Keeping the Faith on the Shores of Lake Victoria

By Jeremy Hartman

Rolling over the dark hills of Gwasi, we stop for a moment for a glimpse of the Milky Way.  Here, there is no light or atmospheric pollution to muddle the stars.  Tonight though, the spiral galaxy is no match for the lights on the horizon.  “What city is that?” one of us asks, incredulous that we could be anywhere near civilization of this capacity.  After all, the previous day we had traversed dirt paths for upwards of six hours, escaping the closest city of Kisumu to reach the shores of Lake Victoria, the largest fresh body of water in the world.

“That’s no city,” Erick, our liaison and the AIDS Candlelight Memorial National Coordinator, explains.  His smile lights up the night.  “Choose one light, and watch it.  That ‘city,’ it’s moving.”  Sure enough, these large clusters of light began to move and change shape.  It’s a sight to behold, though commonplace for the locals.  The Dagaa fishermen who went out in their boats the night before are coming to shore in droves to bring back their catch of the night and grab a quick drink and rest.  These magical lights are used to attract the Dagaa and help the fishermen find their way home.

As the minutes pass, the groups of boats diverge.  Many groups disappear over the horizon, while one slowly moves in the same direction as us.  Its destination and ours:  Sibora Beach Management Unit.

We arrive at Sibora at sunrise.  Among the grass-roofed huts are women and children, roosters and dogs.  Expansive fishing nets cover the beach.  There are very few men besides the fishermen who will arrive later.  The women have already started their days; they wash buckets in the lake and prepare their fishing nets, which double as sprawling drying racks. Most of these women are widows; most of these children are fatherless.

While waiting for the fishermen to return, Erick introduces us to a young, shy woman with a healthy smile.  Faith, he tells us (she only speaks her native Luo) is lucky enough to have a husband. She is also HIV positive.

Before coming to Sibora, we had heard about the beach management units. They are essentially local market places for Dagaa, the staple food of the area. Fishermen return from long nights of fishing and must sell their fish. Men and women alike come to buy the fish for resale. Many of the women, though, have no means to buy even enough fish for their families, let alone to resell.

Dagaa is one of very few staple foods in this area. Women traditionally do not fish but must stay and care for their children, and without husbands, many have no way to feed their families. Marketplaces are hours away, so the beach serves as their only means for sustenance. With no income, many of the widows are forced to sell sex for fish. The fishermen return and want a cozy place to stay, and perhaps a partner to stay with, so many of the widows trade their bodies and beds, for fish to eat. Born from this is what is now known as the “sex for fish network,” something Faith knows all too well.

Faith used to be one of these women. She knows, though, what many of these women don’t: her HIV status. Herein lies the threat of the sex for fish network. Fishermen, some of whom are married, sleep with women at the beach. Some are infected, some are not, but those who are may infect their wives and other sex partners. Ministry of Health data estimate HIV prevalence in these communities around Lake Victoria at 35%, three times higher than Nyanza province (13%) and nearly six times higher than the national average (6.1%).

Some organizations are trying to intervene in this deadly cycle, but face many barriers. The biggest killer? According to Erick, “It’s not the HIV that kills. It’s the stigma.” Many women are reluctant to disclose their HIV status to their husbands. Out of fear that her husband will leave her and she will be in the same position as before, Faith keeps this dark secret. For this reason, Pathfinder International, an NGO based in Watertown, MA, is working in this area to de-stigmatize HIV. Through empowerment groups, medication distribution, and support for widows’ fish business, women like Faith are slowly coming around to the idea that they shouldn’t be scared. Faith is lucky and brave enough to have her story heard (with a little empowerment from Erick and Pathfinder), but most of these women are still too afraid.