Fear is deepening in Tosina Village, the home of Eric Zuze Aniva who confessed having ritual sex with over 100 women and girls knowing he is HIV positive.
In the remote pith of Traditional Authority (T/A) Mbenje’s territory, the sound of a car forces some villagers to flee while a nosy few come out of their huts to figure out who is coming.
“Not again!” bellowed Aniva’s mother-in-law, Agnes Frank, as we ventured into his humble homestead in Mbenje’s company on Thursday around 11am.
As we passed by, those who had scampered into safety peeped through the windows of their mud huts.
Ours was reportedly the second car since British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) followed up the odd story of the fisi (hyena) who has admittedly lost count of the partners he has subjected to unprotected sex since 1985 when he was first paid to conduct the sexual cleansing ritual, called kusasa fumbi (removing dust).
The villagers believe the tradition redeems the victims from misfortunes associated with widowhood, accidents, abortion and initiation to adulthood.
However, culture warriors had the shock of their life when police officers summoned Aniva and detained him in line with a detention order from President Peter Mutharika.
Following worldwide condemnation of kusasa fumbi, Mutharika called for an end to sexual cleansing and other cultural practices that fuel HIV infections and gender-based violence.
However, a day in Aniva’s homestead shows the locals have had no time to recover.
When we arrived at Frank’s hut, the villagers only came closer when they saw T/A Mbenje alighting from the vehicle.
Garbed in a faded United Democratic Front (UDF) party cloth and a dirt blouse, Aniva’s in-law, reeking of fresh sweat, sounded anxious.
“Who is next now?” she asked. “Is Aniva safe? Is he coming home?”
The questions poured until Mbenje asked for Aniva’s second wife—Funny, 24.
Frank’s husband died three months ago, but did she bow down to social pressure to undergo sexual cleansing?
“No!” she said.
Would the widow tango with a sexual partner whose identity and HIV status she does not know to meet weird cultural expectations?
“No, not me,” she shook her head vehemently.
“No, you got me right,” she insisted, indicating. “I will just invite my daughter and her husband to come and do the ritual on my behalf.”
Rising awareness has led to modifications of the risky cultural practice, but some locals say this could be symptomatic of thickening secrecy.
Funny looked terrified and restless when she emerged from her hide-out, carrying her seemingly famished lastborn.
Surely, she expected good news, not questions from “people who betrayed my husband”.
“When is my husband walking free?” she asked.
Nobody knows yet.
Last week, first-grade magistrate Alex Masanjala denied Aniva bail when he appeared in court in Nsanje.
His detention has plunged his poor family in worse hunger and poverty. The family is starving, she said. In his two-mat, grass-thatched house, a 10-litre bucket for storing flour was empty. No relish. No salt. Just tattered beddings stuffed in a corner.
The household had only two fistfuls of grain which she bought having earned K500 doing piece works in crop fields of her better-off neighbours.
This is how Aniva’s household is surviving the prevailing food crisis faced by almost 6.5 million Malawians.
“I bought two cups at K130 each to cook for my husband and children,” she said.
Her sons, aged 11 and six, were seen slicing green tomatoes pilfered from a neighbour’s field.
The salad may be a healthy meal for townspeople, but it portrays lean times in the village.
Did she know she had married a hyena in the first place?
“I did not know anything until rumours reached me that he was being hired for sexual cleansing. I didn’t care because he told me that was history. I love him,” she said.
In fact, Funny married Aniva in 2012, a year after the death of her first husband, the father of the two boys.
She confesses undergoing kusasa fumbi, saying: “I identified a different hyena and paid him K3 000. I did not know Aniva at that time.”
We visited the home of Aniva’s first wife two times, but she refused to see us.
From Tosina, we drove Funny 40km to Nsanje Prison. Previously, she had travelled this bumpy distance by foot three times to cheer her beloved husband.
Throughout, she kept murmuring: “How can they arrest him for an old story? I am being ridiculed. I’ve been given different names for no crime.”
A seemingly unfazed Aniva sounded equally puzzled.
He told us: “By God’s grace, I will return home. I am being punished for things I stopped doing years back.”
Likewise, Mbenje and Chief Malemia’s emissary, Foster Tchale, feel the case overblown, just a war on the culture of the Shire Valley.They want Mutharika to rescind the detention order constitutional lawyer Professor Edge Kanyongolo termed dictatorial and a threat to the independence of the police service.
However, Dedza’s Senior Chief Kachindamoto, an eminent champion of rights of gender equality and women’s rights, wants her Shire Valley counterpart “to crack the whip on outdated and high-risk practices”.
UN Women’s Secretary General Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka also backed Mutharika’s stance, saying she is looking forward to a successful conclusion of Aniva’s case.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) executive secretary Grace Malera demanded that the law takes its course as “if and when the suspect is shown to have a case to answer”.
But magistrate Masanjala says the hugely publicised case “is about the law and not someone’s interests”.
The circumstances precedin g the case have pushed Malawi Law Society (MLS) to come to Aniva’s defence.
“The accused might be denied justice, hence our intervention,” explained MLS president John Suzi-Banda.
Traditional leaders feel equally concerned.
“We won this battle sometime back. I am surprised this issue is coming out now,” said Malemia after the chiefs met and resolved to petition the President to halt the case.
However, concerned rural dwellers say this could be just the beginning of the real fight against kusasa fumbi as the underground tradition still exists-and some women and girls candidly confirm undergoing it.