LILONGWE (Gospel Mwalwanda, Mana ) —It is mid Saturday morning as a bleary-eyed Tenford Jambo sits in the verandah of his thatched hut, his ears pricked for a noise that will jolt him into action.
The last time Jambo heard the noise was a fortnight ago, and it enabled him to perform a task that earned him some money. But he has not been in luck since, having waited for the noise in vain.
Just when he is thinking it will be another hopeless day, Jambo hears from a distance the unmistakable noise of wailing. He instantly becomes alert, knowing finally he may have a job to do.
And before long, news spreads about the death of a married man in the next village.
The locals’ tradition dictates that a ritual must be performed without fail once the deceased has been buried. And this is where men like Jambo come in.
After burial ceremony, the deceased’s relatives send word to Jambo, asking him to perform the ritual. A delighted Jambo accepts the request at a fee, but to the relief of the deceased’s relations, nonetheless.
“I have been doing this job since 2007,” says Jambo, who can neither read nor write and does not know his exact age. “This is how I earn my livelihood.”
Jambo is not a traditional medicine man. He is what his tribe calls Thika or hyena, hired to perform Kulowakufa, a sexualritual practised among the Sena in the Lower Shire district of Nsanje.
The practice entails having sexual intercourse when a wife or husband has died, ostensibly to ward off the deceased’s spirit from haunting his relations and community left behind.
Although Kulowakufa is supposed to be performed when death has occurred in the family, the cultural practice has from time immemorial been biased against women.
As a result of the bias, the practice is mostly associated with ‘cleansing’ widows, whereby relations of a dead man identify a ‘hyena’ to have sexual intercourse with the widow even against her will.
In the past, there was no shortage of men from the dead man’s side who were more than willing to have sex with their in-law to fulfill the ritual.
But given the threat that AIDS poses plus scare-messages that government and its development partners are spreading against harmful cultural practices, few men are now keen to act as ‘hyenas’.
However, there are still some daring men such as Jambo who, driven by poverty, are willing to take the risk and fill the void to make ends meet.
“When there is a funeral and if it is a married man who has died,” says Jambo, of Nthole Village in the area of Senior Chief Malemia in Nsanje, “the deceased’s relatives hire me to help them fulfill the ritual.”
The widowed Jambo who is a father of two and could be in his late 60s, says there are fewer male cleansers today than was the case before the AIDS pandemic began to wreak havoc across the country.
And for the same reason, many traditional leaders in the district are now speaking out against the age-long tradition. One of them is acting Senior Chief Malemia who is strongly against kulowakufa.
“This practice was there before I was born,” says the acting chief, 75. “In the past when a husband died, his relatives would identify a male from among them to sleep with the widow.”
He says the dead man’s relatives never picked an outsider to perform kulowakufa, and that if the widow and male cleanser clicked, they would get married.
But acting Senior Chief Malemia admits that times have changed and says there is need to modify the practice and have an alternative way to stop the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
He says: “Today, it is not relations who perform kulowakufa, but mostly unmarried young men who charge a fee. No wonder countless young men have died during this era of hired male sexual cleansers.
“Nowadays, government and non-government organizations want communities to use married couples to do the cleansing. We have introduced by-laws and punish those who cling to the old way.”
One local rights organization that is carrying out activities aimed at discouraging people from maintaining harmful cultural practices such as kulowakufa is Malawi CARER.
Malawi CARER, with financial support from the Democracy Consolidation Programme (DCP), has been educating people about their various rights since it started working in the district.
Acting Senior Chief Malemia laments that kulowakufa is so deep-rooted in the district that there are some widows who still insist on being cleansed by an outsider for fear of angering the spirit of the dead.
“We take to court such women,” says the acting chief, born Foster Tchale. “Those who cling to the old way of doing the cleansing ritual can even be banished from the village.”
The HIV prevalence rate for Nsanje is currently at 16.3 per cent, says McKnowledge Tembo, HIV Programme Coordinator at the district hospital, quoting a 2010 National Commission AIDS (NAC) report.
He says 12, 624 people living with HIV and AIDS in Nsanje are currently on antiretroviral treatment.
“Issues of kulowakufa still exist but have been modified where you alternatively use families to do the cleansing, or an independent family is hired to do the work,” says Tembo, a clinical officer.
Jambo cannot remember the exact number of widows he has ‘cleansed’ since he became a ‘hyena’, although on average he estimates that he sleeps with four widows each month.
He says what determines the fee is relationship, explaining that if the cleanser is not related to the bereaved family, the higher the fee and vice versa.
“If the bereaved family is related to me, I charge K5, 000 but if it is not and since we [cleansers] are now scarce, I charge K7, 000 or even much more,” says Jambo, a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
Once the fee has been agreed upon and paid, the widow cleanser goes to the home where his services are needed. On arrival, the widow welcomes and leads him into the house to start the ritual.
“I may have sex with the widow for a week,” Jambo told this writer at his home when Malawi News Agency interviewed him to get an insight into the work of a male sexual cleanser.
“On the day of departure, the widow prepares food for me so that I go home with strength. Some cleansers are even given part of the deceased’s belongings such as clothes as a thank you.”
Jambo uses the money he earns as a sexual cleanser to support his two young children. He says he is one of the district’s vulnerable poor people, yet local leaders overlook him when registering the needy.
“I don’t benefit from any social scheme. They skip me and so I have no choice but to be a Thika to enable me to raise the money I need to feed, clothe and educate my children,” he says.
When a husband’s wife dies, a similar ritual has to be performed. But Jambo concedes that the practice tends to favour men because unlike women, a widower can choose a woman to sleep with.
When his wife died, for instance, all he did was to find some money which he used to pay a woman of his choice to sleep with.
“It is not a problem with men since it is expected of them to look for women to sleep with. But with women, it is a taboo for them to go about looking for men,” he says.
Since it is an open secret that Kulowakufa is part of their culture, a male sexual cleanser who is married does not do the job without the knowledge of his wife, according to Jambo.
“I used to inform my wife I had a job to do and how much I would be paid. She then would let me go. After I had done the job, both of us would take herbal medicine as a precaution against disease.”
Jambo claims that since he became a sexual cleanser, he has never contracted a sexually transmitted infection. Asked if he has ever had an HIV test, he hesitates for a while before answering “yes”.
“By looking at the woman’s body, you can tell whether she is healthy or not and decide accordingly,” says Jambo. “If she looks healthy you know it is safe to have her. That is why I am clean.”
Jambo, who makes reed mats when not performing Kulowakufa, brags that his job as a sexual cleanser has taken him to several villages in Nsanje.
“For example, I have been to Mbango, Ntowe, Malakeza, Kacholo, Marka, Tengani and Mpomba. I have been to all these places to cleanse widows. People know me and my work,” he says.
Jambo says he prefers grown-up widows to young ones when performing Kulowakufa. He says a grown-up widow is honest and often tells the cleanser the illness that killed her husband, if he was ill.
“It is a lot safer to sleep with grown-up widows because they tell the truth, whereas young ones are full of deceit and can endanger your life,” he says.
Again asked if he wears a condom when performing his job, Jambo shakes his head.
“That would not keep away the spirit of the dead,” he replies. “I perform bare all the time.”