They catch fish and some of them catch women as well for sex. Fishing in Mangochi is more than catching fish; sex is a vibrant part that adds some rich, if not deadly, flavour to the fishing industry.
And women are making quite a killing out of both industries. The reason for this, though, is familiar.
“We are very poor here,” said a young woman in early 20s. She is from Malunga village in T/A Mponda. “Offering our bodies to fishermen in exchange for fish is an easy way of acquiring fish for sale and relish.”
She said sometimes she sleeps with a man for fish worth less than K100. Nevertheless, she is determined that as long as she remains poor, selling sex will remain a viable avenue for securing fish and a little money.
“I know that I risk contracting HIV but what option do I have?” she queried.
Not that she is alone in this sex trade. A growing number of girls and women in Lake Malawi fishing grounds of Mangochi are active members of this trade.
“Most of these men are business people who come all the way from places like Makanjira to catch fish on this part of the lake. They are quite charming and clever. They tell the women that since both of them look healthy then there is no need for them to use condoms to protect themselves from HIV,” said Shukura Jala, a member of Mtimbuka Home Based Care (HBC) support group in T/A Mponda.
Jala says besides fishermen, other people who go to Mangochi from places like Blantyre to buy fish for sale are also key players in this rough game. Even women from distant places, she said, also offer themselves to fishermen to secure good prices for fish.
Mtimbuka HBC is one of several such groups working under the Youth Against AIDS Organisation (Yagao). The organisation started in 2002 and has a catchment area of 38 villages, from Bolowera to Chindongo village.
Operating on a K3.5 million funding from the National Aids Commission (Nac), Yagao has 15 youth clubs working under it.
Yagao’s Communications Officer, Tassila Kagwa, says fighting the sex-for-fish trade thriving in the area is one of the major challenges confronting her organisation.
“We use these youth clubs to disseminate messages about the dangers of such practices. Although we faced some resistance at the beginning, things are now improving,” said Kagwa.
Kagwa hinted that another problem complicating the fight against the pandemic in Yagao’s catchment area is that people are not yet free to discuss sex and HIV/Aids issues in public as they consider these a taboo. However, she is optimistic that with civic education the organisation is carrying out in the area, people will gradually start opening up on issues of HIV and Aids.
An aspect that gives the issue a deadly edge is that the fish trade is usually very vibrant at night. In fact, as late as 11 PM the place remains as busy as a bee. Go there at 3 o’clock at dawn, you will be surprised by the level of activity at places like Mwawa fishery.
We went to Mwawa fishing port at around 10:30 in the night to try to understand this nocturnal business. Upon arrival we were overwhelmed by an array of over 200 fishing boats lying at the shore. Although fish business was at a low ebb on the night we still managed to get a fair sample of what life is like there.
Here we met a group of women passionately haggling with the fishermen for lower prices.
“Sometimes these women offer us sex so that they get good prices,” a fisherman from Makanjira said. The fisherman, who identified himself as Ali, conceded to have slept with some of them.
According to the president of Yagao, Gift Chimbalanga, on a busy night, there are almost a thousand people at the fishery.
“After striking the sex deals they go to resthouses and other places to play the game,” Chimbalanga whispered to me as we watched some frenetic haggling business.
Still trying to make heads and tails of the trade, we made our way to a hot entertainment centre called at Makawa trading centre, a busy fish selling centres in the district. We were welcomed by music that threatened to blow off eardrums.
But behind the music lay the story.
“Most of the young men dancing with those ladies are fishermen who have come here to spend money from fish sales,” Richard Biswick, Yagao Programme Manager, said as Joseph Nkasa’s Timvere Malamulo, pounded out from a music system. I wondered if all of the patrons were friends of the law.
I was struck by a girl whose age I put at 17. As she swayed her hips to the music and offered her lips for a kiss to a man old enough to be her grandfather, I wondered whether all she got at the end of the day were pleasure and money.
There could be something else, dangerous of course. And she seemed to damn the consequences.
Mangochi is one of the districts in the country hard hit by HIV infection. The district has a prevalence rate of 17 percent, translating into 53,000 infected people. For Yagao catchment area, Chimbalanga says although no official survey has been conducted to establish the prevalence rate, the situation is no better.
When such statistics are combined with the increase of risk behaviour in the district, the HIV situation looks both grim and daunting. However, Chimbalanga prefers to look at the positive side of the issue.
“We have intensified civic education campaign in our catchment area and we are optimistic that things will improve as time passes,” beamed Chimbalanga.
Minister for Social Development and Persons with Disabilities, Clement Chiwaya, conceded that the fishing industry in the district is a double-edged sword as it is both a major source of income for people and a big factor promoting the spread of HIV.
“The best solution to the problem is to conduct civic education on the dangers of the behaviour. In this regard, I commend Yagao for taking up the initiative to disseminate relevant information to these people,” said Chiwaya Thursday when he presided at a Yagao programme to hand over sewing machines to youth groups at Chipoka 1 village, in T/A Mponda.
Apart from fishing, tourism also provides fuel for the spread of HIV in the district. Kagwa said tourists sleep around with hotel workers and local people, spreading the virus in the process.
“As a response to the problem, hotel managers formed a group called Workers Aids Friendly Committee, which educates hotel workers on the dangers of the epidemic,” said Kagwa.
As at now, fishing in Mangochi is providing fish and the risk of contracting HIV. People of Mangochi and from other areas are free to choose one or both.