In southern regions of Malawi, girls are traditionally made to have sex with a hired sex worker known as a “Malawian hyena” once they see their first menses.
The elders of the village see the “sacred act” as a way of cleansing and not rape. But actually, it does more than ‘cleanse’ the girls. It actually spreads disease.
Eric Aniva, who lives in three-room shack in Nsanje district in southern Malawi, is the pre-eminent “hyena” in this village. It’s the traditional named for a man hired by communities in several remote parts of southern Malawi to provide the said sexual “cleansing” on young girls. There are several other taboos that demand cleansing as well.
For instance, if a man dies, his widow is by the provision of the tradition asked to sleep with Aniva (Malawian hyena) before she can bury him.
If a woman has an abortion, again sexual cleansing is needed.
What’s more strange is that, in Nsanje, teenage girls as young as 12, after their first menstruation, are required to have sex over a three-day period, to mark their passage from childhood to adulthood.
In an instance where they declined to go through the ritual, it’s thought that disease or some fatal misfortune could befall their families or the entire village.
Aniva reveals that, so far, he has slept with about 104 young girls and women – though he appears to have lost count – most of whom are between the ages of 12 and 13. He started being a Malawian hyena in the 1980s and says he prefers older women.
“All these girls find pleasure in having me as their hyena. They actually are proud and tell other people this this man is a real man, he knows how to please a woman.”
But on the other hand, a good number of girls in a village close by recalled the ordeal they’ve had to go through.
“There was nothing else I could have done. I had to do it for the sake of my parents,” one girl, Maria, told BBC. “If I’d refused, my family members could be attacked with diseases – even death – so I was scared.”
The young girl also revealed that all her female friends were made to have sex with a Malawian hyena.
Married to two “understanding” wives, Aniva seems to be in his 40s (he’s not clear about his age). Aniva has five children that he knows about – he’s not sure how many of the women and girls he’s made pregnant.
One of Aniva’s two wives, Fanny, was herself widowed before being “cleansed” by Aniva with sex. They married soon after the sexual cleansing.
Aniva is among the 10 Malawian hyenas in the community where every village district features at least one of his kind. They are paid from $4 to $7 (£3 to £5) each time.
Three women in their 50s and custodians of the initiation traditions in their village are under obligation of organising the adolescent girls into camps each year, teaching them about their duties as wives and how to please a man sexually.
The women explain to the girls on the need to avoid infection with their parents or the rest of the community by accepting to be cleansed the Malawian hyena.
The “sexual cleansing” with the hyena is the final stage of this process, arranged voluntarily by the girl’s parents.
The custom does not allow sex with the hyena to be protected with the use of condoms. But the village carefully chooses someone with good morals who according to the leaders can not be infected with HIV/Aids.
HIV is a huge risk to the community due to the hyena’s duty.
The UN estimates that one in 10 of all Malawians carry the virus and shockingly Aniva is HIV-positive. More shockingly, he doesn’t mention his HIV status to a girl’s parents when they hire him.
He claims that he is slowing down on cleansing since finding out his HIV status. Before cleansing, according to him, he drinks traditional herbs for either strength or as a precautionary measure to not get infected by diseases.
All of those involved in these rituals are aware that these customs are condemned by outsiders – not just by the church, but by NGOs and the government as well, which has launched a campaign against so-called “harmful cultural practices”.
Elder women in the village remain defiant about scrapping the cleansing process. Today it’s more likely to done by a paid sex worker, a hyena, and there’s no shame attached to that.
Father Boucher points out that the efforts to change this sexualisation of children have been stubbornly resisted in remote southern areas, despite more than a century of Christianity and 30 years of the Aids epidemic.
In most of the country – and particularly in areas close to the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe – “sexual cleansing” is rarely if ever practised.
In Nsanje, though, there is a bit of effort to introduce change. However, with Malawi as one of the poorest countries in the world, and suffering from growing reports of rural hunger, it’s not very easy.
Aniva’s wife, who was a widow before she married him, admits that she hates her husband’s job (Malawian hyena) but that it brings necessary income. She hopes that her two-year-old won’t be undergoing initiation too in perhaps 10 years from now.
According to her:
“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.”
“You hated it when it happened to you?” someone ask her.
And her response was:
“I still hate it right up until now.”
When Aniva was asked whether he wants his daughter to undergo sexual cleansing, he said:
“Not my daughter. I cannot allow this. Now I am fighting for the end of this malpractice.”
“So, you’re fighting against it, but you are still doing it yourself?” A BBC interviewer asked.
Aniva answered: “No, as I said, I’m stopping now.”