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Type Working Paper
Title Aspirations and sex: Coming of age in western Kenya in a context of HIV
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2014
In Winam, the disco matanga, or funeral disco, is an important gathering for kin and
community the nights before and after a burial, and a place where people find
comfort and say goodbye to a loved one. At these events, relatives who travel in from
distant towns are happy to see one another once again, and young men and women from
different locations take advantage of the chance to meet and interact. Rather than being
a somber occasion, it is a space where joy and fun have no limits, where you find people
dancing and chatting, sharing food, drinking chang’aa (a locally brewed, illegal, strong
spirit), smoking bhang (marijuana), having sex in the bushes, and fighting over young
women. But the disco matanga is also an ambiguous space, where life and death shake
hands. While kin and community gather to mourn the death of someone—frequently
someone who has died of HIV/AIDS—they also run a high risk of getting infected at this
very same event, either through consensual unprotected sex or by forced sex. In this
way, the disco matanga exemplifies the larger ambiguous and uncertain context in
which young people are growing up, experimenting with sexual relationships, and trying
to make a living.
The disco matanga has received much attention by local HIV/AIDS activists and
public health workers in Nyanza Province, who assume that the disco matanga provides
a major opportunity for HIV transmission given the prevalence of sexual activities at
these events. There is, however, no epidemiological evidence that these venues promote
HIV transmission. This assumption is merely based on the behavior at disco matangas
and on self-reports of the youngsters of Winam (see also Njue et al. 2009). By not
contextualizing the disco matanga and describing it as a ‘harmful risk situation’
practiced only by ‘the Luo people’, one runs the risk of stigmatizing and exoticizing Luo
cultural practices (see also Cohen and Odhiambo 1989).
The disco matanga is not a static ‘cultural practice’ as is assumed by some public
health workers but an event that has changed and is changing over time and is
perceived differently among the people of Nyanza Province. The grandparents of the
youth with whom I worked, in their youth, attended events that were more of a quiet
distraction, with nyatiti (traditional harp) music played in an attempt to re-establish
the equilibrium disturbed by death (Shino 1997; Onyang’a 1998). In the 1970s this
quieter event evolved into a real party, and began being called disco matanga.
1 While
disco matangas were banned in some parts of south Nyanza Province, for most of the
youngsters of Winam, the disco was still ‘the place to be’. Youngsters would often go
from one disco matanga to the other, when several people were buried on the same day.
Days before the burial, young people would spread rumors, for instance, that famous
Luo singers were performing at a particular disco matanga. Just like with other, nonfunerary
parties, the one with the biggest sound system or popular live band was the
most successful, drawing the widest attendance.
During my research, it was clear that the reason why disco matangas were so
popular among the youngsters of Winam was because there were not many other leisure
activities for young people, where they could go enjoy life, and have fun drinking alcohol,
smoking, and having sex. Attending a disco matanga also required few resources, since
the attendees only had to contribute to the harambee (fundraising for the family) and
the bereaved family members covered most of the expenses of a funeral. The disco
matanga was usually organized by the youngsters in the family of the deceased person,
which meant that many young people were likely to enjoy the musical entertainment.
Disco matangas typically began with gospel music or a church orchestra, but soon after,
Benga music (local Luo rhythms) and other types of Western ‘modern’ music, especially
reggae, hip-hop, and rap were played.2
While the youngsters with whom I worked continue celebrating life during disco
matangas, the ubiquity of death and the suffering of JoWinam (the people of Winam) in
the field often left me with a bitter feeling. I often asked myself how JoWinam managed
to deal with this depressing situation. What about the young people whose aim was to
achieve a ‘better life’ than their parents? What if their parents had passed away? What
kind of future perspective did this allow them? This dissertation is rooted in the daily
life world of young people (between 16 and 25) in Winam. It seeks to understand how
young people struggle to find or create a livelihood and how this influences their sexual
relationships in a context of social change in Winam. My assumption is—as various
studies have already demonstrated—that the precarious living situation of young people
in Winam affects their decisions concerning sexual relationships.
This dissertation focuses our attention on young people’s hopes, aspirations, and
expectations and shows how the young people of Winam creatively constructed their
daily life in a context where HIV/AIDS has taken a high toll. More precisely, I examine
young people’s livelihood opportunities and challenges in Winam. I try to understand
their sexual relations and networks, specifically, how they form sexual relationships,
avoid the so-called health risks associated with sex, and understand the links between
sex, love, and money. I show that young people’s aspirations and concerns need to be
examined through a lens of intergenerational relations (see Cole and Durham 2007) as
young people are members of families and other social entities and should be studied
within this given context (see Amit and Dyck 2012). Young people’s perceptions of a
‘state-of-the-art’ HIV/AIDS prevention project are also analysed to discern the role this
and similar interventions play in their daily life.
I discuss not only young people’s ‘tactical agency’ (De Certeau 1984), but also
discuss the limits of that agency, and show how youngsters are confronted with
‘choiceless choices’ (Scheper-Hughes 2008). This analysis includes the context of
‘structural violence’ (Farmer 1999) that surrounds and gives shape to young people’s
uncertain life worlds, in order to understand how they deal with sexual relationships
and create ‘livelihood networks’. I argue that instead of asking ‘Why do young people
take risks when they engage in sex?’ we should recognize that the real question is: ‘Why
shouldn’t youngsters take risks if they hold the promise of a better life in the future?’.

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