Tag Archives: healthcare

Malawi’s fisherman more likely to catch HIV: Reports

Malawian Fishermen

Lake Chilwa’s fishermen lead risky lifestyles that increase their chances of contracting and spreading HIV. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

Ronald Gomo, 37, is a fisherman who would rather live alone than associate with the other fishermen who reside on the shorelines of Malawi’s Lake Chilwa.

“Before, when I was living over there [with the other men], I spent all my earnings on having sex with prostitutes.”He says, “Now, that I stay here, I am able to keep my money.”

Gomo has been living in relative isolation for the past seven years in a floating house he built himself. There is no running water, electricity or formal toilet.

He chooses to live under these conditions because it prevents his self-described “womanizing ways”.

Like many of Malawi’s 50,000 fishermen, Gomo is married. In fact, he has two wives. However, that never stopped him from hiring prostitutes when the catch was good, and the alcohol was flowing.

“It was too easy,” he laughs, “some women there were even willing to give sex for fish”

If Gomo knows one thing, it’s that he doesn’t want to return to his former ways. But it’s what he doesn’t know that’s cause for concern. Gomo has never undergone an HIV test which is worrying considering 17 per cent of the population surrounding Lake Chilwa is infected.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, fisherman in developing countries suffer from a high HIV prevalence, often five-to-ten times higher than the general population.

Their vulnerability to the virus can be attributed to numerous factors, including their mobile lifestyles, long months spent away from home, access to daily cash income, readily available commercial sex, and the hyper-masculine fishing subculture which promotes risky behaviours such as unprotected sex and substance abuse.

Little research has been done on just how many fishermen at Lake Chilwa are HIV positive, but some academic papers have studied the correlation between the lake’s high water levels during the rainy season and an increase in reported infections.

When water levels are low, fish are harder to find which results in a food shortage for small pockets of the surrounding population. It’s during these times that women will offer themselves in return for the catch of the day.

However, when the levels are stable, the fishermen recover from a short-term economic slump and earn massive profits. Ultimately, they become icons of prosperity in their impoverished communities. This allows them to frequent prostitutes and have several wives or girlfriends, but it also implies that they’re playing key roles in spreading the infection.

According to Clement Mwazumbumba, Lake Chilwa’s District AIDS Coordinator, many of the men don’t know their HIV status because access to clinics is limited due to the very nature of the fishing industry.

“Fishing is a daily engagement, and everything you do depends on your catch” He says, “It would take a lot of planning for someone to abandon their work, go to the shore and travel some kilometers away just to undergo a test.”

Mwazumbumba adds that entering the secluded pockets where fisherman work is a challenge.

“We have tried to penetrate the lakeshore area with services, but it’s expensive to a mount mobile clinic,” he says “I think if we had very aggressive focus on the area, maybe more people would know their status.”

Children denied medical treatment in lieu of prayer

Some parents in Malawi, including Yesaya Mussa (above), refuse to seek medical attention when their children fall ill, believing instead that prayer will heal them. Photo by Denis Calnan.

By Rhodes Msonkho and Denis Calnan

Interpretations of the Bible are keeping some parents in Malawi from accessing medical treatment for their children, according to police spokespeople.

Yesaya Mussa’s is one such parent. His two-year old daughter was burned in an accident and kept from medical attention while he and others prayed for her to get better.

Mussa runs a small hardware shop in the Zomba market and says he has not done anything wrong.

“The Bible says that whoever believes in God can be healed through prayer,” Mussa explains in the local language, Chichewa.

He is upset at the current government for infringing on his freedom to practice his beliefs.

“We never go to hospitals – we are still sticking to what God is saying,” he says, “We are facing numerous challenges with the current government.”

Mussa recounts the day the police came to his house to take his daughter to the hospital and him, to prison. Mussa stayed behind bars for one night, before being released on bail. He was later given a 15-month suspended sentence in order to return to his daughter as her guardian.

Nicholas Gondwa, the police spokesperson for Malawi’s Eastern Region, says the situation of parents refusing medical attention reached a critical point during a measles outbreak in 2010. Parents were urged to get their children vaccinated against measles, but some refused

“It came as a surprise,” says Gondwa, “[because] we had so many cases.”

After getting the disease, Gondwa says several children were isolated in their homes as their parents prayed for their recovery. The police were tipped off by neighbours – but not before children died from the disease.

Tomeck Nyaude of the Zomba Police recalls a case where a father was arrested after denying his son medical attention when the boy fractured a bone in his leg playing soccer. The police were informed by one of the boy’s siblings seven days after the incident.  Sadly, the easily treatable fracture led to the leg being amputated.

“When you are enjoying your own rights and freedoms,” says Nyaude, speaking about the freedom to religion, “make sure that you do not involve and injure somebody [else’s] rights.”

Nyaude remembers the case of Mussa and his daughter, which was brought to his division’s attention by one of Mussa’s neighbours. When his police unit arrived in the community, they found the church elders praying for Mussa’s daughter. Nyaude says the father claimed in court that he realized he had done something wrong and was therefore released on a suspended sentence.

Mussa gives a contradicting story, saying he was released because he was a first-time offender and continues to stand by his belief that if his child is sick or injured again, the only attention she should receive is that of prayer.

“We are doing this based on the faith we have and what the scripture is saying,” says Mussa. “I am encouraging those who are discouraged and might think of bowing down to this pressure, that we should not allow that. They should persevere during this trying time.”