It's Saturday night and Jaffari Musoke*, who rides a 'boda boda' - motorcycle taxi - arrives at his regular stage, or departure point, near several hotels in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. He has an easy camaraderie with the sex workers who hang around the hotels, taking many of them home after a night's work. Sometimes he mixes business with pleasure.
"Man, this is the nature of our work. We have a lot of temptations and risks involved in this job, especially at night," he told IRIN/PlusNews, as a girl climbed on his bike so he could take her to meet a client.
An estimated 100,000 Ugandan men earn a living as boda boda riders, and around 73,800 motorcycles were imported over the last 5 years, according to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles.
The riders tend to be young men, weaving in and out of the traffic on Kampala's potholed roads, often without safety gear and little regard for traffic regulations. A survey report released in 2011 compared their sexual behaviour to groups classified as 'most at risk' by the Uganda AIDS Commission, which include sex workers, uniformed services, prison populations and fishing communities.
The survey - by the Ministry of Health, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Makerere University's School of Public Health - covered 694 riders in Kampala between July 2008 and March 2009, and found an HIV prevalence rate of 7.5 percent. The national rate is 6.7 percent.
More than 25 percent of the riders reported having multiple sex partners and were engaging in anal sex with both women and men, 12 percent identified themselves as bi-sexual and four percent as gay, and 25 percent believed it was less important to use condoms for anal sex than for vaginal sex.
Approximately half the riders said they were “not as careful about HIV and sex because there is better treatment for AIDS”, while 21 percent reported having sold sex to at least two women, and 78 percent had bought sex from at least two women.
The Uganda Health Marketing Group (UHMG), a local NGO, is running a year-long campaign named, “Get Protected. Get Ready to Roll with Protector” (a brand of condom), which aims to encourage safer sex practices among boda boda riders. UHMG is running the campaign in six selected districts across the country, targeting 5,000 riders as direct beneficiaries, and their clients as secondary beneficiaries.
Condoms and helmets
UHMG is using two products in its campaign - condoms to prevent HIV infection, and branded helmets to improve safety on the road.
"[This programme] provides HIV prevention education among boda boda riders, while at the same time improving their safety, as well as that of their customers,” said Julian Atim, HIV/AIDS programme manager at UHMG. "It utilizes peer educators, who are boda boda cyclists themselves, working in close collaboration with health workers from Good Life Clinics, which are privately owned health facilities supported by UHMG."
The programme offers riders a comprehensive package of HIV prevention services, including HIV counselling and testing, assessment and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and referral for safe male circumcision.
Through Good Life clinics and community outreaches, some 1,500,000 condoms have been sold to boda boda riders at a subsidized cost, and100,000 more have been distributed for free in the districts implementing the programme. The campaign also uses riders to sell condoms, and they have sold more than 100,000 in the six participating districts since the campaign started in August 2011.
"Providing socially marketed condoms to the peer educators at the boda boda stages has been a very successful strategy, as indicated by the increased demand of condoms among… cyclists," said Atim." UHMG also works with kiosk and shop owners near the stages to stock condoms, and the peer educators carry out condom demonstrations."
Buazi Openj Mungu, a boda boda and peer educator in northwestern Uganda's Nebbi District, told IRIN/PlusNews by telephone that the campaign had boosted the riders' knowledge about HIV prevention and treatment. "The boda boda riders used to engage in reckless behaviour like having unprotected sex, exposing their lives to HIV," he said. "As a result of the campaign, we have taught them about HIV/AIDS and many of them are now using condoms."
Safi Alema Tiyo, general secretary of the Boda Boda Association in the northwestern district of Arua, said he had noticed an increase in the number of riders seeking male circumcision for HIV prevention.
UHMG's Atim said the programme may be renewed if funds are available.