It is six o'clock in the evening in the village of Mabukweni, in northeastern Tanzania's Mkinga district, where Mbaruku*, 21, is looking forward to celebrating a friend's wedding at an all night party; he is sure he will meet a girl there to have sex with.
"For us who are not married, the wedding [party] is an opportunity to get somebody for the night," he told IRIN/PlusNews. At the party - known locally as a 'rusha roho', Swahili for 'make your heart happy' - alcohol flows freely and men and women start mingling; in dark corners, young men smoke marijuana while others chew khat, a mild stimulant.
It doesn't take long for Mbaruku to get lucky; Aisha agrees to spend the night with him. "At the weddings, you leave without a girl because you didn't want one, not because the one you wanted refused," he said. "This is a fishing pond - all you need to do is throw your hook."
Mbaruku sees the liaison as fun, but Aisha's motive is economic. "I have a child and when I go with a man like him, he can give me something to buy milk for the child." She fell pregnant after a similar meeting at a previous rusha roho and has since dropped out of school.
Mbaruku is unlikely to use a condom tonight. "The ones made for the poor, like us, leak; I just eat it [have sex] the way I get it," he said. "If I get HIV then it is an accident, and in any job there is an accident."
Dr Ernest Haraka, the district medical officer of health, said night wedding parties in rural Mkinga - where HIV prevalence is 3.5 percent, lower than the national average of 5.7 percent - are rife with risky sexual behaviour.
"Cultural issues are the main drivers of HIV infection in Mkinga, and night wedding parties are one of them," he said. "They are free [of charge] and the music they play attracts many youths."
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Haraka said a low level of HIV education perpetuated rumours and myths about condoms. "People will tell you that condoms are laced with chemicals that make men impotent. This is due to lack of information; we are now trying to introduce continuous HIV education [in schools]."
A low perception of risk accounted for the poor uptake of HIV counselling and testing - the district has the country's lowest usage. An HIV and Malaria Indicator Survey (2008) found that an estimated 45 percent of new HIV infections in Tanzania occurred in people aged between 15 and 24.
A 2008 study found that rusha rohos - originally only for women but now also attended by men - increased the vulnerability of girls; aside from alcohol and drugs, young girls did not always have the skills to say, 'No', when asked for sex.
"They have to be careful about how they refuse any proposition, as too categorical or demeaning a refusal can lead to rape," the researchers said. "On the other hand, many girls agree, which leads to them losing direction and dropping out of school."
Cultural practices like early marriage give the district one of the country's highest school drop-out rates among girls. "Ten girls can fall pregnant in just a single term," said Obeid Madonga, head teacher at Mabukweni primary school.
"What is worrying is the community sees these pregnancies as very normal. We have talked to parents to stop girls from going to these night ceremonies, but we have not been successful."
Driving the message home
Madonga has now sent two of the school's teachers for HIV prevention training, and intends incorporating HIV prevention education into the school curriculum. "We can't stop them from having sex, but we can stop risky sexual behaviour amongst them," he said.
|At the weddings, you leave without a girl because you didn't want one, not because the one you wanted refused|
He may need to do more than sex education. A recent Tanzanian study found that sexual and reproductive health education in primary schools had a "clear and consistent beneficial impact on knowledge, but no significant impact on reported attitudes to sexual risk, reported pregnancies, or other reported sexual behaviours".
District health officials are looking at cultural occasions like rusha rohos to distribute condoms. "We can't fight culture, but we can use it to get people with HIV prevention services," said medical officer Haraka.
"You will get more young people here and not only give them condoms, but also teach them how to use them, and stress the need for their use, and encourage them to go for testing."
*Not his real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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