Stealing innocence in Malawi: Man hired to have sex with children for ritual ‘cleansing’ – BBC report

In some remote southern regions of Malawi, it’s traditional for girls to be made to have sex with a paid sex worker known as a “hyena” once they reach puberty. The act is not seen by village elders as rape, but as a form of ritual “cleansing”. However, as Ed Butler reports, it has the potential to be the opposite of cleansing – a way of spreading disease.

Aniva with a root which he grinds up and adds to water to drink before sex

Aniva with a root which he grinds up and adds to water to drink before sex

I meet Eric Aniva in the dusty yard of his three-room shack in Nsanje district in southern Malawi. Goats and chickens graze in the dirt outside. Wearing a grimy green shirt, and walking with a pronounced limp (he’s been lame in one leg since birth, he says), he greets me enthusiastically. He seems to like the idea of media attention.

Aniva is by all accounts the pre-eminent “hyena” in this village. It’s a traditional title given to a man hired by communities in several remote parts of southern Malawi to provide what’s called sexual “cleansing”. If a man dies, for example, his wife is required by tradition to sleep with Aniva before she can bury him. If a woman has an abortion, again sexual cleansing is required.

And most shockingly, here in Nsanje, teenage girls, after their first menstruation, are made to have sex over a three-day period, to mark their passage from childhood to womanhood. If the girls refuse, it’s believed, disease or some fatal misfortune could befall their families or the village as a whole.

“Most of those I have slept with are girls, school-going girls,” Aniva tells me.

“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.”

Despite his boasts, several girls I meet in a nearby village express aversion to 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, tells me. “If I’d refused, my family members could be attacked with diseases – even death – so I was scared.”

They tell me that all their female friends were made to have sex with a hyena.

From left to right: Aniva, Fanny with their youngest child, Fanny's sister and a former client

From left to right: Aniva, Fanny with their youngest child, Fanny’s sister and a former client

Aniva appears to be in his 40s (he’s vague about his precise age) and currently has two wives who are well aware of his work. He claims to have slept with 104 women and girls – although as he said the same to a local newspaper in 2012, I sense that he long ago lost count. Aniva has five children that he knows about – he’s not sure how many of the women and girls he’s made pregnant.

He tells me he’s one of 10 hyenas in this community, and that every village in Nsanje district has them. They are paid from $4 to $7 (£3 to £5) each time.

An hour’s drive down the road, I’m introduced to Fagisi, Chrissie and Phelia, women in their 50s and custodians of the initiation traditions in their village. It’s their job to organise the adolescent girls into camps each year, teaching them about their duties as wives and how to please a man sexually. The “sexual cleansing” with the hyena is the final stage of this process, arranged voluntarily by the girl’s parents. It’s necessary, Fagisi, Chrissie and Phelia explain, “to avoid infection with their parents or the rest of the community”.

I put it to them that there’s a much greater risk that these “cleansings” will themselves spread disease. According to custom, sex with the hyena must never be protected with the use of condoms. But they say a hyena is hand-picked for his good morals, and therefore cannot be infected with HIV/Aids.

It’s clear, given the hyena’s duties, that HIV is a huge risk to the community. The UN estimates that one in 10 of all Malawians carry the virus, so I ask Aniva if he is HIV-positive. He astounds me by saying that he is – and that he doesn’t mention this to a girl’s parents when they hire him.

As our conversation continues, Aniva senses that I am not impressed. He stops boasting and tells me that he does fewer cleansings than before. “I still do the rituals here and there,” he confides. Then he tells me: “I am stopping.”

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”.

“We are not going to condemn these people,” says Dr May Shaba, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Gender and Welfare. “But we are going to give them information that they need to change their rituals.”

Parents who have had more education than others may already choose not to hire a hyena, I am told. But the female elders I spoke to remain defiant.

“There’s nothing wrong with our culture,” Chrissie tells me. “If you look at today’s society, you can see that girls are not responsible, so we have to train our girls in a good manner in the village, so that they don’t go astray, are good wives so that the husband is satisfied, and so that nothing bad happens to their families.”

According to Father Clause Boucher, a French-born Catholic priest who’s lived in Malawi for 50 years and is now its pre-eminent anthropologist, the rituals date back centuries. They stem from age-old beliefs about the need for children to be passed into the “heat” of adulthood by a sexual act, he says. In the past, when girls tended not to reach puberty until they were 15 or 16, this would often have been carried out by a selected future husband. 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 Malawi’s central Dedza district, hyenas are only ever used to initiate widows or infertile women, but the Paramount Chief Theresa Kachindamoto – a rare female figurehead in Malawi – has made the fight against the tradition a personal priority.

