Mr Augustine Wasonga, the Kenya Country Director of ACE Africa addresses students of Ratanga Secondary school over teenage pregnancies and HIV &AIDS PHOTO: JAMES OMORO/ STANDARD
KISUMU, KENYA: Eight years ago, the Government zero-rated all motorcycles below 250cc in a populist move meant to provide employment to thousands of youth, and to the public, a convenient means of transport. In Nyanza, many previously unemployed youths have taken advantage of poor road networks and lack of vehicles in rural areas to earn a living by transporting people and goods on the motorbikes, turning it into an economic driver. But behind this booming enterprise lurks a dark monster that is steadily destroying lives. Commonly known as boda boda, the cyclists have been accused of all manner of crime including gangs for hire, hit-men and abduction. They have also been accused of mob justice, rape and have in many occasions killed innocent people suspected to be thieves, without verification. But some of the riders are now being blamed for school dropout and the spread of HIV among, school girls along the Lake Victoria belt. ACE Africa, an NGO based in the region says in poverty and orphan-hood have reduced the rates of school enrollment and completion. This has made many school girls highly exposed and vulnerable. "Boda boda riders who are in their thousands are considered the economic backbone of many households because they have a constant flow of income. They find it easy to lure young school girls into sexual relationships," says Augustine Wasonga, ACE Africa Country Director. As a result, many young girls from ages ten to 14 are being infected with the virus, unlike before when they acquired it from their parents during birth. "Many Aids orphans are deprived of the opportunity for moral, intellectual, physical and spiritual development, as they are often mistreated, lured to sexual activities at an early age," he adds. The organization, in partnership with Longhorn Publishers is currently involved in awareness drives to keep boys and girls in school. It has distributes text books, donated by Longhorn to needy remote schools in Kisumu, Vihiga, Homa Bay, Bungoma, Kakamega and Siaya.
ACE Africa has also initiated a programme known as dream project to assist needy girls, those affected or infected with HIV and those who have gotten pregnant to complete their schooling. This came after it was realised that girls as young as 10 years in the region were getting infected with HIV. A case in point is a 14-year-old Agnes Awino (not her real name) class eight candidate in a school in Ndhiwa sub-county who says she was infected at the age of 12 by a boda boda rider. Her mother told The Standard that Agnes started her menstruation at age nine but she only discovered three years later when she told her of having a boyfriend. Traditionally, adolescents either slept at their grandparents' house, in the household kitchen (usually a separate structure), at a brother's house within or outside the homestead, or at a neighbour's house. "Daughters in this village don't sleep with their parents. They usually sleep with friends in a secluded hut. When she was twelve, I noticed some changes in her. She was too quiet and when I probed further, she became hostile," said the 32-year-old mother. She came to discover from her daughter's friends that her daughter was seeing a 20-year-old boda boda rider. "We knew the boy was HIV positive. So we took Agnes for tests and also discovered that she had been infected," said Mama Agnes. Right now Agnes is among girls under the Dreams project that caters for her education and psycho-social needs. A recent Kenya Demographic and Health Survey reported that one in five girls aged 15-19 (18.1 percent) have begun childbearing, meaning that they are pregnant with their first child or have ever given birth to one or more children. According to Homa Bay County Chief Officer-in-Charge of Education and ICT, Ms Eunice Ogendo, the problem is prevalent in the county and is compounded by Boda boda manace. "In rural areas, school dropout is as high as 70 per cent. We know those who are molesting our children are boda boda riders, cane cutters and fishermen. Superstition is also rife in some areas in Nyanza," said Ms Ogendo. Homa Bay County and Migori leads the country in HIV prevalence, which stands at 26 per cent. But the riders have defended themselves against the accusations. Through their spokesman Benard Angudha - Secretary of Tsunamy Motorcyclists Youth Group in Homa Bay town, the riders said they should not be blamed over the school girl pregnancies and High HIV prevalence. Angudha said school girl pregnancies have been there long before the bodaboda sector became into existence. "Bodaboda sector came after the year 2000 but school girls began conceiving many years before then. We should not be blamed," said Angudha.
"The narrative those people are giving is like any woman who boards a motorbike can only be impregnated by the riders. Does this imply that even men who impregnate their wives in their families result are also riders?" he asked. Angudha says the boda boda industry has created employment and eased transportation in the rural Kenya and should be respected. "We are innocent. We have in many occasions rescued girls being abused by their teachers in secret lodges,”said Agudha. He added: Last year, we blew the whistle when two schools were kept at a house in Homa Bay by their boyfriends. Parents must take the full responsibility of the teenage pregnancies and high HIV infections." A boda boda operator from Kisumu, Kennedy Owen, supported Agudha. " It is on record that teachers are responsible for the many school girl pregnancies. We read in the media, many teachers who have been interdicted for impregnating their students. Why pass the back?" asked Owen Ogendo also blames the Luo cultural tradition that prohibits children who have reached puberty from sleeping in the same house as their parents, forcing them to sleep at the neighbour's homestead. Mr Isabelle Kerubo, Head teacher at Ratang'a School, a recipient of the Longhorn text book donation said that at the neighbour's, there is a lot of influence to have sex because there is freedom of interactions. "Sometimes the neighbour's compound may be distant, so as the girl walks there at night, a boy can intercept and rape or sweet-talk her into sex," she said. "Boys who sleep in their brothers' houses within their homesteads sometimes sneak in their girlfriends for sex at night. I also know that girls who sleep in the grandmothers' houses easily go for night dances because the grandmother cannot stop them. At the dance, a lot of sex talk goes on between boys and girls and it may be hard to resist some of these temptations." She added. In a recent study in Nyanza commissioned by BioMed Central Public Health Journal, the frequency of Aids-related deaths in communities among teenagers had a link to the elaborate funeral ceremonies that are often held over several days. During such funerals, adolescents congregate for long periods at the home of the deceased where there are overnight prayers, music and dancing (discos matangas). Orphaned and non-orphaned adolescents are not often monitored closely by caregivers and so have opportunities for engaging in sex. "We have funeral festivities where in this community there is music at night. During these occasions, boys meet girls whom they lure into casual sex that is usually unprotected, "said Milka Juma, lead author of the report. "There are also parents whom encourage their young daughters to get married so that they can get 'wealth', says the report. She added: "In some communities, boys are more valued than girls. If a brother and a sister pass exams at the same time and the family has limited resources, the boy will proceed to secondary school while the girl will be left at home."