13 December 2017
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Risky behaviours at Njalo Island

Written by  Sam Majamanda
A medical worker interacting with men of the Island - Pic by Sam Majamanda A medical worker interacting with men of the Island - Pic by Sam Majamanda

PHALOMBE, November 22, 2017: Living on Njalo island in Phalombe is at times a tricky and risky experience for men whose population out numbers that of women.

The island, an isolated habitat located on the waters of Lake Chilwa, has an ever fluctuating population of between 300 – 700 inhabitants with the population of women and girls slightly above 60.

This means that the ratio of men to women flirts between 1:5 and 1:7. Such a proportion is a worrying situation to many men on the Island, which is about 100 kilometres from Phalombe District Council headquarters.

“It is not easy for a man to get married here. We have only 62 female citizens here, against a male population of over 250,” says George Square, a resident on the island

Square says the numbers swell during fishing seasons on the Lake with the population hitting around 700 people.

Out of this figure, between 100 and 150 are females with some of theme strictly trekking to the island for transactional sex.

With numbers of women falling short, men at Njalo abide to the unwritten rule that no woman permanently belong to one woman. This is a principle in practice at this island, which is under Village Head Chalera,
 
“A woman is yours at the moment you are with her. Once you’re done with her she is someone else’s. There is no way you can reprimand her because everyone knows the situation here,” explains Square with a chuckle.

One businessman running a retail shop alleges that infidelity characterizes most of the marriages on the Island.

“Most married and unmarried women on this Island exchange sex for fish,” says this businessman who refused to have his identity known.

The life style and behaviors at Njalo Island are well documented to the knowledge of both government and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) working towards improve sexual and reproductive health in Phalombe.

Dignitas International is one of the NGOs implementing a Key Populations Project which provides SRH services at several islands on Lake Chilwa.

The project provides services to people of the Islands in their natural set up through mobile clinics.

Project Officer for Dignitas International George Mulewa says practice of sex for fish is a risky behavior that is widespread among most women on almost all the Islands on the lake.

“Through this project, we have learnt that women on Sombi, Ngotangota, Chisi and Njalo Islands strategically relocate to hotspot fishing docks without any money and collect fish from fishermen.

“The payment for the fish is usually sex. Most men involved in fishing are often times aware of the women’s intention in taking the fish without pay,” says Mulewa.

Consequently, where there is transactional sex and sharing of sexual partners, some of the most common things one can expect is high prevalence of Sexually Transmission Infections (STIs).

Apparently, information from the District AIDS Coordinating office in Phalombe states that unsafe sexual practices at Njalo throw many people into the HIV risk and key population.

Mulewa says the spread of HIV and STIs on the Island has been unprecedented.

“During the first visit alone, we tested a total of 87 people and out of these 17 were reactive. This represented a 21 percent rate,” says Mulewa.

Apart from the sex for fish practice and the sharing of sexual partners, lack of social activities is also said to play a part in fueling the spread of HIV and STIs on the island.

A spot check by the Malawi News Agency established that the place is deprived of entertainment events because of lack of sporting and other entertainment facilities. As such, social gatherings are only prominent in drinking holes which also act as meeting points for men and women.

Village Headman Chalera confesses the challenges facing his subjects on the island and he too blames the lack of social amenities to keep people busy.

“People here engage in drinking and having multiple sexual relationships because the two activities is apparently a possible relief from boredom,” says Chief Chalera.

With many people engaged in risky behaviours on the Island, one would expect the presence of a health facility to provide critical services in SRH. But that is not the case at Njalo.

There is no health facility to provide such services save for under-five outreach clinics conducted in few selected days per month.
Village head Chalera believes that if the place had a full time running health facility, it would have minimized the prevalence rate of HIV and STIs.

“People would have been provided with condoms for safer sex and in the process help in reducing the spread of these infections,” the chief argues.

Interestingly, while the traditional leader thinks his subjects would use condoms to have safer sex, a random survey by this scribe proves otherwise.

The findings established that the island has some small shops which sell condoms at reasonable prices but very few buy the protective rubber. This shows that people just do not care.

Therefore, it would take several efforts not only by Dignitas International but other partners in the health sector to serve communities on islands like Njalo on Lake Chilwa.

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