Seafarers at High Risk of HIV/Aids

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As HIV/Aids continues to take its toll around the world and in particular in Namibia, the harbour town of Walvis Bay is no exception.

The pandemic continues to impact heavily on human lives through either infected or affected families. In this special report,
CHARLES TJATINDI finds out how the pandemic impacts on the lives of one of the most vulnerable groups at the town – the sea-going employees.

WALVIS BAY

As the clock strikes five on a Friday, hordes of workers can be seen along the streets of Kuisebmond. Joy and relief is clearly written on their faces as they make their way to their respective dwellings. This is no ordinary Friday.

Besides being the 25th of the month – meaning payday for most workers here, they seemingly also have another reason to celebrate. Earlier in the day four fishing vessels sailed in from a three-month fishing stint in deep waters.

For an outsider, this might probably go unnoticed. But for those residing here however, it is a big occasion.

As the fishermen aboard the vessels that docked earlier in the day had been gone for three months, they are loaded with cash. Besides receiving their hard-earned salaries of three months, they also have a lot of fish with them to show for their hard toil and labour.

As if confirming the old adage that “money is the root of all evil”, what normally happens next with most of these sea-going workers, according to some of them, is a sad and sordid affair.

New Era learnt that many of the sea-going employees would frequent shebeens and other drinking holes, flashing their hard-earned cash around as they go. This does seemingly not only earn them new ‘friends’ for the evening who are only interested in what they can buy, but it also inadvertently wins them admirers from the opposite sex. These are normally young out-of-school and unemployed women, who would allegedly do anything to earn a few bucks for their fatherless children back home, it emerged.

For the fishermen, parting with their hard-earned cash can only be done on one condition – that they get rewarded through sex. So, the deal is clinched; a few more drinks for the new friends and the targeted women follows. Soon, the clearly intoxicated fisherman staggers out of the bar, with the woman by his side and disappears into the darkness. Such behaviour by some of these fishermen has had many believe that is what puts them at risk of contracting HIV. Although not being practiced by everybody, sea-going employees related that such trends have led to the downfall of many of their colleagues.

The fast pace at which the harbour town is developing has allegedly also been fuelling this trend, as desperate women in need of an income flock here in the hope of securing formal employment. When that fails, however, anything goes in a desperate attempt to earn a living, as all rules are seemingly done with, guards are dropped, and the ‘game’ continues unabated.

Walvis Bay currently hosts a navy base, numerous fast-growing factories and an army camp just outside town. According to some residents here, those working at these places are usually the targets of women seeking money in exchange for their bodies – bait that has seemingly brought in much-needed cash for these women.

Sadly, the picture also appears to be a thorny one for those in steady relationships, or even married ones. While most sea-going employees try their best to behave once back from sea by remaining faithful to their partners, concerns have been raised as to whether their loyalty is reciprocated by their partners. Due to their prolonged absence from home, many have come to believe that their partners do not necessarily remain faithful throughout that period.

Richard Mbaha, a sea-going employee with a fishing company, notes that it is difficult to believe that their partners remain entirely committed to them during their absence.

“I know that women differ. There are some good women out there that remain entirely faithful to the partners when they are out at sea. But there is no denying the fact that some women start misbehaving the moment you set foot on that vessel. We have seen cases where relationships ended because the women could not stand being on their own for so long,” he said.

According to Mbaha, the price to pay when their partners have been unfaithful is not only losing the relationship, but also risk contracting HIV. Coupled to that is the issue of inconsistent or non-condom use in steady relationships, he notes.

“When people have been together, got tested for HIV at the start of their relationship, it somehow gives a ticket to do whatever they wish. I mean, it is good that we have both tested negative, but dropping the use of condoms just because we are steady is very risky as you do not know what your partner does behind closed doors when you are not around,” said Mbaha.

Another sea-going employee, Joas Muhoko, echoes the same sentiments, adding that although trust is very important in any relationship – it is sometimes difficult to determine how far it can be stretched. Muhoko, a devoted Christian, is married, but like any other seafarer, he often has to leave his wife alone for months when duty calls.

“This is the story of our lives. We have accepted it…what is more difficult is asking your partner to go for an HIV test every time you return from sea.

Questions are normally raised … you know things like, ‘don’t you trust me?’

Or ‘have you been seeing someone else?’ It is just difficult to determine how far you can trust a person,” he said.

As Muhoko explains, seafarers would then rather avoid such suggestions to prevent an argument and a possible break-up resulting from the misunderstanding.

Sledge Kauapirura, also a devoted Christian and former sea-going employee has also had his fair share of experience in this regard.

“My friend, there are some sea-going employees who have accepted that they are not the only ones dating their girlfriends. To them, it is just impossible to believe that their girlfriends or partners can stay faithful during their prolonged fishing expedition out at sea. People know about the essence of trust in a relationship, but you will be singing a different tune when you are in a similar situation yourself. All those things people read from books about trust simply fall away,” said Kauapirura.

