The Widows of Lake Victoria

By Lindsay Hamsik
BU News Service

It is early morning at Usenge Beach on Lake Victoria in Kenya’s Nyanza Province.

Here in the westernmost region of Kenya, a cluster of women moves out to the faded fishing boats with cumbersome steps treading through thick lake-bottom mud, clutching fistfuls of cash and waiting their turn to negotiate with shouting fishermen. Some women will not get fish this morning. The lucky few balance large blue and red plastic troughs filled with silver sardine-like fish. The containers shift precariously on their heads as they elbow a path out of the crowd and toward the shore.

This is the steady ritual of the widows of Lake Victoria. Their husbands have died in fishing accidents, leaving them to support families in an area where jobs are few. Supplies of dagaa fish, one of the lake’s mainstays, have dwindled, and costs have shot up. For some women—including these widows—the only form of currency they can offer in order to feed their families are their bodies. The price of transactional sex, as this practice is known, too often has been HIV/AIDS infection—for the widows and fish vendors alike. The hydra-headed complexity of the issues of poverty, diminished fish supplies, and deadly disease has only increased the challenges for aid agencies.

Jakline Atieno Oduor, 34, began buying dagaa fish along the shores of Lake Victoria in 2002. Since then, the cost has quadrupled. She remembers a trough costing only 200 Kenya shillings, the equivalent of $2.50. Today, the price is $10. Dagaa women like Jakline are essentially middlewomen. They purchase fish directly from fishermen and resell it to “oringi,” the Luo word for female vendors who sell Dagaa in the local market. Jakline, and other women like her, traditionally make a profit of less than $3 per day.

“There are periods where the fishing is very difficult and we don’t get much,” Jakline said, motioning to the two women beside her sorting fish in large plastic bins. “But it is hardest for us widows who have no husbands and many children to raise.”

Mercy Achieng and Grace Akinyi nod and murmur in assent. The women were married to fishermen who died on Lake Victoria.

“There are six widows here now but there are more than ten, I think.” Jakline said, counting the women who are sorting fish onto a large net stretched across a dry patch of red earth.

Dagaa, or “omena” in the local Luo language, are a staple for the poor here in Nyanza Province. For some, it is the only affordable source of protein. Over the last two decades, foreign exports of Tilapia and Nile Perch to European Union countries and Israel have increased, making the poor increasingly reliant on Dagaa. The Kenyan Ministry of Fisheries and the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization report that fish stocks have fallen markedly in the last ten years as a result of over-fishing, climate change and environmental degradation.

“The bans are necessary,” said George Owiti, the Principal Fisheries Officer for the Nyanza Ministry of Fisheries. “There will be no fish left if we do not conserve them somehow.”

During the fishing bans, Jakline and the rest of the widows have no other source of income. Sometimes she relies on the support of family and friends, but most of the time she must look for alternative work.

“I sometimes have to travel very far to find work on farms or in people’s houses,” she said. “And I have to leave my children at home alone.”

To address decreasing stocks, the Kenyan government has begun implementing annual fishing bans for up to four months at a time to allow fish to reproduce. Fishing bans on Lake Victoria have been used since the early 1990s to reduce catch-decline, but for the most part they have focused on fish for export. Dagaa catch bans, which began in the late 1990s, were the first of their kind to affect the local economy and a product that the rural poor rely on heavily.

And sometimes, Jakine must barter with sex. Jakline is HIV positive. So is her 7-year-old son. Mercy and Grace are also positive. Each said they receive antiretroviral therapy (ART) at the local hospital in Bondo.

The United States and other donors throughout the international community have been working to meet the treatment needs for people living with the disease. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) began in 2003 when former President George W. Bush committed $15 billion over five years to combat rising rates of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria. According to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, before PEPFAR, 4 million people in sub-Saharan Africa required treatment while only 50,000 people were receiving ART. Today, more than 4.5 million people are estimated to be receiving anti-retroviral therapy.

Rodger Ochieng, a founder and project coordinator for the Nyanza-based organization, SCODA for Human Rights, is working with widows like Jakline. Ochieng agrees that treatment is critical, but says that an entire system of poverty must be addressed in order to prevent new infections. Ochieng says women often engage in transactional sex to account for lost income as a result of dwindling dagaa stocks and the months-long government fishing bans. This economic survival tactic is can be passed from mothers to daughters.

“We have so far to go,” Ochieng said.

Action AID Kenya, an international NGO funded by bilateral donors like the European Union and the UK’s Department for International Development, partnered with SCODA. In 2011, with Action AID Kenya’s help, SCODA offered trainings in business and entrepreneurship to 30 women living in Honge and Nyaudenge beach towns on Lake Victoria. SCODA distributed small seed grants valued at 5,000 shillings, approximately $60, to dagaa fish women.

Poverty can increase the likelihood of risk behaviors and consequently, vulnerability to HIV/AIDS transmission. In order to address HIV/AIDS transmission in these lakeside communities, Ochieng contends that organizations must also address why women cannot provide for their families with income from dagaa sales alone. Alternative income-generating activities like SCODA’s program help offset vulnerability created by fishing bans and today, with the help of the grants and training from SCODA, some women are running small businesses selling grains, charcoal, and maize or have opened small village food kiosks.

“The women that we have helped have left dagaa fishing and are now making more income,” Ochieng said.

One of those women is Emily Atieno, a 37-year-old widow who, with the help of a SCODA grant, left the dagaa trade and opened a food kiosk in Honge Beach. Today with the income from her small village store, she is able to send five of her seven children to school. Before the grant, her girls carried water and her boys fished with the older men.

“This has made a difference in my life,” she said. “Now, I don’t have to fight for dagaa on the beach.”

But for some widows like Catherine Akinyi, 30, making ends meet even with the help of a SCODA grant has been challenging. She opened a small food kiosk and is selling beans, charcoal, and other vegetables. In a hushed voice outside earshot from SCODA representatives, Catherine motioned around her home and to the vegetables she was planning to sell that day and confided that her highest priority is preventing her children from returning to being slaves to the beach and dagaa fishing lifestyle.

“This is not enough,” she said, hurriedly, pointing to the vegetables on the floor she would need to sell that day. “How can I pay my children’s school fees?”

A sign from Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization
A sign from Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization