Photo by Tania Castellví
Sex is in the air as Berlin’s love-starved women look to Africa to fulfil their need for romance, emotional support…and the ‘African banana’. We follow the cross-cultural hanky-panky from Kenyan beaches to a Kreuzberg club.
Saturday, 2am: Down below street level, the dance floor is teeming with single mature German women and younger African men. Under disco lights, orb-like wobbling booties mash against pelvic bones. Clubbers eye each other off before approaching, sliding in with bare millimetres left to separate bodies. A man grabs your ass before even turning to speak. Two come in from either side, sandwiching you like a practised sports play. Everywhere you look, hands grope flesh of all shades. Wasting no time, a man turns to a group of three women dancing together and, in German, asks each in turn, “Would you like to go home with me?” The hunt is on.
There are 145,000 single women in Berlin between the ages of 40 and 60. On any given weekend night, at least 30 of these can be found at Kreuzberg’s pan-African nightclub Mandingo. Not just a teasing name, Mandingo (along with Surprise in Mitte, see p.17) functions as a blatant meat market for over-thirties. Liberian owner Chris Dickson describes the club as “a place where people know they can meet a partner…I met my wife here!” Berlin’s sexually hungry females come to blow off steam, while the men come to ‘hook’ a woman for the night or – if they’re lucky – marriage. A German woman in her early thirties sipping a €4 Becks sneers, “Everyone else is only here for sex or papers.” An hour later, a young Caribbean man who has overstayed his tourist visa bluntly explains that he is there “to get a German girl pregnant.” Welcome to Mandingo.
Carol, a Tempelhof resident in her mid-forties, sips a milky orange cocktail with a straw. “I come here to dance. I just love African music!” she exclaims, seemingly unaware that the track in the background is Beyoncé, soon fading into the Brazilian pop of Michel Teló’s “Ai Si Eu Te Pego”. Later some West African R&B makes a brief appearance. But in fact, none of the Mandingo women seem to bat an eyelid at the not-quite- African mix spun by resident DJ Rolex, though they unanimously declare a love for “African culture and African people” that grows vague when pressed for examples. A small number have African ex-partners. Some have visited the continent, typically venturing alone on safaris in Botswana, Namibia or Senegal.
Outside, intertwined inter-generational couples emerge onto the Mehringdamm pavement and peel off into the night. “It’s like the beach in Mombasa!” laughs Mark*, a thirty-year-old who recently moved to Berlin after eight years in the Kenyan tourist hub. “My cousin works as a beachboy there. He spends all day on the beach trying to ‘hook’ a rich European woman on holiday. He even learned German… It’s a full-time job.” Mark’s cousin is one of Kenya’s approximately 20,000 commercial sex workers, typically called beachboys, beachgirls or bumsters. Working the ancient slave trade coast, they accommodate the five percent of mzungu (white tourists) estimated by the Kenyan Tourism Board who regularly travel there for sex. [The practise is found also in other impoverished African countries like The Gambia and Ghana.] Successful beach Casanovas can be spotted at the post office mailing postcards to up to 20 different German addresses at once.
Searching for one’s own Maasai
Of the 50 million who travel to Africa each year, a small number engage in the ever-growing sex tourism industry. In contrast to the stereotype of the Western businessman engaging in sex with underage Thai girls, sex tourism as practiced by women is more complex. Euphemism or not, the term “romance tourism” is often used to denote the long-lasting emotional involvement that marks these relations, as typically older, overweight and financially independent spinsters and divorcées are charmed by locals they meet at restaurants, clubs and on the beach, developing sexual and economic relationships with gifts, meals and cash in return for companionship and wild sex over the holiday period – and sometimes beyond.
Kenyan academic Dr. Wanjohi Kibicho (author of Sex Tourism in Africa: Kenya’s Booming Industry, 2009, Ashgate Publishing, London) who’s observed coastal Kenyan tourist destinations like Malindi and Mombasa for years, knows these women well: “They feel free,” he says. “As tourists, kilometres away from their homes, they can try things they can’t try at home.” Female sex tourists view Africa as an exotic, Gauguin-like escape from their normal environment. “When they see a black man with rastas, that’s the authentic man, a strong man, a man who can perform. White women like that.”
Up to 20 percent of these women are German – possibly seeking an alternative to the men back home. “Africans are charming, saying things like ‘I would bring you all the stars from heaven’,” says author Evelyne Kern, whose bestseller Sand in der Seele (Sand in the Soul) is based on her whirlwind romance with a Tunisian hotel receptionist. “Unlike German men, they act like true gentlemen.”
As for Mark, he sums up his first-hand experience of beach chivalry as follows: “You know that film Die weiße Maasai? It’s about a German woman who goes to Kenya with her boyfriend but falls in love with a Maasai warrior. That’s what all the German women want! The men on the beach dress up; they’re not real Maasai, but it gets the women.”
An hour later, a young Caribbean man who has overstayed his tourist visa bluntly explains that he is there “to get a German girl pregnant.” Welcome to Mandingo.
There’s also the sexual curiosity, a factor referred to on internet forums as the ‘African experience’ or ‘chasing the African banana’. As Dr. Kibicho says, “They want to confirm whether it’s true that black men have longer beaks or not!” Studies support the myth, suggesting Africans are endowed with, on average, an extra three centimetres over Germany’s 14.5.
Gentlemen or gold diggers?
