Malawi president condemns traditional sex rituals

As AIDS spreads across the country, infecting 14 percent of the population, unsafe sex practices are being scrutinized.

By Hank Hyena

Published November 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Nov. 11, 1999

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has infected 14 percent of the 10.1 million people in
the small, beautiful Republic of Malawi, which lies landlocked in a central
African plateau. On Oct. 29, President Bikili Muluzi introduced a
controversial strategy to combat the plague, which "is spreading like a
wildfire to every corner of the land," according to articles in the Nov. 3
InterPress Service and the Nov. 2 Agence France Presse. Muluzi's goal is to
eliminate ancient tribal customs that are sexually unsafe, particularly to
young girls and women.

In Malawian rural areas, virgin girls have traditionally been initiated
into adulthood in lengthy puberty ceremonies that instruct them in how to
pleasure males in bed. On the final day of the ritual, each girl sleeps
with an elderly man known as a "Fisi" (hyena), who personally guides her
in sexual activity.

In the southern district of Nsanje, the Sena tribe practices another custom
known as "death cleansing." This ritual requires a woman who has recently
been widowed to sleep with her deceased husband's brother before her
dead spouse is buried. Traditionalists believe this intercourse appeases
the departed spirits.

It's considered politically incorrect to deplore the customs of indigenous
peoples, but I can't help noticing that the rituals above both seem created
to provide extra nooky for the men. Misogynist customs are by no means a
Malawian invention; the Old Testament itself is loaded with atrocious sex
laws, such as the decree that unmarried rapists are required to marry their
victims (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

The death-cleansing and hyena-instruction rituals are targeted for
extinction by Muluzi and HIV/AIDS activists, who view gender imbalance as a
major culprit in the disease's spread. Funmi Balogni, gender program
officer of the United National Development Program (UNDP), cites statistics
that indicate a four to six times higher infection rate among young females than in
their male counterparts. "We are dying in droves from HIV/AIDS because we
cannot or still refuse to negotiate our relationships with men," Balogni

Traditional rituals can be stubbornly enduring, but Muluzi is optimistic
that the dangerous practices will "be abandoned or give way to alternate
rites which will reduce the risk." Condoms have also been added to every
Malawian soldier's kit, thanks to funds provided by the European Union and
the United Nations.

The President's five-year plan to halt the plague is estimated to cost $30
million, an enormous sum in this nation where $220 is the average per-capita income. The high adult illiteracy rate (44 percent) is another barrier in
educating the public on HIV/AIDS prevention. Obviously, it's an
understatement to announce that there's a serious health crisis in
this gorgeous land where the life expectancy is only 41 years.

Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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