Kunyenga, “Real Sex,” and Survival: Assessing the Risk of HIV Infection among Urban Street Boys in Tanzania

Abstract

This article examines possible avenues of HIV infection among urban street boys in Tanzania. In doing so, it questions the ways that AIDS researchers have defined and approached the phenomenon of “survival sex” in East and Central Africa. The article specifically examines the boys’ sexual networks, sexual practices, and attitudes regarding their own sexual behavior, including their perceived risk of HIV/AIDS infection. Seventy-five street boys aged eight to 20 from the city of Mwanza were interviewed. Results suggest that almost all street boys are involved in a sexual network in which homosexual and heterosexual behavior occurs. Homosexual practices are rooted in a complex set of behaviors and ideologies known as kunyenga, which is a situated aspect of life on the streets and helps maintain the boys’ strong dependence on one another. A key aspect of the boys’ sexual careers involves a decrease in kunyenga activity as they approach the age of 18 and an increase in heterosexual encounters after the age of 11. There appears to be a critical period between these ages in which heterosexual and kunyenga activities overlap. It is suggested that boys between these ages represent a potential bridge for HIV/AIDS infection between the general population and the relatively enclosed sexual network of street boys.