In the Lower Shire valley, Nsanje hogged international headlines for wrong reasons in 2016.
The culture of the people on the southern tip of the country was brought into question when British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) retraced the tale of Eric Aniva, the man who confessed sleeping with more than 100 women and girls in a sexual cleansing rituals.
The man, alternatively known as the hyena or fisi of Nsanje, left tongues wagging following a protracted trial which led to his two-year imprisonment for perpetrating the single most noteworthy harmful practice in the lower side of the Shire River.
Outside the packed courtrooms of Nsanje and Blantyre where he appeared, the man was called all sorts of names-from a sexual pervert to a victim of circumstances-with his people largely blaming his jailing on the media.
In his Mbenje Village, the mention of BBC ignites fury. Aniva’s neighbours say he might have talked too much, but the media was insensitive to their way of life.
Ostensibly, they claim that BBC reporter Ed Butler, who did the follow-up on Aniva’s odd story, has dented their cultural image globally. They believe Butler misled the world.
They think Aniva’s rush for media spotlight has exposed their beloved village of Mbenje to ridicule. The story of the hyena, which was published on July 2016 left President Peter Mutharika so furious that he ordered the police to arrest the man who confessed to have slept with 104 women and girls although he was diagnosed with HIV.
Paradoxically, the father of three told the local press that he stopped practising the sexual cleansing ritual and was using his experience to preach against the practice which gender and sexual health activists find injurious to the health and rights of his mates as well as fuelling the spread of the virus which causes Aids.
For this, former president Bingu wa Mutharika handed him a gong in the restyled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Our Peope Our Pride Awards at Kamuzu Palace.
While Bingu recognised the heroic side of Aniva, his brother Peter put him on the path to jail from where he intends to appeal against his imprisonment.
We visited Aniva’s home shortly after his imprisonment on July 25. We spoke to villagers, including traditional leaders, his wives and organisations that are fighting against harmful cultural practices.
The responses exposed information gaps as many Malawians do not seem to understand hyena custom really exists, but it has been reshaped in view of the HIV and Aids.
“We believe in sexual cleansing, but over the years, we have been doing away with some elements that fuel the pandemic. There is a big change,” village head Mbenje said as we travelled with for almost 40 kilometres journey from Nsanje Boma to Aniva’s home.
Mbenje and Senior Chief Malemia’s aide, Foster Tchale, insists they won the battle against risky customs years back.
During our visit, village head Mbenje said her husband died four months before and she was waiting to be cleansed.
When asked how she was looking forward to the encounter with a ‘hyena’, she paused and held back the fine details because her subject was in custody for talking to the media.
After negotiations, she revealed: “Not anymore. I will prepare the herbs and my daughter and son-in low will do the cleansing on my behalf. I will be cleansed.”
She insists that is how they have been doing it lately.
The traditional leader says they now many now hold a ceremony where an appointed husband and wife in the clan perform the sexual rite on behalf of affected widows mourning their husbands and girls transitioning to adulthood.
At stake is a practice in which women and girls covertly procure the services of a ‘hyena’ and pay him up to K5 000 to have sex with him in the name of ridding themselves from misfortunes because they are convinced they would die or suffer a deadly disease if they do not do so.
Mbenje says she has not seen any of the calamities women and girls believe would haunt the affected family if a fisi is not hired.
For gender activist, Malawians only need to look at the source and beneficiaries of the practice in question to figure out that it was fashioned by men who instil fear in women because they think the female folk are sexual objects.
Today, Aniva is in prison serving a sentence for a crime he admittedly committed about a decade ago.
His trial was the most publicised case the enactment of the Gender Equality Act of 2014 which outlaws indulging in harmful cultural practices.
On November 18, principal magistrate Innocent Nebi slapped Aniva with a two-year jail sentence, which some women rights activists, including Emma Kaliya, described it as too lenient.
Kaliya finds the verdict “the greatest disappointment” in the push to test the new law which was supposed to be stringent enough to fully protect women and children. We are enraged.”
As Aniva languishes in jail, veteran rights defender Undule Mwakasungula urges against selected justice.
“Aniva issue is one of the many outdated cultural practices still being entertained in the country. Why is he the only one being charged and sentenced while he was acting from a traditional set up? Where are the key gate-keepers behind Aniva’s actions?” he wonders.
Mwakasungula says in addition to highly touted awareness campaigns, there is need for enforcement of gender-related laws, emphasising on roles and obligations of gate-keepers-especially traditional and religious leaders.
The activist also asked for strong emphasis on the impact of HIV and Aids.
But Tchale wants the country to appreciate the change taking place at the grass roots, saying harmful cultural practices could be history if people support community-led efforts instead of condemning them. n