In Southern Malawi, there exists an unspeakable practice.
In certain remote areas of Southern Malawi, there are male sex workers called “hyenas.” These men are paid to have sex with women who need “sexual cleansing.” This practice is not seen as rape by the tribal elders, rather it is considered a form of “ritual cleansing.”
For example, if a man dies, his wife is required by tribal tradition to have sex with a hyena man before she can bury her husband. If a woman has an abortion, she too must sleep with a hyena man. Still, the most disturbing of all the hyena men’s “clients” are the young girls. According to custom in these rural tribes, a hyena man must have sex with a girl, regardless of her age, once she has reached puberty and has completed her first menstruation. This ritual is called “kusasa fumbi” or “removing dust.” This practice is performed over a three day period and is done to signify the girls’ passage into womanhood. Girls cannot refuse because if they do, some disease or other curse may plague their family or even the whole village.
Grace was 10 and being taught how to have sex.
Human rights groups have reported sexual exploitation of youths in Southern Malawi. Two years ago, CNN reported that tribes in this area teach sexually explicit content to their children. In addition to the hyena men, girls as young as six have been sent to initiation camps to learn how to have sex.
For example, there was Grace, who was excited when she was told she would be going to a camp with her friends. “We were happy, because we didn’t know what was there,” Grace told CNN. She and her friends believed it would be like summer camp. However when she arrived, Grace immediately realized it was something that she could have never imagined.
“You should sleep with a man and get rid of child ‘dust’,” she was told. “If you don’t do it, your body will get diseased.” There were demonstrations, one which involved one girl lying down, with an older woman on top. “You should be dancing and have a man on top of you, making him happy,” they told the children. At the time, Grace was only 10 and being taught how to have sex.
Grace told CNN there was no discussion at the camp about pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, or how to protect oneself from either. “I was not happy,” she said. “From the time I came out from camp, they were saying I should go for sexual cleansing.”
Despite pressure from her friends, Grace wanted no part of it. Many girls privately said they hated the lessons taught to them at these camps, but feel they have no choice. “They are forced by their parents and guardians to go through those things. If anyone refuses, they would definitely be looked at as an outcast. There is a lot of peer pressure,” Grace said.
But Grace resisted the pressure and did not participate with the “kusasa fumbi.” Instead, she empowered herself and learned the risks of unprotected sex. “You can get pregnant, you can get HIV, so it’s not good for us,” she said. With this knowledge, she is taking control of her life and living it on her own terms. “When I finish my education, I’ll get married,” she said.
[Aniva] has slept with over 100 women and girls of all ages.
The man in the title photo is Eric Aniva, one of ten “hyena” men in his region of Southern Malawi. Avina, who is believed to be in his 40’s, recently gave an interview to BBC in which he boasted about his position as a hyena man. He told the interviewer that he has slept with over 100 women and girls of all ages. “Most of those I have slept with are girls, school-going girls,” Aniva said. “Some girls are just 12 or 13 years old, but I prefer them older. All these girls find pleasure in having me as their hyena. They actually are proud and tell other people that this man is a real man, he knows how to please a woman.” Aniva said he is paid between $4-$7 each time.
Aniva is…HIV positive, but he does not tell his clients this when they hire him.
Malawi has one of the highest HIV rates in the world. More than 10% of the population between ages 15 and 49 are infected with HIV/AIDS, and it is estimated that 1 in 10 of all Malawians carry the HIV virus. Yet according to custom, hyena men are not allowed to use condoms or any other forms of protection while “working.”
Hyenas are chosen for their good morals, and it is believed that this prevents them from getting infected with HIV/AIDS or any other sexually transmitted diseases. Some African communities believe that having sex with a virgin will cure a man of HIV. However, Aniva is in fact HIV positive, but he does not tell his clients this when they hire him.
When asked if he wanted his baby daughter to be “cleansed” when she reached maturity, Aniva quickly rejected that idea.
Aniva is married and has five children of his own. He does not know how many women and girls he has impregnated. Interestingly, Aniva’s youngest child is a girl. Her mother, Fanny, was a widow before she was “cleansed” by Aniva. Soon after, they married. Fanny told BBC she hates what Aniva does, but that it is a source of income that they need. Fanny does not want her daughter to experience the same things she did. She said, “”I don’t want that to happen. I want this tradition to end. We are forced to sleep with the hyenas. It’s not out of our choice and that I think is so sad for us as women.”
When asked if he wanted his baby daughter to be “cleansed” when she reached maturity, Aniva quickly rejected that idea. He said, “Not my daughter. I cannot allow this. Now I am fighting for the end of this malpractice.” When asked how he could be fighting to end this practice when he is still engaging in it, he said, “No…I’m stopping now.”
Five days after the BBC story aired…Aniva was arrested.
Five days after the BBC story aired, the station posted a new story saying that Aniva was arrested. The arrest was ordered by the President of Malawi, Peter Mutharika. President Mutharika stated that Aniva would be investigated for exposing so many young girls to HIV and would be charged accordingly. “While we must promote positive cultural values and positive socialization of our children,” the president said, “harmful cultural and traditional practices cannot be accepted in this country.”
Further, all men and parents involved in the practice of “kusasa fumbi” will also be investigated. “All people involved in this malpractice should be held accountable for subjecting their children and women to this despicable evil. These horrific practices although done by a few also tarnish the image of the whole nation of Malawi internationally and bring shame to us all,” said President Mutharika.
The president expressed frustration at the situation, noting that the country had been making strides towards emancipating girls. For example, Malawi banned child marriage last year and raised the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18. In a warning to those who would continue such abhorrent practices as performed by the hyena men, President Mutharika stated, “Stop now or you will be on the sorry side of the law.” Time will tell if this is genuine action or mere lip service for the sake of the national stage.