Rebbeccah Atieno stands with one of the boats owned by the No Sex for Fish women. Once a proud boat owner herself, she says she lost her home when Lake Victoria swept through the village; her boat no longer functions. She now earns a living working on rice farms and selling food at a kiosk. A widowed mother of six, she worries about how she'll pay school fees without her fishing income.
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Rebbeccah Atieno stands with one of the boats owned by the No Sex for Fish women. Once a proud boat owner herself, she says she lost her home when Lake Victoria swept through the village; her boat no longer functions. She now earns a living working on rice farms and selling food at a kiosk. A widowed mother of six, she worries about how she'll pay school fees without her fishing income.

In November 2019, we profiled a group with a bold name stating its aim: No Sex for Fish. Women in Nduru Beach, a Kenyan community on the shores of Lake Victoria, wanted to change the dynamics in the local fish business. Men did the fishing and often demanded sex with female fishmongers before giving them a supply of fish to sell at nearby markets. The practice has led to high rates of HIV. The women hated the practice but selling fish was their livelihood. Then they had a revolutionary idea: What if they owned their own boats and hired men to fish for them? In 2010, with support from international donors and charities, they got their boats. Eventually 30 women in Nduru Beach and neighboring communities became boat owners. We spoke to members and supporters of the collective to see how they're now faring.

No Sex for Fish is facing a precarious future.

At its peak, the women in this collective, living in Nduru Beach and neighboring communities, had obtained some 30 boats with their initial grant from PEPFAR, the U.S. HIV program, and subsequent funding from the charity World Connect, which supports small-scale local programs.

But when we visited in 2019, a number of the wooden boats had been damaged by time and use. The women were preparing a new grant application. With a new boat costing $1,000 or more, they simply couldn't afford replacements without help.

Then came two unforeseen blows that struck simultaneously in early 2020: catastrophic flooding and the global pandemic.

After heavy rainfall, rising waters swamped Nduru Beach, which sits on low-lying ground. Homes were submerged. The 1,000 or so residents had to be evacuated. Many of them had no choice but to live in a shelter set up in a local school. All of them, including the No Sex for Fish boat owners, lost their ability to earn a living in the midst of an economic downturn triggered by the pandemic.

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Rebbeccah Atieno, a proud boat owner, says she lost her home and all her property when waters from Lake Victoria swept through the village, including her boat and with it her ability to support her family of six children. The widowed 37-year-old moved to a home on higher ground where she paid about $30 a month in rent before finding a place to stay for free. A kindhearted acquaintance who'd left the area to live in Nairobi invited Atieno to stay in her house in Amboo, a village a few miles from Nduru Beach, for the time being.

At one point, Atieno contracted malaria. "There was a time I was sick and down," she says. "I thought I would die. My worry was my children since there was no food for them to eat."

Atieno has recovered and says she now makes a living by helping people cultivate their rice farms in the morning, then selling groceries at her kiosk in a local market later in the day.

She struggles to get by.

"I do not know where I will get money to pay for school fees next term since my business is not giving me much," she says. Two of her children are in high school and four in elementary school.

Other members of the No Sex For Fish group face similar challenges.

Lorine Abuto, a mother of seven, is the only member whose boat survived the floods in good enough condition to take out into Lake Victoria. She hires men to fish for her but the aftermath of the floods, including tangles of weeds near the shore, has made it more difficult to reach schools of fish, and she sometimes has to buy fish from other sources. One morning in early September, she skillfully removed the scales of a Nile perch from a recent catch and sliced it in two, then put it on a mat to dry in the sun. She sells dried fish – and also fried fish – at a market near her new home a few miles from Nduru Beach.

A young child squealed with delight as a Hamerkop bird danced next to the mat where some fish were drying. Abuto scared the bird away.

"Nature separated some of us but our goal is still intact," says Abuto, referring to the women of No Sex for Fish. With Nduru Beach still uninhabitable, they have scattered to different parts of the region. The regular group meetings to discuss fishing issues and finances no longer take place.

A scene from Nduru Beach in 2019, before rising waters flooded the village. When the fishing boats would come in with their morning catch, female fishmongers would negotiate fish they could sell. Sex was sometimes part of the transaction. But the women in the No Sex for Fish collective weren't at the mercy of the fishermen. They owned their own boats and hired men to do the fishing for them.
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A scene from Nduru Beach in 2019, before rising waters flooded the village. When the fishing boats would come in with their morning catch, female fishmongers would negotiate fish they could sell. Sex was sometimes part of the transaction. But the women in the No Sex for Fish collective weren't at the mercy of the fishermen. They owned their own boats and hired men to do the fishing for them.

"It is not easy for us because the fish stocks have dwindled and it is hard to get fish to sell, but we are coping with the situation," she says. The pandemic has made matters worse. Many Kenyans lost jobs or saw their income decrease, so people are reluctant to splurge on fish, she says. Some days, she says, she earns less than $3 – barely enough to feed her family.

