By Gioia Forster
The communities around Lake Victoria in Kenya rely heavily on fishing to earn their living. With the population increasing and competition fierce, many women are being forced to have sex with fishermen to secure a share of the daily catch.
Hundreds of women wait on the beach, looking out over the water, plastic buckets in their arms.
Wooden fishing boats piled high with mukene, small sardine-like fish native to Lake Victoria, sail towards them. When they arrive, the women seem to know exactly which fishermen they can buy from.
The women leave quickly, their baskets full of fish, but no money appears to change hands.
That’s because the women have to pay for their wares in a currency that cannot be seen. It’s not spoken about at Sindo Beach, but everyone knows it’s part of the job: sex.
“You have to sell your body,” says Perez Anjango with a broad grin that shows a large gap between her front teeth – not because she’s happy about it, but because for women like her, who live on the lake in western Kenya and sell fish for a living, it’s simply a fact of life.
“I had to do it,” says Anjango, who estimates that she’s now about 55 years old. When she was younger, she spent 15 years as a fish seller. “You don’t get fish unless you’re friends with the fishermen,” she says.
“Friendship” – that’s what most women call it. The practice of having sex with fishermen in order to secure some a share of the catch is officially known as “jaboya.”
And it’s a widespread phenomenon around Lake Victoria, the biggest lake in Africa, surrounded by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Fish and the fish trade are an inextricable part of life here. But overfishing and pollution have been putting a strain on the lake for years now, while the introduction of the Nile perch in the 1950s has led to the extinction of native species.
All the while, the population around the lake is growing and more fish are needed to feed them.
When and why the practice of jaboya was established is not clear.
Irene Ojuok, an environment management expert at aid organisation World Vision, has her own theory. “At some point, the demand for fish just couldn’t be met,” she says.
The competition for fish was so great and job opportunities so limited that the fishermen could choose what they wanted from the saleswomen. “So the women became the victims of circumstance,” says Ojuok.
Jaboya can have deadly consequences. “So many women have got illnesses,” Anjango remembers. “Some of them have died because of this work.”
Around 1.5 million Kenyans live with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, according to the Health Ministry. That’s around 5.9 per cent of people above the age of 15.
And the region with by far the highest HIV rate is the one around Lake Victoria. In the county of Homa Bay, where Sindo Beach is located, around 26 per cent of the population is HIV positive.
“The jaboya problem is one of the main factors behind the high HIV rates in the region around the lake,” says Ojuok.
Fishermen leave the beach at Sindo, around an hour and a half’s drive down bumpy roads from the town of Homa Bay, at night and return in the early morning.
The women are waiting for them. They’ve slept with the fishermen beforehand, says Anjango, so they can be sure they won’t come away empty-handed.
If you’re a fisherman’s particular “girlfriend” you might get a slightly bigger share of the catch, she says. Or you might be served first and get the freshest fish, which will sell best at the market.
But sex doesn’t replace money. “You have to have sex with a fisherman. But after the sex you have to pay him,” says Caroline Alima, a 38-year-old who was also a fish seller for many years. “So the sex is basically free.”
A full bucket of fish, around 35 kilos, costs around 1 000 shillings (10 dollars).
Collins Ochieng, the local government administrator at Sindo Beach, admits that “some women” have sex with the fishermen at his beach.
It happens in secret, he says. Many of the women are very poor; often, they are widows.
“The women try by any means to get the fish,” he says. And because the population is growing, the problem is getting worse.
The sun is now high in the sky, beating down on the beach, and most of the women have collected their fish. With the help of other women, they lay out huge nets on the sand and fasten them down with large stones.
The fish have to be dried so they can sell them later at the market. If they remain wet for too long, they spoil.
If you ask them about jaboya, most of the women will talk about it, but few will admit to doing it themselves.
Jaboya seems almost impossible to combat, but World Vision and other organizations are trying to train women up in other professions in order to free them from it.
Anjango and her husband have been breeding fish since last year in their own pond, which is around half the size of a tennis court.
Life is much easier now, she says. “You earn more and the work is easier.” She is speaking just a few metres away from the lake which for years guaranteed her income but also inflicted so much shame and pain.
One of her three daughters sells fish now too, but she only buys it at the market, says Anjango. “She keeps right away from the beaches.”