In the vastness of the Lower Shire Valley, it is clear ritual sex did not end yesterday.
Elsewhere, kusasa fumbi means nothing more than ‘dusting themselves up’.
But in remote parts of Nsanje and Chikwawa districts, it is a matter of life and death for girls, even as young as 12, who are made to have sex with men paid to cleanse them of “fatal effects of puberty”. It is alternatively called kulowa kufa or kupita kufa (going in dead) when it involves widows.
For the locals, the custom did not die the day Eric Aniva went to Kamuzu Palace and received an MBC Our People Our Pride Award from the late president Bingu wa Mutharika for his “heroic act” in discarding the practice and converting his fellow ‘hyenas’.
“We have to do it. I had to do it to save my life and family. If I refused, death or a disease outbreak would strike me or my parents,” says a girl who endured sex with an old person in Mbenje, Nsanje.
Female Malawians in the low-lying strip have been paying a huge price to have unprotected sex with unfamiliar partners secretly hired to cleanse them of bad luck emanating from widowhood, adulthood and accidents.
The time-honoured tale of the hyena has left Aniva being tried for endangering lives having told British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that he had slept with over 104 women and girls since 1985.
Chief Mbenje and Traditional Authority (T/A) Malemia’s aide, Foster Tchale, insist that they won the battle against the risky customs years back.
However, like fallen novelist Steve Chimombo observed, hyena wears darkness.
The locals say the hyenas have not been wiped out yet.
To them, the old ones wear a darker hue of secrecy while a new one is taking shape.
The villagers visibly treasure their way of life, with some stating it will never die.
Interestingly, increasing awareness of women’s rights is buoying reforms of kulowa kufa to lessen the impact of HIV in communities steeped in risky practices.
With one in 10 Malawians living with the virus that causes Aids, the Mbenje sounds worried that Aniva’s case is exaggerated.
She feels the arrest obscures the strides being made to make kulowa kufa safe.
“This is an old custom. It was abolished,” she says. “We are adjusting the tradition to deal with the pandemic and human rights.”
In her line of duty, Mbenje proudly defends her culture to the extent of demanding that the State drops the case against Aniva.
The traditional leader’s husband died four months ago and she is required to undergo kulowa kufa.
When asked how she was looking forward to a date with a hyena-man, she pauses, reluctant to discuss the fine details. Ostensibly, she is convinced that Aniva was detained for talking too much.
“I won’t do it,” she says. “Not me. Let me bear the curse. We will just prepare some herbs and I will be cleansed.”
Admittedly, Mbenje will very soon invite her favourite couple—comprising her daughter and son-in-law—to have sexual intercourse in her royal home after a “short traditional ceremony” with her kinsmen.
“It’s a simple gathering at the clan level,” she explains. “We cook food and eat together. We discuss issues. On that night, only the chosen couple is required to have sex to cleanse the affected member. After that, we believe both the person and home are safe.”
Just like that, she will escape having to hire an unfamiliar man as was the case with many girls and widows in the ritual that made Aniva a celebrity in his locality.
“Most of my people have had to hire men, but we are slowly abandoning the practice,” she elaborates.
Agness Frank, the mother of Aniva’s second wife, supports the new order taking root.
The woman, who hired a hyena-man for K3 000 for her daughter Fanny four years ago, has to get cleansed too.
Following the worldwide outcry sparked by Aniva’s revelations, Frank takes sides with Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and the civil society who warn against the ritual which outlaws condom use.
“Sex with condom? Then you will walk out still unclean. But it is risky. That is the reason I believe herbs are better,” she says.
Tchale unravels the cultural reforms.
“For widows, a couple does it on their behalf. For girls transitioning to puberty, they get counselling and their parents do sexual cleansing on their behalf,” he says.
The chiefs say they know no one who is still practising kusasa fumbi and kulowa kufa, though Aniva told BBC that almost 10 ‘hyenas’ were on the prowl in his village and the vicinity.
However, the rural residents in Nsanje advocate more civic education and other interventions to eliminate the remaining ‘hyenas’ in the area.
Maria Senti, a woman we met on the way to Saviyeri Village where Aniva’s first wife lives, termed Aniva a victim of publicity as there are many more ‘hyenas’ on the prowl.
“It’s his main source of income, so he talks about it freely to attract clients. There are more ‘hyenas’ in our village. They help widows and girls, but they do it privately and respect themselves,” she says.
Aniva, speaking at Nsanje Prison, denied the allegations as an old offence.
Still, the concerned women believe it is almost impossible to abandon the practice because many fear death and treasure their culture.
Senti, who was subjected to sexual cleansing following her passage to puberty, explains: “It’s a taboo and very embarrassing to women. We pretend all is well. With Aniva’s story, I see secrecy getting stronger.”
The villagers spoke of children born of kulowa kufa and kusasa fumbi, saying the weight of culture has left some women living with the virus which causes Aids.
In 2005, MHRC inquiry into the impact of cultural practices on enjoyment of human freedoms captured the demand for reforms.
Reads the report: “Some of the practices, such as kusasa fumbi, encourage the boys and girls to indulge in promiscuity, thereby exposing them to dangers of sexually transmitted disease, including HIV and Aids. They [the locals] felt that wherever possible, use of traditional medicine that works in the same way as kusasa fumbi should be promoted instead.”
Dr Mary Shaba, the principal secretary of the Ministry of Gender, Disability, Children and Social Welfare, sounds cautious.
“We are not going to condemn these people,” she told the BBC. “But we are going to give them information that they need to change their rituals.”