Kenya: Sex in a time of famine

By Alex Ndriangu

It is early evening and the sun's rays paint a golden atmosphere across the bare plains of Hombo village in Kibwezi district.

For Eliza Wayua, it is time to bid her two children and her frail mother-in-law goodbye. She will be out in the night on an errand that none of them understands.

But they do know that when she comes back the following morning, she will bring food to last them a day. She is their only minder.

Mounting her bike, she waves at them and navigates the narrow, maze-like footpaths of this semi arid land. She will cycle 10km to Makindu, a small, dusty town on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

She arrives at Makindu just before dusk. A few trucks are zooming past while many others are parked on both sides of the road.

Business today promises to be good.

Wayua leaves her bike with a watchman and vanishes into the dusk. The watchman will receive a stipend the next morning for keeping vigil on the bike.

The Nairobi-Mombasa highway has shocking figures on HIV/Aids prevalence rates. World Vision HIV/Aids advocacy adviser Simon Duffy says one in every three adults living in markets along the highway is HIV positive.

This has been attributed to truck drivers and conductors who have been cited as a high risk group. It is in these towns and markets that they meet commercial sex workers - another high risk group.

In Kibwezi district alone, there are about 20 support groups comprising people living with Aids.

Daniel Keleli, who heads the Kibwezi Network of People Living with Aids, says the current famine and food shortage in parts of Ukambani will lead to many people being infected as they try to escape starvation.

"Prostitution seems to be the only option out of hunger. The relief food offered by the government is too little and irregular," says Mr Keleli.

About 75 per cent of people in this region live below the poverty line. The land is semi arid and unproductive, with very little economic activity.

Charcoal burning has for a long time been the only means of upkeep. But with the current drought, trees have diminished, leaving residents with no reliable source of livelihood.

"We are seeing girls as young as 16 engaging in commercial sex with truck drivers," Mr Keleli says, adding that there has been an influx of commercial sex workers in Makindu and Kibwezi towns where he operates businesses.

Reports indicate that women and girls affected by famine in the interior rural areas are moving to towns on the highway for commercial sex to fend for themselves and their families.

As a sign of the great concern that Aids poses to residents, there are several non-governmental organisations on the ground fighting to curb the spread of the virus.

With the help of Willy Mutunga, a VCT counsellor at Hope Worldwide Kenya, we meet Ann Soila, a commercial sex worker who heads a support group for sex workers that urges them to bargain for safe sex.

"Women and girls joining this trade are so desperate that they don't press for safe sex, thus risking infection."

Soila adds that the rapid increase in sex workers has resulted in stiff competition among them. Soila is a bit skimpy on how much the sex workers earn. But after much prodding, she opens up.

"They normally charge about Ksh500 ($6) and above for 'fry' (without a condom) and as low as Ksh200 ($2.5) for 'boil' (sex with a condom)." She adds that the charges vary with the kind of client and the level of bargain.

Nelson Mbithi, the Kibwezi district Aids and STD coordinator, says there has been an increase in prevalence rates in towns on the highway." Since the drought worsened this year, the prevalence rate has risen from 5.2 per cent to 5.7 per cent."

Mbithi says the current drought and looming shortage of condoms has aggravated the matter.

"New infections may rise due to women and girls turning to the highway for sustenance," he says, adding that they have put 4,029 people on anti-retro virals recently.

The highway connects the three East African countries - Uganda via Busia and Tanzania through Namanga

There is hope, however, for the desperate women. The rains hitting parts of the country could last long enough to sustain crops in the region.

This will ensure that Wayua and other women have food for their children and keep off risky behaviour.