AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Midmorning is the busiest, loudest time of the day on the shores of Lake Victoria. That's when local women show up to buy fish from the boats just arriving after a night on the lake.
CHANG: This scene plays out every day in Kenya's fishing communities. But there's another kind of trade that happens here as well.
JUSTINE ADHIAMBO OBURA: Have sex, get fish.
CHANG: The exchange of sex for fish. It's no secret. It's been going on for years, but now some women are saying enough. NPR's Rebecca Davis takes us to the village of Nduru Beach, home to a cooperative called No Sex for Fish.
REBECCA DAVIS, BYLINE: Naomy Akoth stands at the door to her home. She's a tall, thoughtful-looking woman wearing a red-and-white checked apron. It's typical of the women who work in the fish trade. Naomy says she became a fishmonger simply because she had no other choice.
NAOMY AKOTH: (Through interpreter) My husband, Dave (ph), he left me with six children.
DAVIS: For a while, Naomy tried gathering up bundles of sticks to sell for firewood.
AKOTH: (Through interpreter) After the death of my husband, life was very difficult. It was unbearable.
DAVIS: She says she and her children were eating only once a day, porridge that they got from her neighbors. And at one point, she was so hungry she just gave up and went to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. A friend came by and said, what's going on?
AKOTH: (Through interpreter) So she decided to give me 500 shillings to buy food. After giving me the 500 shillings, I thought it was wise for me to start some business.
DAVIS: She took most of the 500 shillings and bought fish. She hoped to sell it at the market and start a business that could support her family. But it wasn't that easy to get the fish. And then she noticed something - fishermen would sell to people they seemed to know. So she started hanging around the water where the fishermen gathered. She was a little unsure. She stood away from the group, and then one day, a fisherman called her over, and he handed her a bundle of fish.
AKOTH: (Through interpreter) After giving me fish, I asked him, how much? And the fisherman told me that this one is for free.
DAVIS: The next day, he offered her fish again. But this time, he said...
AKOTH: (Through interpreter) How could we meet? And I told him that I have a free time in the afternoon. After that, we met in the afternoon, and that's where we started engaging in sex. I was disparaged. I just had to.
DAVIS: It was the beginning of an arrangement that people around here call jaboya. Sometimes it's sex for fish, and sometimes it's just to guarantee that the fish will be sold to you.
DAVIS: Naomy's neighbor, Justine Adhiambo Obura, knows all about jaboya. When she first got into the fish business, a fisherman much, much younger than she was said, let's meet in the evening.
OBURA: No, ma'am, I don't want your money. You are so cute. What I want is just your body.
DAVIS: Justine is a big presence in this village. Everyone knows her.
OBURA: I know, you are embarrassed. First of all, you are embarrassed. And I said, you are very stupid. How can you tell me that?
DAVIS: She used to be a health worker counselling people on HIV, a board member of the local hospital. She was not going to let that fisherman get away without a lecture. She tracked him down.
OBURA: I said, you know, if this is the way you are going, you are going to the lake, coming out and asking women for sex, you will be infected.
DAVIS: You will get AIDS, like Naomy did, like so many in this community. The place, Justine says, is full of widows and orphans. About a thousand people live in Nduru Beach, and according to Kenya's Ministry of Health, as many as 40% may be HIV-positive. Justine and the other women have done what they can to make things better. They run a savings club...
OBURA: Thank you very much for coming early.
DAVIS: ...To help each other pay for food and transportation to the hospital for HIV treatment. But more than that,
OBURA: Have sex, get fish.
DAVIS: That's just the way it is. And then about eight years ago, Justine and a group of women were standing together on the beach when this guy walked up, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in the area. They'd met him before. But that day, Justine says, they just opened up to him, telling him all about jaboya. Justine remembers that he asked them...
OBURA: What would you think can at least reduce this thing of sex for fish?
DAVIS: Justine describes the asking of this question as the moment that woke them all up. It was as if, for the first time, she and the other women could imagine a world without sex for fish. And here's what they told him.
OBURA: If the women can be empowered, they get boats; they do their own business.
DAVIS: This was a bold, even revolutionary idea. Traditionally, only men owned boats. But true to his word, the Peace Corps volunteer applied for a grant, and they got it.
OBURA: When I got that we can do something, we can stop sex for fish, I catched it with my two hands.
DAVIS: The women formed a cooperative, and they called it No Sex for Fish. And they became the owners of five beautiful new boats, strong wooden boats with sails. And then another grant paid for more boats for more members of No Sex for Fish. They were business ladies, bosses hiring men to fish for them, including Naomy.
OBURA: One of our members of the society? (Laughter).
AKOTH: Yes, yes, I'm a member.
DAVIS: And once Naomy had her own boat, she said she could give up jaboya for good.
AKOTH: (Through interpreter) I was very, very happy because my life changed. Even my children were very, very happy that I was owning a boat.
DAVIS: But then the second round of boats weren't made very well.
OBURA: Yeah, the timber which was used to make those boats were not quality - in fact, the lowest one.
DAVIS: The women made repairs, but then the cooperative ran out of money for more repairs. Several boats were grounded.
AKOTH: (Non-English language spoken).
DAVIS: Naomi's boat, too.
AKOTH: (Through interpreter) I was very discouraged because the money that I was getting from the boat, the one that I was using to pay for my firstborn's school fee, and when it fell apart, my heart was broken, and I felt low.
DAVIS: Over the next several years, three more grants helped the cooperative squeak by. But now out of 10 boats, only about a third are up and running. Justine says, don't give up hope. The cooperative has submitted a grant for another 10 boats and nets. Patrick Higdon is with World Connect, one of the groups that's been funding the No Sex for Fish project. He says even though the project is fragile, it has made a difference in the women's lives.
PATRICK HIGDON: A lot of women have earned income over going on seven, eight years now that this has been going on. With that income, they've paid their kids' school fees, they've paid for medical insurance, they've purchased livestock to diversify their income.
DAVIS: Eight other villages besides Nduru Beach now belong to the cooperative. By owning boats, he says, many of the women in these fishing villages have broken free of customs that had made their lives so difficult.
DAVIS: Justine looks out over the choppy waters of Lake Victoria and points.
OBURA: That one there, you can see. Can you see that one there? That is the first boat which we started with as No Sex for Fish.
DAVIS: The one with the...
OBURA: The one in the water...
DAVIS: With the big sail?
DAVIS: I don't know. It looks kind of majestic.
DAVIS: People here in Nduru Beach say sex for fish, yeah, it still happens, but not nearly as much as it did before, before the women had their boats, before No Sex for Fish.
Rebecca Davis, NPR News, Nduru Beach, Kenya.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "NEVERGREEN")
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