged according to the country’s Anti-trafficking in Persons Act No. 6 of 2008.
“These are criminal offences of grave nature,” said Mr Mugambila, a professional lawyer. “The trauma arising from the molestation of these kids will leave a traumatising scar for the rest of their lives. Therefore, trauma-informed and rights-based approaches have to be engaged in addressing this matter.”
Mr Mugambila urged Zanzibari authorities to investigate the reports, bring the perpetrators to justice, and, if found guilty, be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
He added: “The court must impose a harsh sentence to send a message to the accused not to repeat the offence in the future and to other members of society not to commit similar offences.”
Sophia Ngalapi is a head of communications at Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA) – Zanzibar, which has been active in defending children against sexual abuse. She appreciated the volunteers who rescued Ali and his colleague, underlining the role ordinary people can play in eradicating the scourge.
“Ordinary people are best placed to end this problem because they’re in the communities, and they know what goes on in those communities,” Ms Ngalapi told The Chanzo in an interview. “The problem will end only when people break the silence, and what these people did is a good sign that we’re heading in the right direction.”
Ali’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, thanked the volunteers who rescued her son from the hands of abusers, complaining that the defilement of her son broke her heart and spirit, urging authorities to take necessary steps to disrupt the network.
“My son committed no offence that deserved the punishment he received,” the mother said amidst suppressed crying. “My son was a precious present that God Almighty sent to me, and look at what they’ve just done to my precious present. I’d have hanged his abusers if I had it my way.”
*Not their real names.
Najjat Omar is The Chanzo’s journalist based in Zanzibar. She is available at email@example.com.