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.”