Updated: Jan 15, 2020
The two-year sentence of 22 November 2016 that convicted 45-year-old Eric Aniva of Nsanje District, met with both jubilation and displeasure, is a stimulus to reflect on our own culture, tradition and the essence of being Malawian. The sentence is making the world dance, and perhaps the world’s view of Malawi is improving, that the country is on a path to social progress. Some finally went to sleep. For others, mainly in Nsanje, a fight to defend a culture began. On the outset, every atrocity Mr. Aniva is claimed to have committed constitutes punishable offenses that tradition needs to do away with. There is no better way to describe his actual wrongs.
Although many lament the leniency that the courts have shown Mr. Aniva through a two-year sentence, his conviction represents a Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act (Marriage Act) of 2015 that is full of life and unwilling to bulge to impunity and injustice. It is, indeed, a strong message for all the employees of the tradition, a.k.a. hyenas as Mr. Aniva, who are remunerated for the pleasures of the flesh that, truly, many men find enviable.
However, there are still a few spoilers to this accomplishment which has engulfed Malawi for the past few months that will undermine the impact of the conviction on Malawi’s future cultural fabric. They are concerns larger than the acuity of the ‘lenient sentence’ handed to Mr. Aniva last week.
Why does a good proportion of Malawians invoke kulowa kufa? Culturally-promoted carnal indulgences corresponding to the death of a spouse are society’s way of keeping away evil spirits from taking hold of the widowed party, in a way to primarily protect the sobriety and sanity of the bereaved. It is a means of empowering the bereft spouse as they mourn and re-establish themselves in society. For some, it is also a way of ensuring that the physical needs of the bereaved are satisfied in a safe and orderly fashion, to contain potential scandalous engagements that may threaten the cohesion of communities. They are society’s understanding of protections for both the widow(er) and those that would otherwise take undue advantage of the existing opportunity.
Malawi is not alone, like much of Africa where such practices still take place. For hundreds of years, the fleshly indulgences have been conducted all over the world in various shapes and sizes that are unique to different countries. In many parts of Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia, this has manifested itself through levirate marriages, where a man is ascribed the obligation of marrying and eloping with a sibling’s widow to deal away ancestral spirits, but also to secure the posterity of families and clans. In England, the oldest surviving sibling is obliged to elope with an in-law to ensure there are children from the same bloodline that the departed sibling would have brought about. While in places like Nsanje a man or woman, an outsider, is hired to assume these important social responsibilities, other places in Malawi practice such traditions through chokolo, which is our vernacular for levirate marriage as in the European and Asian examples above, where one has to marry a widow(er) out of obligation. Most importantly, these traditions are not new to Malawi, nor are they peculiar to us as a people.
And, in a world without HIV and AIDS, this was not a practice to contend. It just made total sense. No questions asked.
There are benefits of these practices, whose reasons society has rightfully invested several hundreds of years to construct. And kulowa kufa has benefited both men and women who have had to face the loss of a partner at least once in their lifetimes. Nonetheless, what we believe should precede the redress of any cultural practice that is perceived to endanger life is the issue of respect to these traditions that define a people. For the case at hand, the issue has not been about abolishing the entire practice of kulowa kufa as much as it has been about removing the harmful elements that would affect the men and women who need to emancipate themselves from the dangers a death poses. Respect and proper (civic) education are the best ways to address the existing problem. As such, a major threat to kulowa kufa, is the limited or slow modernization of tradition in a world that is constantly changing. It is important for custodians of culture to understand the positive implications that come with the utilization of modern protective gear on the widow(er), the messenger and the society itself. On the use of protection, there is so much to learn from the cultures outside of Africa, which have found a way around the offense to the spirits of adding a thin sheath of plastic to the menu.
A second important issue is our continued fear that the arrest of Mr. Aniva will only be superficial and would not be ideal in curbing for good the harmful traditions and practices in Malawi’s traditions. We warned of the risk of Mr. Aniva’s arrest in our 19 August 2016 article, when we first addressed the matter. Our concerns are around two major issues. The first involves the myopia in arresting messengers of traditions which have endured hundreds of years. Mr. Aniva has admitted in his narrative he has been a remunerated servant of his village. And this signals the existence of someone who issues the cheque. Our position remains that the custodians of culture, the traditional leaders, harbor more knowledge and the rationale for promoting practices that we now deem harmful to the nation. Insofar as Mr. Aniva’s case has unwound, no chiefs in Nsanje at the village, group village and at the traditional authority levels face a conviction. Yet, we hear several men are fleeing for their lives for having provided service to society they had once assumed was noble. But we believe we understand why this may also be the case. One of the charges does not necessarily apply to Nsanje’s cultures. Reiterating our 19 August article, there is no cleansing of girls in Nsanje District as a way of traditional initiation practice. Recall and replay Mr. Aniva’s BBC documentary, in which he only refers to kulowa kufa, the translation of which our esteemed journalists and the BBC did not find important to give due diligence.
A third concern surrounds the hypocrisy and emotional hysteria around the case that our civil society, media and other actors have exhibited since the story came out in July. Let us go way back when…. The Nation on Sunday Newspaper, on 20 November 2011, published a story on Emma Tembo of Nsanje District, who was retiring as a female hyena from a kulowa kufa tour of duty at the age of 35. Ms. Tembo had cleansed 82 men on her record, a feat that not only provided her with a livelihood, but also earned herself an HIV positive status, much like Mr. Aniva. No screams of the magnitudes of Mr. Aniva’s case have been heard concerning the impacts of the female hyenas. This negligence suggests an important anomaly in our quest for a gender-equal society, where men and women ought to be treated equally, or at least be understood to be treated as such. It endangers the internalization of the connotations regarding the fight for equality on those who see the message being more a women’s agenda than an equality one.
The rants by our local and international civil societies, including governmental and intergovernmental bodies, will make not only the efforts we are making on gender equality and women’s empowerment a steeper hill to climb, but also set the precedence that the major bouts with culture can only culminate in misinformed imprisonment. It is likely to inspire an underground operation that cultural communities will turn to for fear of coming out overtly and face a harsh legal environment. On this note, Malawi needs to search itself on whether the work on redressing certain cultural practices has been ideal, and whether it has promoted the use of culture in addressing the country’s development challenges in the most optimal ways.
It is no wonder the people of Nsanje are defiant at the outcome of Mr. Aniva’s case. Perhaps they are justified to express their disgruntlement. Captured by the fear of losing their culture and identity, they have every reason to scream out loud. Until Malawi exhausts all avenues for educating its people, illuminating them to the clear and implicit dangers within certain practices, it may not easily resolve to seek the long arm of law enforcement to resolve its cultural problems. For, at some point, it will also require cultural approaches to bring discernment to its large rural population for development to make sense, to take place, and for the spread of AIDS to be kept in check.
It is erroneous to think Mr. Aniva’s case is one against a singular human being, other than against the grander institution called culture. We despair that the country has checked all the boxes on the parameters discussed in this publication. We think Malawi’s development practitioners need to return to the drawing board if the preservation of culture and the protection of the rights of women and girls in Malawi are to be reconciled for the country’s future.