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Floods Devastate the Women of Nduru Beach, Threatening the "No Sex For Fish" Program

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

It is 7 a.m. on a chilly morning in September.

Alice Akinyi Amonde is standing on a beach along the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria. She makes her living by selling fish, and she's waiting for her boat to come in from a night on the lake so she can take the fisherman's catch, clean it and sell it in a nearby village.

When things were going well in her village of Nduru Beach, she'd earn about $50 a day. Now she is lucky if she makes $3 a day. On a busy morning in November 2019, Alice Amonde stood on the boat she owns, inspecting the day's catch.

The reason for this downturn: In March, after prolonged heavy rains, Nduru Beach, population roughly 1,000, was literally submerged in water. The homes, typically constructed with sturdy and thick mud walls and metal roofs, were damaged and destroyed. Flood waters carried away the villagers' cows, chickens and other farm animals.

No deaths were reported among the residents, who fled inland. Some have found alternate housing or are staying with family or friends. Others live in crowded makeshift quarters on the grounds of a local church and in schoolrooms. They depend on aid and the charity of neighbors for basic needs such as food.

Even now, months later, many houses are submerged in five feet of water. Amonde is one of the very few who have returned, hoping to earn some money again in the fish trade. The fishing boat she owns survived the flooding.

She and her children are squatting in a rusty abandoned building next to the flooded beach.

No Sex For Fish

Last year, a team from NPR met Alice Amonde when we traveled to Kenya to do a story about a revolutionary program called No Sex For Fish.

In her village, and others along the lake, men do the fishing and women sell the catch. In the 1970s, a new practice arose that the women hated.

The population of fish in the lake began to diminish because of overfishing and environmental problems — sewage and agricultural runoff, for example.

So the men began saying: Give me sex, and I'll make sure you get fish to sell.

Many women felt they had no alternatives even if it meant they could be infected with HIV. "I exchange sex, I get fish," Milka Onyango told us. The 40-year-old mother of six said, "I don't care about getting HIV. Me, I need fish. I need earning to sustain my family."

The women in Nduru Beach came up with a bold idea: What if women owned the boats? What if there was ... "no sex for fish."

With the initial help of a Peace Corps volunteer, the women got grants from USAID and later from the charity World Connect to buy their own boats. They hired men to fish for them.

They flipped the power dynamic. Early on, with a series of grants, the No Sex For Fish program got about 30 boats and gave them to women, including Amonde. The women hired men to do the fishing for them. It was an unprecedented flip of the power dynamic. Suddenly, women were in charge. They earned a good income. They told us how happy and proud they were.

On a sunny Sunday during our visit in November 2019, we visited Amonde in her well-kept home. Sitting on a comfy couch, we shared a meal of fried, fresh-caught fish and homemade bread while a kitten played at our feet.

Now the lake has risen so high that she can only see the roof of her home.

The walls of other homes are above water but cracked, rendering them uninhabitable.

And the No Sex For Fish program has been devastated by the flooding and its aftermath.

Thick invasive water hyacinth weeds, washed ashore by the swollen lake, surround the homes and fishing boats. Some of the boats are so entangled they cannot be used. And when fishermen do go out they blame the tangle of weeds in the lake itself for the poor catch — they say they're not able to row out to breeding sites where they can net hundreds of fish.

"The swelling of the lake has totally destroyed our lives," she says.

"There are no chances of going back to my home," she says. "You cannot even know that my home stood there."

The reasons for this catastrophic flooding are up for debate. Researchers caution that one season of heavy and prolonged rains would not likely cause such a dramatic water level rise.

Reports are that earlier flooding along the beaches of Lake Victoria, in September 2019, was triggered by the closing of an outlet on the Nile River in Uganda.

Christopher Aura, a scientist with the Kenya Maritime Fisheries Institute, has his own theory: "The waters of Lake Victoria are swelling as a result of climate change." But more research is needed.

Flipping the power dynamic

Even before the catastrophic flooding, the collective No Sex For Fish had problems to address. Many of their wooden boats were no longer fit to go out on the lake. It costs about $1,000 for a new boat propelled by oars, $1,500 for a sailboat. Those sums were beyond the reach of the women.

So the collective was preparing a new grant for money to repair and replace their vessels. Justine Adhiambo Obura, a leader of the collective, was optimistic: "When you have hope, you can get."

Justine Adhiambo Obura is a leader in the No Sex For Fish program. She stands in front of one of the 30 boats that were obtained for local women with grant money, so they could own their own vessels and hire men to fish for them. The goal is to stop the practice of fishermen demanding sex in exchange for entrusting their catch to a woman fishmonger to sell.

Now, however, her mood – and the mood of her peers – is far different.

"My lovely house is gone," Obura says. "I have nothing."

Like Justine Adhiambo Obura, Naomy Akoth, a mother of four, is struggling to pick up the pieces.

Akoth got her own boat through No Sex For Fish. "I was very, very happy because my life changed," she says.

Naomy Akoth sits in her house.

She also owned a small boarding house along the shore where itinerant fishermen stayed. It's among the buildings destroyed by the floods.

"I am just surviving by the grace of God. The floods destroyed my source of living and destroyed me completely. I am currently staying with my children in a classroom and rely only on well-wishers for food," she says as she prepares breakfast for her children – their first meal since lunch the day before

"I was very scared especially for my four children. I guessed it was a matter of time before my home could be affected by the waters. Every day the waters kept rising and it was worsened by heavy rains which also brought flash floods," says Akoth.

The floods have washed away other means of supporting a family in Nduru Beach. Cheryl Awuor depended on her livestock for income.

"My goats died. They were swept away by the floods. I am still heartbroken, I had hopes of making a good life from them," says Awuor.

What next?

The fishing trade that sustained many of the families of Nduru Beach (and other fishing villages) has collapsed. The women from No Sex For Fish worry that even if fishing were to become possible again, the practice of trading sex for fish would re-emerge due to the difficulty of catching fish in the weed-clogged lake.

So the refugees from Nduru Beach live in limbo. The women interviewed by NPR in September 2020 say the government has not provided support or assistance. "The only people who have been helping those who were displaced are businessmen and a few politicians," says Cheryl Awuor.

But the government says there is a limit to what it will do. "Victims of such circumstances should know that when such tragedies occur, the government only assists to save lives and not to make life comfortable for them," is what Ruth Odinga, Kisumu County director of special programs, told NPR.

According to Odinga, the victims were warned in advance to move to higher grounds but some families did not heed the warnings – although several of the women interviewed by NPR dispute this. "No, we did not receive any warnings," says Naomy Akuth. "The region has been prone to floods the last couple of years but this year it was worse."

Patrick Higdon, who administered earlier grants to No Sex For Fish from the charity World Connect, sent a field agent to Nduru Beach this fall to assess the situation.

The women told the agent they very much want to go back and pick up their fishing trade. But they need financial support to do so, they said. And they worry that more flooding is in the future.

So they are trying to think of other ways to earn their living. If fishing isn't in the near future, the Nduru Beach refugees wonder about a dairy goats project — or growing rice on the flooded terrain.

There are "many hurdles to jump," says Higdon. But "the ideas and energy are there as ever." As is the hope for better days to come.

"I am still hopeful that fate will change for us," says Akoth, the mother of four. "The damage that we have received is immense and it will take us time to resume our normal trade. I am hoping that the water levels will reduce so that I can pick up my life again."

Source: NPR


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