Crossing Lake Victoria to Prevent New Cases of HIV/ AIDS, Educate Sex Workers and Provide Treatment on the Islands of Remba, Ringiti and Sena

Logistically speaking, one would think that boarding a boat and sailing across the lake would be simple. However, this is not always the case.

The local Drop in Center (DiCe) team, part of International Medical Corps’ Most at Risk Populations program to reach sex workers in Kenya with HIV services, diligently prepares itself to cross the lake in a bid to reach the sex workers of Remba and Ringiti islands on Lake Victoria at least three to four times a week. On January 28, 2013, the skies seemed bright and everyone was in high spirits as they gathered their wares. These consisted of condoms, medication for sexually transmitted infections, pain killers and—last but not least—water. Yes, water. One would imagine that, being surrounded by fresh water, there would be plenty to quench their thirst, but this is not so. The fresh water lake is heavily polluted, making it unsafe for direct consumption. (“I wonder how the fish survive,” you may think.) Bathing with untreated lake water has its consequences too, but the team is ready to brave all.

What you may not know is that, even though the skies seem clear, the lake has its own mood. One minute it can be smiling with you and the other it will twist and turn, churning with turbulent fury. This was the case on January 28, 2013. The coxswain looked at the lake and the skies above and everything looked ok. It was safe to go—or so they thought. As such, the team members embarked on their usual duties to ensure that it collected enough fuel for the entire journey. The Logistics Officer granted their request and provided them with transport to ferry their engine, passengers and wares to the pier. They were good to go.

Life jackets donned, hook stick, oars, lifesaver rings, fire extinguishers and, last but not least, the Team. They were ready to combat, educate, treat and eradicate HIV/AIDS on the islands.

The journey commences with laughter and chatting, but fatigue sets in after an hour of traveling on the lake. The sky clouds over and wind blows, causing the lake to rise. The angry waves beat against the vessel and, not able to withstand the lashes, she gives in and begins to crack. There is high alert as water gushes into the boat. The assistant coxswain knows what to do. He throws lifesaving rings into the center of the boat as buckets, which were not easily visible before, are suddenly available. The nurse sends that one important SMS: “Boat ime pasuka” (The boat is breaking) and, with that, the Logistics Officer swings into action: “Confirm that message.” The message is the same: “The boat is breaking.” The HIV Testing & Counseling (HTC) counselor and assistant coxswain are throwing water out of the vessel. This is now a matter of life and death; a moment of awe as man battles nature.

The HTC counselor can’t handle the rough waters and gets seasick as the coxswain steers the boat towards the nearest shore. Meanwhile, the Logistics Officer makes a call to the Kenya Maritime Authority and informs all other protocols. A rescue boat is quickly dispatched from Mfangano Island to their rescue. There is quick communication between the nurse and the captain from the Maritime Authority; she informs him that they will make it to the shoreline. The boat docks safely on Kitawi Beach.

The International Medical Corps vessel has done its day’s work and the DiCe team is grateful to have survived an otherwise tragic event. Given the circumstances, their resolve to meet their objective is not dampened and it is now left to the Logistics team to provide safe transport for the team.

This time around, the DiCe team did not make it to Remba—but it will. There is newfound respect for the lake and its ever-changing mood. There is newfound determination on the part of the team to reach the Islanders. This is all in a day’s work. The soldiers fight on to eliminate HIV/AIDS on the islands of Lake Victoria.

Help us save lives.