She is trying to galvanise other regional chiefs to make similar efforts. In some other districts, like Mangochi in the east of the country, ceremonies are being adapted to replace sex with a more benign anointing of the girl.

In Nsanje, though, there is little effort to bring about change. With Malawi one of the poorest countries in the world, and suffering from growing reports of rural hunger, it’s not a policy priority.

In a remote village, I meet one of Aniva’s two wives, Fanny, along with his youngest baby daughter. Fanny was herself widowed before being “cleansed” by Aniva with sex. They married soon after.

Their relationship looks strained. Sitting next to him, she admits shyly that she hates what he does, but that it brings necessary income. I ask her if she expects her two-year-old to be undergoing initiation too in perhaps 10 years from now.

“I don’t want that to happen,” she says. “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?” I ask.

“I still hate it right up until now.”

When I ask Aniva too whether he wants his daughter to undergo sexual cleansing, he surprises me again.

“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?” I ask.

“No, as I said, I’m stopping now.”


“For sure. For real, I’m stopping.”

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13 thoughts on “Stealing innocence in Malawi: Man hired to have sex with children for ritual ‘cleansing’ – BBC report”

  1. Nyani says:

    Primate behaviour

    1. Melpom says:

      How disturbingly racist.

  2. SaraC says:

    This is sickening – just listen to the BBC World Service 30min piece if you can bear it. In some parts of Malawi this is clearly a long established part of their culture and unfortunately it is unlikely to be something that will be easily eradicated anymore than female circumcision elsewhere in Africa. Perhaps however we should be asking why the BBC chose to cover this story when they have failed miserably to adequately cover stories much closer to home like the 1,400 innocent underage white working class girls groomed, drugged, traded and raped in one northern town alone; Rotherham or the similar networks throughout other UK towns? The reason they haven’t covered it and want to distract us with tales from Malawi is because it is easier to point the finger abroad than adequately address the issue of some groups of Pakistani men systematically abusing predominantly white girls in the UK. This is yet another typical BBC Propaganda and Distraction technique – whilst this story from Malawi is newsworthy the BBC’s selective investigations stink of a PC thought police agenda and hypocrisy. Cover the genuine stories from home before finding ones in obscure third world villages.

  3. Banzo says:

    I was watching the Video where by this man was being interview. The man was talking about the Kulowa kufa. I hope most of us we are Malawians and we do understand chewa. What is connection between kulowa kufa and girls initiation. On all his description , Eric was saying that he sleeps with women. These are widow’s. Kulowa means to enter or inherit while kufa means to die or death. In Eric speech there is nowhere where he has said that he sleeps with girls.

    For those who doesn’t know about this culture/tradition. Its is designed for the windows who lost their husband for unknown reasons, the community as part of avoiding those window from having sexual relationship with married men. They assigned with Hyena, a man well known for this.

    Anyway the traditional is not good before God but the way BBC has presented it on video and their news doesn’t reflect the truth compared to what Eric description on a TV Interview. The BBC have exaggerated.

  4. Malaika says:

    I don’t believe this. please arrest this evil man if this is really true.

  5. chingaipe says:

    there is a video where the man himself is explaining it. sizachilendo. anthu akupangabe

  6. Malopa says:

    Pathetic…I am ashamed

  7. monday says:

    BBC???? so we should believe this because its BBC? Nyasatimes have you cross checked with the said identity??? Lets not put our Malawi on the map with such stupid news! This is shameful!

  8. konja says:

    This reporter is not telling us the truth here, there is no such a thing as cleansing girls in the lower shire, he is mixing issues here, in lower shire cleansing after death yes, its called “kulowa kufa” but the sleeping with young girls is a blatant lie, it does not happen, and he has also said that when a man dies the hyena has to sleep with the woman before the husband is buried, that another lie, it happens after the burial in some cases even after a week, mind you this tradition is now practised by a few clans as most of the people in shire valley are educated and christianity is spreading.

    1. Banzo says:

      I do agree with you Konja. Thats what I have commented in the BBC news and other articles. The reporter seems like he dont know exactly what he is doing. He is mixing up stories. Watch their the video. On the Video that Eric was quote, I heard Eric saying that he does kulowa kufa not kutsatsa fumbi. Nyasa time you could have done controvert this story because it doesn’t reflect exactly what is happening. I wonder why are you re-posting it instead of writing the truth of what is happening. When will we learn to love our country and defend these force report ?

  9. Dilawo says:

    That’s Africa. And Malawians say they have a culture, foolish culture

    1. Eduardo says:

      The Western World practice their own culture called homosexuality. So every society has its own culture-better us because it involves male and female unlike the abomination called homosexuality.

      1. Melpom says:

        Homosexuality has existed in Africa since the dawn of time, and on every other continent as well. Stop it. Raping of young children is not okay, Heterosexually or homosexually.

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