Kenya: Jaboya culture creeps back among fishing communities in Homa Bay

By Kang-Chun Cheng
Posted on Friday, 11 March 2022 19:02

Ladies on Nduru Beach along the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)
Ladies on Nduru Beach along the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Residents in lake regions are considered some of Kenya’s most marginalised communities, commonly lacking access to basic services such as sanitation, healthcare, proper education, and clean water - a far cry from the cosmopolitan cities. Nduru is only 16 kilometres from Kisumu, yet driving on the unpaved road takes more than an hour, and that’s if the road isn’t washed out. In this photoessay, we meet the women and men of a fishing community and why jaboya culture is returning.

By mid-morning, the crowd had already gathered. Those waiting for the overnight fishing boats to dock are mostly women, who come outfitted with knives and buckets. A few men also mill around the shore.

Along the banks of Lake Victoria, fishing runs deep as a cultural livelihood within these lacustrine communities, many of which are Luo.

The energy is buzzing, expectant–rhythms of life here orbit around fish: catching, trading, cleaning, and eating. Even the time spent waiting, as they do now, is an integral part of socialising.

Morning on Nduru beach, where ladies and other community members wait for overnight fishing boats to alight. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

‘Would you follow the law if you’re hungry?’

In tandem with fundamental healthcare access issues, the high degree of sexualization endemic to fishing cultures also plays a significant role in HIV and other STI transmission. HIV rates are also amongst some of the country’s most dire, as high as 22-25% by some estimations.

“When you grow up in an environment where the conversations have always been obscene, sex just isn’t that taboo,” says Betty Okero, a human rights advocate for CSO Network based in Kisumu. “Fishermen may have conversations that seem shocking to us, but for them, it’s normal.”

Just a generation ago, fishermen used to work naked in the water, a major reason why women were excluded. A host of challenges over the past four decades – unregulated fishing practices, climate change, and ecological alterations from agricultural and sewage runoff – have contributed to major declines in fish populations.

Morning on Nduru beach, where ladies and other community members wait for overnight fishing boats to alight. Not only is this a major source of a protein, but also a major social event. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Intensifying competition and economic imbalance manifested in jaboya: the practice of trading sex for fish to either secure a supply of fish or jump the queue. Fishermen arrive bearing limited stock and reserve a portion of the best catch for their sexual partners. The tighter the competition, the more others feel pressured to partake.

“Would you follow the law if you’re hungry?” asks Lorine Anyang’o, a member of No Sex for Fish, a 12-women strong cooperative. At 36, she has seven children and is HIV positive.

“The woman has to have something more than just her body to be independent,” says Justine Adhiambo Obura, the chairwoman of No Sex for Fish. The turning point for her was when she realised that some women have the same jaboya – also the term for the fisherman complicit in the exchange – as their daughters.

Justine Adhiambo Obura, the chairwoman of No Sex for Fish. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Women set sail

Traditionally, men own boats and catch fish, while women buy fish from them for market distribution. Obura says that they’ve been working to uproot this framework. Dominik Mucklow, a Peace Corps volunteer in Nduru, secured a grant from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2011 to provide women with their own boats.

The grant paid for the first six boats, allowing them to go out on the water to fish themselves and hire a crew. Ownership flipped the dynamics; the capacity to provide employment overcame initial doubts some villagers had about this endeavour.

One lady at Nduru Beach along the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Livelihood options for places such as Nduru remain hampered. Despite realising the degradation that the most common and affordable type of fishing net wrecks (effectively trawling the lake-bottom, scooping up immature fish, crayfish, even eggs), the Nduru community, like most of their counterparts, lack resources to invest in more expensive nets, or other aquaculture options such as cage farming and fish ponds, which are ultimately better for cultivating healthy fish populations. “We know the model, but lack the means,’ says Anyang’o.

There aren’t many options besides fishing, small-scale agriculture, such as cassava and potatoes, and some livestock keeping.

Climate change

Added to those limitations is climate change. Since 2020, a combination of floods and bad weather has taken a toll on these already impoverished communities. Nearly a hundred households were displaced as their properties were inundated.

Women fight women over their jaboya, the men fight too, and are lonely. We want to get away from this by putting a bridge between us and jaboya.

Obura had built a greenhouse where she was trying her hand at growing tomatoes, a project she was forced to abandon. Other environmental issues include the continued battle with invasive water hyacinth growth, choking out fishing areas on the lake, continued plummeting of fish populations and catch size, and strong waves that broke a majority of the boats.

Fishes have been getting scarcer due to a combination of overfishing and flooding from climate change. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

There has been no government assistance to the area since the floods.

Once based on unwritten rules, fishermen would respect fish breeding grounds as off-limits. But now it’s more of a free for all. “There was a time when we felt empowered, but nature has worked against us,” says Obura. At one point, all 12 women had their own boats, but the situation has changed in recent years.

“Even with the current model, I think there should be fairer ownership,” Anyang’o says. “So that we all have a say in how fish is distributed.”

As catches dwindle, jaboya makes a come-back

“The governor of Kisumu (Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o) said that we shouldn’t be living here, that we’re disturbing the wildlife,” she laughs ironically. “Even though we’ve been living here for generations.” As catches dwindle and competitions rise, jaboya is making a return.

We tell them that if a fisherman tries to get them to engage in something strange, to tell their mothers.

Alice Akinyi, the treasurer of No Sex for Fish, describes the practice as the worst thing she could wish on her surroundings: “It has cost death and suffering.” It also causes conflict, unraveling the peace and tranquility that Luos so cherish. “Women fight women over their jaboya, the men fight too, and are lonely,” says Obura. “We want to get away from this by putting a bridge between us and jaboya.”

‘No sex for fish’

The women of No Sex for Fish tries to communicate to girls as young as 12 in their village, using their elderly age as clout, to educate them on how to protect themselves. “We tell them that if a fisherman tries to get them to engage in something strange, to tell their mothers,” Akinyi says.

Ladies on Nduru Beach along the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria. (photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Community fisherman Tom Abuto believes that the culture can only change from the bottom up. “When you become stable financially, then you can’t be bought or shared by someone,” he says. “If you want to help the women, help the men also.”

Easter Okech, the executive director of KEFEADO (Kenya Female Advisory Organization), a women’s rights and gender equality NGO based in Kisumu, says that although democratising ownership is a good start, in practice, working dynamics are more complex.

“Issues of access and control are done differently. For instance, almost no females row the boats. Most coxswains are still male since they go on the water at night when the security is different. Women generally have to stay at home with the family. It’s different work; gendered work.”

Okero, however, does not support flattening the nuances of jaboya with the tagline “no sex for fish.”

“It’s a problem with power, not culture,” she says. “We need to stop giving women the responsibility of solving the problem. How can we get men to take accountability to balance out the power dynamics? Besides, in every line of business, special relations develop between buyers and sellers – appropriate or otherwise – it’s part of the nuance.”

“By doing so, we’re demonising the fishing industry – labelling the fishing community as morally bankrupt,” says Okero. “By circumventing entrenched cultural roots, we’re not looking at how the fishing industry is managed. It’s very masculine. Young girls recognise that it’s the men who have the money, and therefore the power. The market chain is skewed when we say that there’s more going on than just supply and demand. Men are taking advantage of this by inserting a new condition for women to get fish. The bottom line is that there should be a fair and equal opportunity for women to get fish.”

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