Today (May 11 Wed) the New York Times front page carries a sensational story by one Sharon LaFraniere, who reports from Malawi that the natives are upset in a village called Mchinji, and in another village, Nadanga, in nearby Zambia. According to her reporting there is a superstition prevailing there that if a husband dies, the widow must be “cleansed” by fornication with a close relative in order to free her and the village from the dead man’s spirit, which otherwise would visit insanity, disease and death on her fellow villagers. So widows are trying to evade this unpleasant fate, which often involves having sex with a repellent relative or a stranger assigned the job.
One of the latter is pictured, Amos Machika Schisoni, sitting in rags on the ground pruning his tobacco crop. He certainly looks a little unappetising, poor fellow, since he is as skinny as a rake, though with a dignified, straight nosed profile. He charges one chicken per “cleansing”, which his three wives appreciate, so they don’t oppose his job.
So much for the image of Africans in the West in the minds of the average Times reader, who probably already believes that the inhabitants of the Dark Continent are a different human species, often busy killing long time friends and neighbors in a tribal genocide or as rebel soldiers cutting off the noses and lips of civilians in a civil war. The Times is starting to specialize in this kind of sensational and sexually prurient reports of unpleasant sexual traditions uncovered in strange lands. Only a few weeks ago, we were titillated and horrified by a report from some ex-Soviet republic (as I recall) where a tradition of marriage via street kidnapping was still flourishing.
Since the reporter in the Malawi case recites names and places, chapter and verse, one is forced to conclude that the story is true, and another example of how easy it is for fantasy to distort human society. But before Westerners feel too smug, let us reflect how easily fantasy leads us by the nose in the case of AIDS if Peter Duesberg and other scientists who argue that HIV theory is nonsense are right in their peer reviewed articles in high journals.
Of course, you may simply reject their case and thus believe that we are being led by science rather than fantasy. But you still have to contend with the fact that the shape and nature of AIDS in Africa is supposedly purely heterosexual, whereas in the US and in Europe it has remained almost entirely a gay risk phenomenon. The symptoms are also quite different on the continents of Africa and Asia. Even if HIV is thought to cause the AIDS in the US and Europe, then, the quite different AIDS being discovered in the rest of the world looks as if it must be a fantasy, where other diseases and the impact of ruinous hunger and lack of health and hygiene infrastructure defeat the immune system, not HIV.
What’s unfortunate about such tales is that Times readers will now discount the dignity and authority of African leaders such as Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, who is still resisting the imposition of AIDS-HIV ideology and its dangerous medications on his society as long as the scientific debate continues. Mbeki has been savaged in Times editorials for his stand which is smeared as reverse racism, and his intellectual abilities scorned.
Similarly, the instinctive suspicions of the current winner of the Nobel peace prize, Kenyan environmentalist and human rights campaigner Wangari Maathai, that AIDS is some kind of Western plot have been dismissed by the Western press as sheer ignorance, but may be more accurately intuitive than they know.
Certainly the relevant scientific knowledge of most of the horde of AIDS workers who descend on Kenya and other African hot spots is just as lacking as Maathai’s, judging from their typically uninformed, supine acceptance of a paradigm which is still very much in question, and medication which is similarly suspect, pace the Institute of Medicine and the rather incredible clean bill it just gave to nevirapine.
As to the beliefs that underly the whole construct of African AIDS, which are highly dependent on imagining African sexual habits as dramatically different from Western, including such fantastic allegations as that women purposely stuff their vaginas with herbs to ensure “dry sex”, these claims which are prima facie nonsense will only gain additional currency from the kind of “widow cleansing” story printed today.
But for a newspaper that has much to explain as far as its balance on the story of the science of AIDS is concerned, this is par for the course.
Here is the full piece. Note how the ignorant fears of the native villagers that the practice endangers the wives concerned by exposing them to infection is ‘corrected’ with ‘expertise’ (presumably from Sharon) that is in fact quite contrary to the peer-reviewed literature, which makes it crystal clear that HIV is for all practical purposes non-infectious in heterosexual sex.
But according to Sharon’s reporting, it is AIDS which is decimating the area, not hunger or any traditional disease, even when informed by a local, for example, one Ms. Bubbala in Zambia, that her nephew died last year of hunger, not AIDS.