Lorine Abuto hopes she will one day be able to live in Nduru Beach again. That's the dream of the displaced residents, says Tim Kibet, a retired Peace Corps employee from Kenya and now a part-time field agent with World Connect. Kibet is monitoring Nduru Beach and the neighboring villages that were part of the collective.

A return any time soon seems unlikely. In a visit last year, he says, "those homes were all submerged in water. Homes with mud walls started falling apart, some even came down. Only ones with brick could be standing by now."

And even though the waters have receded, he says, the Nduru Beach area is still wet and muddy.

Table banking was a life preserver

In Nduru Beach, residents set up a
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In Nduru Beach, residents set up a "table banking" group. Members contribute at regular meetings held in one of their homes, tossing coins into a strongbox with three locks. When financial needs come up, a member can ask for a loan, to be repaid at the next meeting. After the village was flooded in early 2020, the table banking group handed out funds to help the evacuated residents survive.

During this time of dislocation, the past success of No Sex for Fish has helped the members get by.

In their meetings, they had contributed some of their earnings to a fund to use for boat repairs, new nets and other fishing-related expenses.

When the floods hit, the group had managed to save some $6,000. The money served as an emergency fund during the months after they were evacuated and unable to earn any money from the fishing business.

"That they had the money was an incredible triumph for them," says Patrick Higdon, director of programs for World Connect. "And they spent it down to zero because of flooding and displacement."

In addition, there another $5,500 to draw upon from what's known as a "table banking" group – a community-based way to save money for the proverbial rainy day.

Prior to the crises of 2020, the members, many of them part of the No Sex for Fish collective, met regularly. Our NPR team sat in on a session.

The meeting took place in the living room of Justine Adhiambo Obura's home. She's the chairwoman of the No Sex For Fish group. The thick mud walls were decorated with lace hangings, family photos and a framed certificate declaring her the "Inspirational Woman of the Year 2014" in Kisumu County.

The 18 women and 1 man sat in a circle, tossing coins into a lockbox that landed with a clink. The box had three locks whose keys are kept "far away" in separate locations, said Obura.

A meeting of the table banking group at the home of a member. The photo is from 2019, when No Sex for Fish (and the village) were thriving.
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A meeting of the table banking group at the home of a member. The photo is from 2019, when No Sex for Fish (and the village) were thriving.

Those in need could ask for a loan that they'd promise to repay at the next session. They might need cash to cover household expenses at a tough time — or pay for carfare to the clinic for a checkup. Several of the group members are HIV positive – one of the horrible legacies of the practice of trading sex for fish.

There was a tense moment when a man made a loan request and was told his wife had, unbeknownst to him, taken out a loan in his name and not yet paid it back.

But overall, there was a spirit of warm generosity. Some of the money contributed goes into a special goat fund. When there's enough money in the pot, a lucky member would be gifted with a kid that can one day provide milk or be used for breeding.

But those goats – and indeed much of the livestock owned by villagers – perished in the floods. And the table banking fund has been dispersed to cover the expenses involved in evacuating residents in the wake of the flooding. It's now down to about 10,000 Kenyan shillings — $90.

New grants, new dreams — from rice to tomatoes

In April and July of this year, World Connect disbursed two $3,000 replenishment grants to help the No Sex For Fish women in Nduru Beach start new businesses in the wake of the loss of their boats. Some are selling firewood and charcoal. Some are running food kiosks. At year's end, women who got funding from the grant will report on their efforts.

Despite the gloom in the wake of the floods, Obura is optimistic that the group and its members will come up with new ways to generate income in this interim period: "We are of the opinion of doing fish cage and rice farming in the future."

In Kusa Beach, another lakeside village with an affiliated chapter of No Sex For Fish, some of the members have already launched an ambitious new project.

That village is located on higher ground than Nduru Beach so the homes are intact. But their flood-damaged boats are out of commission.

So 15 women from Kusa Beach decided to put their hope in tomatoes — and received a grant of $3,700 from World Connect to get started.

This summer they planted five plots, hoping for a harvest to sell at market and also to process into tomato paste and powder. Four plots are doing well so far. The fifth has issues with salinity in the soil and water pumps.

"In two to three months the women will be able to evaluate their initial crop," says Kibet, the World Connect field agent from Kenya, who himself does some farming. World Connect's hope is that the tomato business will earn enough to pay for a second round.

They're busy spraying and weeding, he reports: "They look so determined. We'll see how it goes their first time."

You may be wondering – why tomatoes? Kibet wondered, too.

The answer, he says, has to do with local lore. Hippos live in Lake Victoria and sometimes come ashore to graze. The rising waters have made it easier for them to do so. And they can be very aggressive, not only consuming crops but sometimes even killing people.

The women told him: "Hippos don't like to eat tomatoes."

Kibet, who himself does some farming, is not entirely convinced: "I've still yet to see that!" But the women told him they didn't want anything to interfere with their agricultural project, and they were certain that tomatoes would not be enticing to any marauding hippos.

Viola Kosome is a freelance journalist in Kenya.

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