About five years after Eric Aniva was sentenced to two years imprisonment for performing sexual cleansing rituals on over 100 women, Nation on Sunday has found that outlawed harmful cultural practices such as kusasa fumbi, kulowa kufa, bulangete la mfumu and kabichi, are still rampant in some parts of the country. Investigative Journalist BOBBY KABANGO writes;
On a sunny day on August 5, we set off for village head Kachipapa’s area in Ntchisi. Travelling on a motorcycle taxi, popularly known as kabaza, the 50-kilometre bumpy ride from Ntchisi Boma took about two hours.
There we met 35-year-old Zakeyu (not real name), a sexual cleanser commonly known as fisi (hyena). He does not want his identity known for fear of being arrested, but admits to have slept with about 25 women and girls as part of the sexual cleansing rituals of kusasa fumbi and kulowa kufa. Traditional leaders and some of the girls whom he has slept with attest to his claim.
Kulowa kufa is a practice where a widow has sex with fisi to exorcise evil spirits and prevent other deaths occurring.
Zakeyu says he also helps couples that are unable to conceive by sleeping with the wife until she gets pregnant. He does all this while married. In fact, he left his first wife to marry a girl whom he cleansed. They now have four children.
Kusasa fumbi is a sexual ritual that marks the girl’s rite of passage to womanhood, usually at the request of the parents. Besides training the girls to be good wives, the ritual is believed to protect the girl’s family from evil spirits or misfortune, popularly referred to as kusempha.
Zakeyu says he started playing the fisi role in 2003 after an elderly woman from his village asked him to cleanse a girl who had just reached puberty.
He explains: “Culturally when a girl reaches puberty, elderly women conduct initiation rituals. They then seek the services of an experienced man to conduct the sexual cleansing.”
Zakeyu recalled the first night he performed kusasa fumbi, which he says lasts three days.
He says: “The girl was sleeping alone in a hut outside their family home. At first, she refused to let me touch her, so I called her mother from the main house. She came and convinced the girl and it worked. The girl appeared to be in pain, since it was her first time to sleep with a man. I left the house around 4am.”
Back in the day, Zakeyu says several men in his village openly practised the ritual and he admired them, but they are secretive now for fear of human rights activists.
Since he started, he says he receives many requests to cleanse girls or help their women conceive. He is paid about K3 000 whenever he helps a woman to fall pregnant.
“To date, I have served over 15 girls and 10 women; and all the women I slept with have babies. Their husbands respect me,” says Zakeyu.
Asked what the women’s husbands think of the practice, Zakeyu said it is mostly husbands who approach him for help.
He explains: “It usually happens at night. The man leaves the house for me to spend some time with his wife. I keep visiting the house until the woman falls pregnant, after which I get my payment.”
However, Zakeyu says he has never taken a blood test for HIV or other sexually-transmitted infections.
Meet the victims
The next day, we met a 16-year-old girl (name withheld as she is a minor) in Lombwa Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chikho in the district, who recounted her kusasa fumbi experience two years ago.
Says the girl: “It was daytime when some elderly women visited my parents to conduct my initiation ceremony. Later that night, I was surprised to see a man enter my hut.”
The girl says it is normal in her village for girls undergoing initiation to live in a separate house from their parents.
She narrates: “It was around 8pm when a man knocked on my door. When I opened, he quickly walked in and closed the door. Adati ‘ndikufuna ndikusase fumbi’ [He said ‘I want to have sex with you’].
“I didn’t ask any questions because this is what we were told would happen after the initiation ceremony. It was painful. I know the man; he has a family and lives right in this village.”
The following day, she says the man visited her hut again. This time, she was surprised because she did not expect him to return.
“I asked him why he came back, but he threatened me against telling my mother,” she says.
Months after the encounter, the girl, who was in Standard Five, realised she was pregnant. She dropped out of school.
Her mother was furious with the development and reported the case to the police. The man was jailed for four years.
Explains the girl: “I gave birth to a baby boy who died after three weeks. I am not happy that this happened to me. It has delayed my education, but I am determined to finish school and become a doctor.”
She has since returned to school, and is now in Standard Six.
In a separate interview, village head Lombwa admitted that people in his area practise harmful cultural practices.
The traditional leader also pointed out another less-known cultural practice, but common in his area called Bulangete la Mfumu.
He said bulangete la mfumu is conducted when installing a village head. Several young women are identified for a visiting traditional leader, usually at T/A level, to pick for his pleasure during his stay.