Amos Schisoni seems to have maintained an independent spirit in all of this, however. He is admant in refusing an AIDS test. “I have never done it and I don’t intend to do it,” he says. Told that “even widows who look perfectly healthy can transmit the virus,” Mr Schisoni shakes his head. “I don’t believe this,” he says.”
Those who have read the contents of the best scientific references in the West on this very point would have no difficulty in agreeing with him.
The New York Times
May 11, 2005
AIDS Now Compels Africa to Challenge Widows’ ‘Cleansing’
By SHARON LaFRANIERE
MCHINJI, Malawi – In the hours after James Mbewe was laid to rest three years ago, in an unmarked grave not far from here, his 23-year-old wife, Fanny, neither mourned him nor accepted visits from sympathizers. Instead, she hid in his sister’s hut, hoping that the rest of her in-laws would not find her.
But they hunted her down, she said, and insisted that if she refused to exorcise her dead husband’s spirit, she would be blamed every time a villager died. So she put her two small children to bed and then forced herself to have sex with James’s cousin.
“I cried, remembering my husband,” she said. “When he was finished, I went outside and washed myself because I was very afraid. I was so worried I would contract AIDS and die and leave my children to suffer.”
Here and in a number of nearby nations including Zambia and Kenya, a husband’s funeral has long concluded with a final ritual: sex between the widow and one of her husband’s relatives, to break the bond with his spirit and, it is said, save her and the rest of the village from insanity or disease. Widows have long tolerated it, and traditional leaders have endorsed it, as an unchallenged tradition of rural African life.
Now AIDS is changing that. Political and tribal leaders are starting to speak out publicly against so-called sexual cleansing, condemning it as one reason H.I.V. has spread to 25 million sub-Saharan Africans, killing 2.3 million last year alone. They are being prodded by leaders of the region’s fledging women’s rights movement, who contend that lack of control over their sex lives is a major reason 6 in 10 of those infected in sub-Saharan Africa are women.
But change is coming slowly, village by village, hut by hut. In a region where belief in witchcraft is widespread and many women are taught from childhood not to challenge tribal leaders or the prerogatives of men, the fear of flouting tradition often outweighs even the fear of AIDS.
“It is very difficult to end something that was done for so long,” said Monica Nsofu, a nurse and AIDS organizer in the Monze district in southern Zambia, about 200 miles south of the capital, Lusaka. “We learned this when we were born. People ask, Why should we change?”
In Zambia, where one out of five adults is now infected with the virus, the National AIDS Council reported in 2000 that this practice was very common. Since then, President Levy Mwanawasa has declared that forcing new widows into sex or marriage with their husband’s relatives should be discouraged, and the nation’s tribal chiefs have decided not to enforce either tradition, their spokesman said.
Still, a recent survey by Women and Law in Southern Africa found that in at least one-third of the country’s provinces, sexual “cleansing” of widows persists, said Joyce MacMillan, who heads the organization’s Zambian chapter. In some areas, the practice extends to men.
Some Defy the Risk
Even some Zambian volunteers who work to curb the spread of AIDS are reluctant to disavow the tradition. Paulina Bubala, a leader of a group of H.I.V.-positive residents near Monze, counsels schoolchildren on the dangers of AIDS. But in an interview, she said she was ambivalent about whether new widows should purify themselves by having sex with male relatives.
Her husband died of what appeared to be AIDS-related symptoms in 1996. Soon after the funeral, both Ms. Bubala and her husband’s second wife covered themselves in mud for three days. Then they each bathed, stripped naked with their dead husband’s nephew and rubbed their bodies against his.
Weeks later, she said, the village headman told them this cleansing ritual would not suffice. Even the stools they sat on would be considered unclean, he warned, unless they had sex with the nephew.
“We felt humiliated,” Ms. Bubala said, “but there was nothing we could do to resist, because we wanted to be clean in the land of the headman.”
The nephew died last year. Ms. Bubala said the cause was hunger, not AIDS. Her husband’s second wife now suffers symptoms of AIDS and rarely leaves her hut. Ms. Bubala herself discovered she was infected in 2000.
