Erick Aniva, 43, has slept with 105 women in his life.
Those women are not concubines or prostitutes. They are widows, who, like Aniva, act the way they have done because of a sexual cleansing cultural practice in their community in Nsanje.
According to the community, the practice is done to remove the spirit of the dead so that the living spouse can start a normal life again.
Aniva and his community believe that without cleansing a widow or widower, the whole village would perish.
Thus, Aniva’s trade in life is to be a sexual cleanser. People of Mbenje Village in the district know that if they want cleansing, Aniva is available for hire for the service.
And in the line of duty, he has contracted the virus that causes Aids. But that has not stopped him from serving his community, in the process of which he has spread the virus as the ‘law’ of the game is that they cannot use protection.
“I have been doing this for over 20 years,” he says.
Aniva doesn’t regret his work because apart from serving his people, the practice also helps him to bring food on his table, he says.
“When a married person dies, cleansing ceremony is supposed to be done. We are hired to do the cleansing at a fee. The affected family approaches me to tell me what is on offer. When I agree with the terms and conditions, I allow and cleanse the widow,” says Aniva sitting on his veranda in the company of his two wives and children.
He says apart from cleansing, he has married five times.
“I am now HIV positive and on treatment. When hired for cleansing, I tell my wives and they give consent because I am paid,” he says.
According to Aniva, he has children with some of the women he has cleansed but he denies responsibility because he is just hired to cleanse the widows.
Malita Makiyi is another of the sexual cleansers in the village.
“I have slept with 28 men. I went to the hospital for a test and I was found HIV positive. Medical officials told me that I should be using a condom when cleansing widowers, but it’s not possible because we are not allowed to use condoms.
“I make ends meet through this business. Therefore, I cannot abandon the practice though I am HIV positive. I will continue with the practice without using condoms,” she says.
Malaifa Nyadaufe is also happy that she is making ends meet through the trade.
She has lost three husbands so far.
“When I lost my husbands I decided to join the cleansing business because of poverty. I have cleansed 20 men since I started,” she says.
Government and other partners have for long called for an end to such practices as a way of curbing the spread of HIV and Aids.
But Chief Mbenje says if they stop the practice, the whole village would perish.
And he explains what else happens around the practice.
“When a married person dies, we kill a chicken and get the innards for the widow or widower and the hired person to eat for the cleansing ceremony.
“The person who does the cleansing is paid money. When the ceremony has taken place, the whole village is free to eat meat and families can have sexual intercourse,” he explains.
Mbenje says the practice is very important in their village and they cannot abandon it.
“This is our belief and this practice has been there since time immemorial, and nobody can force us to abandon it,” he says.
Health rights activist Maziko Matemba says it is unfortunate that about 30 years after the first Aids case was reported in Malawi, some people are still practicising such harmful practices.
“People in Nsanje should abandon the practice. Government and development partners are investing a lot of money to ensure that they contain the spread of the virus. Therefore, it’s sad that others are frustrating the efforts in the name of culture,” he says.
Manet+ Executive Director Safari Mbewe has advised the people to stop or modify the practice so that HIV does not continue to spread.
“This is very shocking, dangerous and very retrogressive in these days and times. Condom use cannot be compromised,” he says.
Government has in place a draft law which provides for the punishment of people who deliberately transmit HIV/Aids. But Mbewe feels the law may not be the best solution.
“In terms of preventing HIV transmission, the best is not to use the law or threats but for people to understand the dangers and they decide to stop what they are doing.
“The problem of using the law is that people do not necessarily fear to do wrong because there is a law. For example, theft and murder are prohibited by the law but people continue committing such crimes on a daily basis. Let them understand the dangers and the risks and they decide to stop or modify the practice,” he says.
Minister of Health Peter Kumpalume says the future of Malawi is at stake because of such practices.
“That practice will increase the number of new infections in the country,” he says.
Kumpalume too recommends the abandonment of the practice.
“If the practice is putting the lives of people at risk, the best way is to stop it. I urge the concerned people to abandon it,” he says.
On the HIV/Aids draft legislation, Kumpalume says it is at cabinet level.
Malawi has 1.1 million people living with HIV and continues to report significant progress in the fight against the disease.
The total number of people receiving antiretroviral treatment has increased from 3,000 people in 2003 to 568,000 at the end of June 2015, according to the information on the website of The Global Fund.
Malawi has a high burden of TB and high rate of TB/HIV co-infection.
The world seeks to end the Aids epidemic by 2030.
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