A woman who was picked for the role in 2018, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she was reluctant, but she could not say no as it is a cultural expectation.
She said: “They picked about five of us, and the visiting chief selected me. It was difficult for me to refuse as culturally, we have to obey the chief’s orders. My husband was not aware of this.”
The woman says it was her first time to undergo the practice, and she has never done it again.
In Dowa, village development committee (VDC) chairperson Benson Nakutuwa told Nation on Sunday about another sexual cleansing practice kabichi.
“This happens when a woman loses a husband, and about five women are selected to have sex with her,” he said.
Nakutuwa said the practice is common in T/As Mkukula and Chiwere, where a woman reported to the VDC that it happened to her last month.
He said: “She told us that when her husband died, five women came to have sex with her as a cleansing rite. It was arranged by some local leaders.”
When Nation on Sunday approached the woman, she refused to share her story. Nakutuwa said the experience may have traumatised her.
These are just a few cases of sexual cleansing practices that the Nation on Sunday investigation uncovered in the country. They all have one thing in common—infringing on the rights of women and girls.
The case of Aniva
In the first case of its kind, Nsanje-based fisi Eric Aniva was in 2016 sentenced to 24 months in jail for having unprotected sex with newly-bereaved women. He admitted to having sex with over 100 women and girls without disclosing his HIV-positive status.
The then president Peter Mutharika ordered his arrest, and wanted Aniva tried for defiling young girls, but none of the girls came forward to testify against him.
It was only after two women testified against him that he was tried for practising ‘harmful cultural practices’ under Section Five of the Gender Equality Act.
According to Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre executive director Emma Kaliya, the failure of victims to speak out is worsening the problem as it allows perpetrators to get away.
In an interview, she called on civil society organisations and government to devise effective ways to end the harmful practices.
Said Kaliya: “As a country, we need to be serious and punish perpetrators. We also need to continue advocating until we have a total ban on these harmful practices.”
Study finds practices still common
A 2019 survey on traditional practices in Malawi jointly carried out by the National Statistical Office, the Centre for Social Research at the University of Malawi (Unima) and the Centre for Child Well-being and Development at the University of Zurich in Germany indicated that girls are subjected to initiation ceremonies and sexual rites.
The study found that while there are some useful lessons imparted to the initiates, the sexual components of practices such as kusasa fumbi put girls at risk of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV and Aids, and unwanted pregnancies which contribute to high school dropout rates among girls.
It also found that about one-third of the respondents do not consider these traditional practices as valuable.
In an interview, one of the researchers, Unima political and administrative studies associate professor Blessings Chinsinga said most perpetrators of harmful practices are male.
He attributed the rise in harmful cultural practices among women to poverty, saying many of them are dependent on men economically, hence have no power to fight men who are beneficiaries of these practices.
Chinsinga said: “The downside of it is that most strategies aimed at fighting these malpractices target women alone. So, women can be empowered but they are already in a subordinate position to men and therefore, they cannot negotiate with men on these issues.
“This is why we need to target both men and women, boys and girls at early stage because all these practices are a product of socialisation; hence, the need to target young ones at an early age.”
He recalled his experience when collecting data for the study.
“I met several women who contracted sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV and Aids. Some girls have had problems walking because they are forced to have sex when they are not mature enough. And there are several cases of depression—that feeling of not being wanted was widespread, especially among young girls that have had sex with older men.”
In a separate interview, sociologist Charles Chilimampunga said the bad cultural practices persist because some are benefiting from them.
He said: “In this particular case, where women are being sexually abused, it is males who benefit. So, they would want this to continue and where they find that some of these practices are being abandoned, they try to create new ones.
“Therefore, when government and organisations intervene to end some of these cultural practices, they must think of ways to replace them with better practices. Instead of allowing women to have sex with a widow, we can replace it with counselling. Victims of these practices should not be isolated.”
A survey by Ntchisi Organisation for Youth and Development, a no-governmental organisation (NGO) working on interventions to end the harmful cultural practices in the district, revealed that the prevalence of harmful cultural practices in that district last year was at 70 percent.
According to the study by Chinsinga and others, main decision-makers in the fisi tradition are family members, village elders and chiefs, while some indicated that the girls themselves are the decision-makers.
The study examined the prevalence of the tradition in Malawi, and found that as many as 80 percent of people in the Southern Region said their girls engage in the tradition while only three and one percent reported the same for the Central and Northern regions respectively.
Look out for Part Two of this series in The Nation tomorrow on women and girls abandoned by Malawian men working in South Africa