But even the risk of disease does not dent Ms. Bubala’s belief in the need for the ritual’s protective powers. “There is no way we are going to stop this practice,” she said, “because we have seen a lot of men and women who have gone mad” after spouses died.
Ms. Nsofu, the nurse and AIDS organizer, argues that it is less important to convince women like Ms. Bubala than the headmen and tribal leaders who are the custodians of tradition and gatekeepers to change.
“We are telling them, ‘If you continue this practice, you won’t have any people left in your village,’ ” she said. She cites people, like herself, who have refused to be cleansed and yet seem perfectly sane. Sixteen years after her husband died, she argues, “I am still me.” Ms. Nsofu said she suggested to tribal leaders that sexual cleansing most likely sprang not from fears about the vengeance of spirits, but from the lust of men who coveted their relatives’ wives. She proposes substituting other rituals to protect against dead spirits, like chanting and jumping back and forth over the grave or over a cow.
Headman Is a Firm Believer
Like their counterparts in Zambia, Malawi’s health authorities have spoken out against forcing widows into sex or marriage. But in the village of Ndanga, about 90 minutes from the nation’s largest city, Blantyre, many remain unconvinced.
Evance Joseph Fundi, Ndanga’s 40-year-old headman, is courteous, quiet-spoken and a firm believer in upholding the tradition. While some widows sleep with male relatives, he said, others ask him to summon one of the several appointed village cleansers. In the native language of Chewa, those men are known as fisis or hyenas because they are supposed to operate in stealth and at night.
Mr. Fundi said one of them died recently, probably of AIDS. Still, he said with a charming smile, “We can not abandon this because it has been for generations.”
Since 1953, Amos Machika Schisoni has served as the principal village cleanser. He is uncertain of his age and it is not easily guessed at. His hair is grizzled but his arms are sinewy and his legs muscled. His hut of mud bricks, set about 50 yards from a graveyard, is even more isolated than most in a village of far-flung huts separated by towering weeds and linked by dirt paths.
What Tradition Dictates
He and the headman like to joke about the sexual demands placed upon a cleanser like Mr. Schisoni, who already has three wives. He said tradition dictates that he sleep with the widow, then with each of his own wives, and then again with the widow, all in one night. Mr. Schisoni said that the previous headman chose him for his sexual prowess after he had impregnated three wives in quick succession.
Now, Mr. Schisoni, said he continues his role out of duty more than pleasure. Uncleansed widows suffer swollen limbs and are not free to remarry, he said. “If we don’t do it, the widow will develop the swelling syndrome, get diarrhea and die and her children will get sick and die,” he said, sitting under an awning of drying tobacco leaves. “The women who do this do not die.”
His wives support his work, he said, because they like the income: a chicken for each cleansing session. He insisted that he cannot wear a condom because “this will provoke some other unknown spirit.” He is equally adamant in refusing an H.I.V. test. “I have never done it and I don’t intend to do it,” he said.
To protect himself, he said, he avoids widows who are clearly quite sick . Told that even widows who look perfectly healthy can transmit the virus, Mr. Schisoni shook his head. “I don’t believe this,” he said. At the traditional family council after James Mbewe was killed in a truck accident in August 2002, Fanny Mbewe’s mother and brothers objected to a cleanser, saying the risk of AIDS was too great. But Ms. Mbewe’s in-laws insisted, she said. If a villager so much as dreamed of her husband, they told her, the family would be blamed for allowing his spirit to haunt their community on the Malawi-Zambia border.
Her husband’s cousin, to whom she refers only as Loimbani, showed up at her hut at 9 o’clock at night after the burial.
“I was hiding my private parts,” she said in an interview in the office of Women’s Voice, a Malawian human rights group. “You want to have a liking for a man to have sex, not to have someone force you. But I had no choice, knowing the whole village was against me.”
Loimbani, she said, was blasé. “He said: ‘Why are you running away? You know this is our culture. If I want, I could even make you my second wife.”
He did not. He left her only with the fear that she will die of the virus and that her children, now 8 and 10, will become orphans. She said she is too fearful to take an H.I.V. test.
“I wish such things would change,” she said.
* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company