Trust, according to Kauapirura is also tested in many other means in the lives of sea-going employees. Due to the prolonged trips at sea, these employees would hand over financial powers over to their partners, who would manage their finances for them. These include drawing money from their bank accounts to pay for other accounts and expenses, among others. Such practices, Kauapirura noted puts sea-going employees in danger of losing their hard-earned cash.

“How do you surrender your ATM card and all the PIN numbers to someone else? If married, it might be something else, but I have seen people who have just met a girl for a few months, the next thing she is in control of all his finances. I think there is a great risk involved in that,” Kauapirura noted.

The women on the other hand argue differently. According to some of them, they are the reason their sea-going partners save money and “look the way they do”. Alma*, who has been in a relationship with a sea-going employee for close to five years before she ended it, notes that some sea-going employees are not considerate and responsible enough to support themselves and their partners.

“When I met Alex*, he appeared to be a mature and honest person. He had big dreams for the future. There was just something about him that made me feel so safe when I was around him. I said to myself, after resisting commitment for a long time that I got to have this guy,” she recalled.

What started as a fairytale relationship, according to Alma, did, however, not evolve into a fairytale relationship – not to mention its end.

“After having two kids born to us, I kind of dropped my guard and was assured that we would even end up getting married one day. Suddenly, after four years, Alex just had no time for me. He would come back from the sea after two months, phone his friends around and hit the drinking holes around town. When he comes home, he would pass out. The next day, the process starts all over again. After three days, he returns to sea, and it will be another two or three months before I see him again,” narrates Alma.

She said she tolerated Alex’s behaviour for another year before something made her change course, and take on a different route altogether.

“I was sexually frustrated. I needed someone to make me feel loved. I made a mistake of having casual sex with a man I had just met. What started as a one-night stand continued for a while longer, with him coming in every time Alex was not around. That is when I realised there is life after Alex. I had to drop Alex and got on with this guy,” said Alma.

When asked if cheating on Alex was the best way to resolve their problems, Alma shifted the blame onto her former partner, whom she accused of not showing her enough affection.

“Would you stay with a partner that does not show you affection, or care for your sexual needs? No one can. Alex had a choice and he chose his friends over me everytime. What was I supposed to do – sit around and weep everyday?”

Another woman, who also requested not to named, noted that the only reason they would keep their partner’s ATM cards is so that they can sustain the household while their partners are out to sea.

“Life does not stop when he goes out to sea. There are accounts to be paid, food for the kids. How am I supposed to cater for all of this if I am unemployed? It is his duty; there is nothing sinister about that,” she said.

Such debate can rage on, with each party shifting the blame onto the other.

Mbaha, on the other hand believes it is more important to take care of one’s health – even it if means putting a strain on your relationship. According to him, sea-going employees have no reason to compromise their health, especially in light of HIV/Aids pandemic.

“If a woman gets angry when you suggest testing – those are already signs that something somewhere is not right. Why should she be worried about getting tested if she was so willing to take one in the beginning of the relationship? Regular testing is very important,” he noted.

Kauapirura stressed the importance of consistent condom use – even in steady relationships, something that is missing according to him.

“Many people have now come to believe that casual sex is much safer than long steady relationships. Partners tend to drop the use of condoms in steady relationships as opposed to one-off sexual encounters.

Whatever the argument is, it goes without saying that this group of society is one of those most vulnerable to contracting HIV. In the years since independence in 1990, Namibia has made impressive gains in economic, political and social development. A stable, open country with considerable natural resources and a well-developed infrastructure, Namibia is potentially one of Africa’s leading models of successful development. However, huge income disparities exist, poverty remains a serious problem, and the country’s human resource base, is being devastated by the HIV/Aids epidemic.

According to the 2004 HIV sentinel zero-survey, the prevalence rate of HIV infection among pregnant women in Namibia varies by region from 9 percent to 43 percent, with an overall estimated prevalence rate of 19.7 percent for all pregnant women. A complex assortment of socio-economic and cultural factors specific to Southern Africa and Namibia drives the epidemic: poverty; internal labour migration; the presence of major transportation corridors connecting Namibia to other high prevalence countries; sexual norms and attitudes; geographical inequities in access to services and information; and unequal power dynamics between men and women. Women bear the greater burden of the HIV/Aids epidemic, both as victims of the disease, and as the primary caregivers for others who are afflicted. Moreover, their unequal social and economic status places them at risk for earlier infection, leads to their stigmatisation, and allows them to be unfairly blamed for transmission of the disease.

Heterosexual sex is the main transmission route for HIV infection in Namibia. Since the first HIV/Aids case was reported in Namibia in 1986 the epidemic has grown to infect an estimated 230??????’??

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