HIV: Zambian tribe reviews traditions

Traditionally, most of the 73 tribes in Zambia have for a long time promoted a culture of customs and traditions that can be instrumental in spreading HIV/AIDS through ‘direct sexual contact’ commonly with a surviving spouse as a cleansing process.

Incidentally, most of the people who are forced to have ‘unprotected sex’ known as ‘Kusalala’ as a cleansing process, die sooner or later from suspected HIV/AIDS related diseases.

This is chiefly because either the deceased had the disease or the surviving spouse still has the virus, leading to infection of the other person tasked with the cleansing process through unprotected sex.

The male partner in the cleansing act was obliged to engage in sexual intercourse to complete the cleansing, after which the surviving spouse, be it woman or man, was then perceived to have been cleansed and was allowed to either re-marry or lead another life, with blessings of the traditional leaders.

However, as the number of persons dying from the HIV/AIDS in Zambia continues to swell, some tribes are reviewing their customs and traditions to save their people from extinction.

Chief amongst those who previously supported the tradition and are now spearheading the ