Culture and Tradition in Malawi: Other Lessons from Mr. Aniva’s Arrest

Updated: Jan 15


On 21 July 2016, the world was introduced to Mr. Eric Aniva.

This was through a 2-minute BBC documentary interview titled “The man hired to have sex with children.” In an earlier production to this debilitating story, in “Stealing Innocence in Malawi,” BBC reporter Ed Butler reported of the practice in the southern tip of Malawi that has invigorated many people around the globe on the issue of an initiation tradition that sees the transformation of girls into women. Malawians have reacted even more decisively. The Malawi President, Peter Mutharika, ordered the incarceration of Mr. Aniva of Nsanje District in a bid to institute retribution for the malpractice. To this effect, a letter dated 1 August 2016, from UN Women’s Executive Director, was handed to the President on taking such a strong stand against discriminatory practices that propagate the patriarchy at the expense of equality of men and women, boys and girls.

To digress a little at this early stage, such news on Malawi makes the world spin.

Our thoughts and feelings on the "Hyena" story are somewhat mixed. First is the misrepresentation of some key facts as one would hope a reputable news house as BBC would be in a privileged position to avoid. First is the need to distinguish between "Kulowa Kufa" (cleansing of widows), "Kuchotsa Fumbi" (a cleansing ritual in young girls during initiation ceremonies) and other such practices. Both practices involve sexual relations between a village-appointed designate (almost always a male) and a female undergoing certain specific circumstances. And so, it goes without debate that both these practices are deplorable and need to be eliminated. Elimination in the most urgent fashion.

BUT, the two have very different implications that elicit dissimilar ways of redress. One involves knowing (perhaps even consenting) adult women. The other concerns young unknowing girls.

Here's why: it is no surprise that this man admits his HIV status as positive, as he has practiced in oblivion of the reasons the women he 'cleansed' became widowed. Whatever significance the tradition is to the welfare of widowed women and society, awareness of consenting adult women needs to be changed in light of the dangers of such practices on both widow and hyena. We need to sober up to the fact that, because of innate traditional beliefs, there has to be excitement and/or anticipation on the part of some - of course, not all - widows when the time for cleansing comes. Society wants us to believe that women are always the victims in these practices, and yet it is the traditions that hold both men and women captive to the identity and sense of belonging to a particular culture/social grouping that ought to be the object of redress. This is about protecting women as much as men, the building blocks of community and nation.

When the hyena doubles as a 'soap' for young girls, he indeed becomes the vessel for charting the undesirable destinies of young girls' lives, the young men that later engage with them, and the generations that these unions bring about. The hyena needs awareness too.

Our second concern borders on where in Malawi these practices actually take place. In the Southern District of Nsanje, much like in parts of next door Chikwawa District and Malawi’s Northern Region, whose patrilineal culture performs other rituals in introducing girls into adulthood. As one might agree, the culture in Nsanje does not align with sexual initiation but has utilized mentoring and counselling as the tool to making responsible, traditionally-sound women out of girls. This is perhaps the reason Mr. Aniva refers to Kulowa Kufa, a practice more familiar with widows and one that has earned him the paid official title of ‘hyena’ in Nsanje. In all this, we are dismayed by the poor interpretation of the Chichewa language that the BBC uses, which unfortunately directs the news-reading world to a completely different issue. More unfortunate is the impact misrepresentation of facts has on potential development programs, if in fact our foreign-inspired development programs are already not saturated with the wrong understanding of the local cultural fabric.

To this end, we invite our Chewa conversant readers to first listen to the dialogue in the video, and then follow by making comparison of the spoken word with the subtitles of the narration.

Our take is that a presidential decree on traditional practices ought to be done in full appreciation of the structure of cultural beliefs. We, unfortunately, conclude the Presidency acted out of the hysteria of the moment and overlooked the need to address a "root cause," something any presidency should avoid. It is not enough to arrest the hyena in setting an example for all practicing hyenas in rural Malawi, while leaving free the tradition that creates him in the first place. Many cultures (and so do religions) have their custodians. And so, our suggestion is to the Presidency, the line government ministries, and to local government (who, by the way, are not offering their public opinion in the matter) to primarily focus on arresting the tradition - the only way which is to arrest the custodian(s), i.e., the chiefs and traditional leaders that are advancing perilous practices in a 21st century plagued with AIDS, inequality and poverty.

To conclude, we wish for more ‘to-the-point’ interpretation of not just Chichewa, but all, languages if the medium of drawing global attention is going to be English or any language of choice. This responsibility rests with the journalistic prowess of our media houses, but also the NGOs that use such stories in their work.

We've also done the reading for you, so click here to find this article on our BlogCast Page to listen!

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