The Stream

Why are Africa’s ‘sugar’ relationships in the spotlight?

Murder in Kenya fuels conversation about partnerships where money and gifts are traded for sex and companionship.

The murder of a pregnant 26-year-old woman in southwestern Kenya has sparked an energetic debate over so-called ‘sugar’, ‘blesser’ or ‘sponsor’ relationships, both at home and across the African continent.

Sharon Otieno, a second-year student at Rongo University, had allegedly been in a relationship with Okoth Obado, governor of Migori county, for several months. Otieno’s mother says her daughter was pregnant with Obado’s child and was doubtful he would support her. Otieno and a journalist from the Daily Nation newspaper arranged to meet Obado’s assistant to get Obado’s explanation, but they were abducted soon after meeting him. Although the journalist managed to escape, Sharon was driven away. Her body was found with multiple stab wounds on September 5.

News of Otieno’s death sparked an outcry on social media across Kenya, with #JusticeForSharon and #ArrestOkothObado trending on Twitter. But while there is widespread revulsion over the killing, some Kenyans declared Otieno’s relationship was shameful. Some even went so far as to ask why they should pity her death.

The case has highlighted the complexities – and outright risks – within consensual relationships where one party gives money or property to the other person in exchange for sex or companionship. In many cases, individuals enter such relationships in order to meet rent, tuition fees or to support their wider family. But there are a growing number of people who have transactional relationships with wealthy partners to pay for an aspirational, luxurious lifestyle that draws attention on social media. A limited study of 252 women students by the Busara Centre for Behavioural Economics found 20 percent are in a sponsor relationship, or have been in the past.

While some feminists argue that the person being sponsored has control over the terms of the relationship, others say such arrangements continue to grant most power in the hands of the wealthy sponsor. And while sponsor partnerships may be lucrative, they are still seen as dysfunctional – 61 percent of women surveyed by the Busara Center agreed that such relationships are “shameful”.

The Stream will examine the complexities, dynamics and social mores of transactional relationships – and consider whether such arrangements really can be equitable. Join the conversation.

On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Karen Kaz Lucas @Karenkazlucas
Host, The Spread Podcast

Nyasha Kadandara @MissNyashaK

Jackie Phamotse @JackiePhamotse
Author, Bare: The Blessers Game

Read more:

Sex and the sugar daddy – BBC News
What it means in South Africa when you are #blessed – Public Radio International

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.