The Beach Boys of Malawi
Flirting or socialising with a white woman is an imprimatur for recognition and importance for many a young man working in Malawi’s tour guide “industry”.
It is an industry loaded with sexuality – both covert and overt, as young Malawians offer their bodies to foreign women visiting the country.
This is typical movie-land stuff: sex, cash and drugs on a tropical beach.
For the lucky players – known as beach boys – the end result is marriage to a tourist, who will either then settle in Malawi or take her new hubby to whichever country she comes from.
The most popular places for sex tourism in Malawi – which gained worldwide attention after media reports of the phenomenon in West Africa – is along the shores of one of the world’s most beautiful fresh water bodies, Lake Malawi.
And it is not just heterosexual pairings that take place on these beautiful beaches. Gay sex tourism is also on the rise.
Naturally, this has resulted in much stigmatisation of the young men in the “industry”.
It also means that the attendant rise in HIV infection is not given the importance it deserves, as communities and authorities indirectly say to the infected, “You had this coming!”
In addition to the HIV and AIDS burden, there is also an increase in drug and alcohol addiction.
This writer spoke with John Matewere, a 28-year-old “tour guide” who operates in the prime area of Cape Maclear in the southern lakeshore district of Mangochi.
Matewere ventured into this line of work in 2002 in order to fend for himself and his family after his father – who had been a chef at one of the lakeshore cottages – died.
“Because of my dad’s work I grew up speaking English which made it easier for me to start taking tourists on boat rides on Lake Malawi and in the national park,” he says.
His work has taken him as far as Tanzania, Kenya and Europe.
The father of one child born to an East European tourist, Matewere says he has bedded a number of foreign women, some of whom have taken him to Europe and Asia for short visits.
Does he not fear contracting and/or spreading a sexually transmitted infection?
“Most women do not accept unprotected sex unless you go for testing first or they have truly loved you. Where there is chemistry, things you did not expect to happen do happen,” he answers.
Another “tour guide”, Dgargo Raymond (24), says he started working the northern lakeshore district of Nkhatabay after seeing how much money his now deceased brother made from his activities.
But Raymond says he has only had one client and, unlike Matewere, he does not drink alcohol or take narcotics; and this could be one cause why he has not had as many clients as his colleagues.
According to one study by a group called VSO, while some beach boys only go as far as flirting with tourists, most have had penetrative sex with their female clients – and a good number have had sex with males.
“Most have had sex with female clients older than them,” says the report. Worryingly, a good number have done this without protection.
“For those that had sex with fellow men, it was not out of homosexuality tendencies but just for the monetary benefits,” VSO continues. “Whereas the majority of the beach boys say that their main sex clients are women, others have had sex with other men and these do not perceive themselves as gay.”
There are beach boys who go exclusively for other men by identifying themselves to their clients through various means including slits on the back of their swimming trunks, bandanas hanging from their back pockets, or swimming in the nude in front of beachfront establishments.
Matewere says he does not know any of his colleagues who classify themselves as homosexual.
“They are mostly induced by money,” he concurs. Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) executive director Gift Trapence says the HIV prevalence rate of homosexuals in Malawi is 21.4 percent, more than double the national prevalence rate for heterosexuals (10 percent).
“The reasons for such high figure include that low risk perception of HIV/STI infection, unprotected anal sex, inconsistent condom use,” he says, adding that about 95.4 percent of homosexuals are unaware of their HIV status.
Deputy chair of the Cape Maclear Tour Guide Association, Lackson Maliwanda, says because of the negative perception that beach boys have in society, they are not targeted in community and national HIV and AIDS awareness messages.
Malawi College of Medicine psychologist in the Department of Community Health, Dr Eric Umar, goes on to say that HIV proliferation occurs in settings of marginalised groups and “hidden contexts of discrimination, stigma, criminalisation, and limited HIV surveillance”.