But it’s not only size that matters. They’re after something else: “These woman are lonely,” continues Dr. Kibicho. “With all the women I’ve talked to, there is an impression of something lacking at home, of something not meeting their needs – not only sexual, but also psychological and emotional support.”
Fifty-five-year-old Baden-Württemberger Veronika Geiger thought she had found such support on a two-week holiday in The Gambia in 2008, four years after the death of her second great love. “At the time, I thought I’d never fall in love again.” But she did… with a beachboy who sold fruit juice by her hotel pool. She wrote Das kalte Herz des Mandinka (The Cold Heart of Mandinka) about her experience. “He was friendly, showering me with compliments. He offered to show me the beach and to be my protector against the bumsters the travel agent had warned me about. I was happy to have my own bodyguard. He held my hand as I told him about the death of my boyfriend. He said, ‘Veronika, because of this tragedy God has sent you to Gambia, to me’. We slept together the next day. I came back three months later and he was already talking marriage. I never thought I’d feel like this again, I was so happy.”
Geiger’s emotional investment quickly turned into a financial one. “I met his family who were from a very poor region in Banjul. His father was very sick. I wanted to take him out of that poverty. I bought him things: a bed, a wardrobe, clothes, a mobile, sacks of rice for the family, but he was always asking for more.” A typical transformation, according to Dr. Kibicho. “The woman is helping the man, and the sexual relationship becomes just a side thing. She keeps coming (to Africa) to see this man, but also to see the success of this project she is paying for.”
However, in love, as in business, the highest bidder wins. And the market is competitive, as Geiger learned at her own expense. “Months later I flew back to surprise him. I saw him standing at the airport gate waiting for another woman, a very fat blonde English woman. All my dreams fell apart. Later I found out they’d married and that she was pregnant.”
Kern’s Tunisian lover turned out to have a similar agenda, marrying her only to turn cruel once that coveted German visa arrived in his hands. “If you have money and go to Africa alone, you’re in great danger of becoming a victim.” she says. “Bigger, older women get lots of compliments in Africa. But they’re not sincere. It’s all lies.”
3am: Plump, heavily made-up women in heels and tight non-designer tops stand shyly in groups. The bravest take the floor, showing that mature women still have sass. Others come alone and perch by the bar, waiting to be approached. It doesn’t take long. The flattery, sexual propositions and indiscriminate bandying of phone numbers can be overwhelming. Later in the night as the feverish energy abates, Caribbean calypso pop plays to newfound couples holding each other close in pre-coital embrace.
“We are taught to be more aggressive with women,” comments Mandingo’s Cameroonian DJ Isong. “And German women are… cheaper. They’re easier to impress.”
A case of self-deception?
Sites like 1001Geschichte, a forum initiated by Evelyne Kern as a platform for female travellers like Geiger to share stories and support, brandish these women as victims and agitate for increased legal protection.
However, the question of who’s playing who in this game of seduction seems much more ambiguous. The local men obviously have their agenda, “but I can assure you, when they start these relationships, they really take care of these women,” says Dr. Kibicho. As for the women… how innocent can booking a solo trip to an African beach resort possibly be? Are they really just looking for palm trees? According to Stefanie Logemann from Mitte’s African-specialist travel agent Boomerang Reisen, “Africa is an expensive destination and for beach holidays, there are much nicer, cheaper locations... Safaris, yes, but a beach holiday?”
Furthermore, once there, many female vacationers flaunt their desirable social position. “You see many older European women going out in gold jewellery, expensive clothes and shoes, walking among very poor people,” says Geiger. Dr. Kibicho adds, “Just being a white woman who can afford to go on holiday and lie on the beach for weeks, that automatically gives you a higher status – plus with 51 percent unemployment and poverty levels so high in Kenya, the men will be more than eager to fulfil her slightest whim. Remember, whoever pays the piper, holds the tune!”
It’s clear that beneath the romantic conceit, everyone gets something from this relationship. The woman feels adored, her femininity and sexuality affirmed, while sex tourism creates job opportunities for many Africans, with positive effects resonating throughout the region. “The trickle-down effect means that the money the Berlin woman spends really circulates through the local community.”
Love in paradise
Back in Berlin, Mandingo women are reluctant to broach the subject – “Let’s rather dance now,” one antsy patron says, though this could also be the tangible desire to leave the stool next to her unoccupied for potential Romeos. They don’t want to talk, and they want to talk even less about this. Female sex tourism remains a taboo. “I was naïve and maybe unrealistic, but my love was deep and true. I’m not a sex tourist!” Geiger says.
Austrian film director Ulrich Seidl knows the topic well. His Paradise: Love, which premiered at Cannes (German release, early 2013), examines the phenomenon as a dispassionate camera follows sex-starved 50-year-old single mother Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) to a luxury resort in Kenya. While a fiction, Seidl’s film is highly realistic and uses real local boys. “I travelled to Kenya for several years to get to know the beachboys and their conditions of life, as well as the sugarmamas.” So, Herr Seidl, does love have a place in this quagmire of money, sex and post-colonialism? “Love can also be found in these relationships. Some Western women return for decades, and are still returning to their Kenyan love paradise even in old age.”
4am: An African man in his early twenties sits on the platform of Platz der Luftbrücke station, straddled by a large forty-something German woman who is pushing his head into her ample bosom. He coos softly into her cleavage while they wait for the U6, seeming at peace in each other’s arms. One night of love in paradise?
*original names changed
MANDINGO | Mehringdamm 107, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Platz der Luftbrücke | Fri and Sat, 22-late | €5, free before midnight for women