Everyday Violence in the Time of AIDS 103

Everyday Violence in the Time of AIDS 103

Many boys in my age group washed cars during the day. Older boys didn’t do that. But they [older boys] took our money. If we didn’t give them our money they would beat us. Sometimes other boys would try to steal our business . . . then we would get the older boys to teach them a lesson, or we would gang up on them. Only some of us were able to wash cars [in that area]. We didn’t give our business away to just anybody who came along. [Juma, June 2006]

As Juma grew increasingly dependent on the streets for his survival, he was simultaneously initiated into the world of Mwanza’s street boys, which was based on a hierarchical and well-disciplined network of power relations. Power and access to scarce resources were distributed among the street boys in terms of several key factors, including age, territory, time on the streets, and toughness.

In most cases, boys who were recent and untested arrivals to Mwanza’s streets were easily noticed by other street boys, often within a matter of days. In Juma’s case, however, his preexisting friendships with several street boys facilitated his entry onto the streets and, together with his part-time status, made him less conspicuous. Subsequently, he managed to delay for almost three weeks the more violent ways in which status and power were displayed and maintained among street boys. Once he began spending his nights on the streets, however, he was quickly noticed by a wider segment of Mwanza’s street boy population and, like all newcomers, was “initiated” into street life through a sexual practice involving anal penetration known in colloquial terms as “kunyenga”:

A group of five or six older boys told me they wanted to show me a secret place among the rocks above town. . . . I didn’t want to go because I was scared. But I had no choice because I knew they would beat me if I didn’t go. When we got there, they raped [in Swahili “nyengaed”] me. It hurt badly and I was bleeding everywhere. They told me to stop crying and be tough because I was going to have to act like man if I wanted to be a “nyenga dog.” They said, “We are by ourselves” [in Swahili “Sisi kwa sis”]. Then they started barking and acting crazy and throwing rocks at me and told me to run [to my friends]. I was really scared. . . . I thought that maybe that was it for me and that I would die right there. [Juma, June 2006]

As traumatic as this event was for Juma, he often spoke of it in terms of how naı̈ve to the reality of street life he believed himself to be at this time, and as a means of contrasting how “weak” and “soft” he was to his eventual status as “one of the tougher guys on the street.” In fact, kunyenga became a routinized part of his life on the streets, as it was for all street boys, because it was the most overt and widespread means of displaying and maintaining the power hierarchy that defined their social networks (for a more detailed description of kunyenga, see Lockhart 2002).

In January 2004, Juma’s mother was admitted to the AIDS ward of Bugando Hospital where, according to hospital records, she died of the disease three weeks later. Juma immediately tried to locate his sister and bring her to a local street children’s shelter, but he learned from his mother’s housemate that a male friend

104 Medical Anthropology Quarterly

had taken her to Dodoma (in central Tanzania) to employ her as his domestic servant.

The death of Juma’s mother precipitated his status as a full-time street boy and, at the age of 12, he became entirely dependent on the streets for his survival. His only option was to turn to Mwanza’s network of street boys for support and acceptance and, in so doing, to embrace fully the mores and behaviors of life on the street.

As a central component of that life, kunyenga became a regular practice for Juma, and he participated in kunyenga activities with other street boys approximately two to three times each week. As was the case with most street boys, Juma rarely spoke of kunyenga as a sexual practice. Instead, he defined it in terms of toughness and as a display of power and authority over other street boys. In fact, kunyenga was inseparable from the need to develop and constantly maintain an image as a tough kid, which was an essential means of acquiring respect among the other boys. Juma continually referenced this relationship among kunyenga, respect, and identity when discussing his membership in a local gang, who referred to themselves as the “Nyenga Dogs”:

I do everything with those guys [Juma’s gang consisting of 15–20 other boys] because if I didn’t I would be alone out here and easier prey for other guys, especially the older ones. I don’t think I’d survive for very long. But we are the “Nyenga Dogs,” you know? That’s what we’re called because everybody knows us as a group of guys who don’t take shit from anybody. For me, the problems always come about when I’m caught out on my own, or if a group of older, stronger boys make a point to teach us a lesson for one reason or another. Then we’re all fucked. [Juma, May 2006]

As a member of the Nyenga Dogs, Juma found a way to survive on the streets of Mwanza over the next several years while gradually gaining respect among street boys as a tough kid.

Place Your Order Here!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *