A Tale of Two Jennies

I first met Jenny a couple of weeks ago at two in the morning. I had been working on my closing keynote for Topic Maps 2008 and needed fresh air and an early breakfast, so I tiptoed out of the hotel room, walked to the all-night deli a couple of blocks away and bought myself some sushi. Outside on the street, chopsticks in hand, I was approached by a nice-looking African girl who asked if I would like to go back to her place for a cup of coffee. I declined politely, pointing out that I had to get back to my presentation and, besides, I had a lovely wife sleeping soundly not 200 metres away. She asked if I would buy her a coffee and I said, “Sure.” I got her some cake as well and told her to keep the change.

She told me her name was Jenny and she came from Ghana. I told her mine was Shito (“pepper” in the Ga language) but she didn’t seem to understand. I asked her what “pepper” was in her mother tongue and showed her my business card so she would know why I was asking. I think she said, “ekhien,” though I can’t be sure.

This is not JennyAnyway, we talked some more. I was curious and I guess she was still hoping for some business.

She had been in Oslo a couple of months, having come from Italy where she’d lived for 8 years. I wondered how old she was and she told me her date of birth – March 18 1980 – which was weird because that’s my birthday too. (Birthday, not birth date!)

That created a kind of bond and so we talked some more. (I was still curious and I guess she was still hoping for some business.)

I asked why she had come to Oslo and she told me that she had lost her job in Italy when the factory she worked in closed down. She was the oldest child in a large family (7 children), her father was a taxi driver but he didn’t have a car. She was working to support the family and pay for her brother’s and sisters’ education. She wasn’t able to get another job, and a friend told her it was possible to make good money quickly in Oslo. It was her only option, so she came.

She was philosophical about her new job. She disliked it and felt shameful, but it was only for a short while, until she had enough money to set her family up. I asked how much she earned and she said it varied. “Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes not. I know one girl who met a Norwegian man. He gave her 80,000 kroner so she could quit and go back to Africa. She was really lucky. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky too. God willing.”

I was still curious and I guess she hadn’t given up hope, so we talked some more, about where she lived, the services she offered, the prices she charged. I won’t go into the details.

At length we parted, after I’d found an ATM and given her the equivalent of a night’s work so that she could go home and sleep – and my cell number.

We’ve met again since that and I’ve learned more about her. I’m convinced that most of her story is true, although she has later admitted that she modified parts of it. “All the girls do. You want to be someone else when you’re out on the street.” Her real birth date is not March 18 (although that’s what her passport says) and she’s from Nigeria, not Ghana (which explains why she didn’t understand shito). I’m pretty sure the rest is true, and I’ve spoken briefly with one of her sisters on the phone from Nigeria.

The funny thing is, another Jenny turned up a few days later. The Go Open Conference in Oslo had a special price for tickets to The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil and I went along for the first act. The last scene took place in a brothel where a character called (yes, you guessed) Jenny sang the song Mack the Knife (Die Moritat von Mackie Messer), which goes in part like this:

Jenny Towler ward gefunden
Mit ’nem Messer in der Brust
Und am Kai geht Mackie Messer
Dem man allem nichts gewuβt.

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

Jenny Towler was found
with a knife in her chest.
And Mack the Knife is walking on the quay,
but he knows nothing at all.

For some are in darkness
and some are in light.
You can see the ones in the light,
those in the dark cannot be seen.

There has been a big debate in Norway over the last few years about the increase in prostitution, and radical feminists have been agitating to make the purchase of sexual services illegal in Norway (and for Norwegians abroad). People who have worked closely with prostitutes for many years, like Liv Jessen of the Norwegian Pro Sentret, say this is not the way to go. It will only increase the risks for those – like Jenny – who are already most vulnerable, because it will force prostitution underground, increasing the risk of violence and the girls’ dependence on pimps and “madams”.

Unfortunately those who haven’t worked closely with prostitutes and think they know better are in a majority, and on Friday the Norwegian Government announced the introduction of draft legislation that makes the purchase of sexual services a crime punishable by fines, or by up to six months imprisonment.

I’m sorry, Jenny, but your job is about to get a lot more risky.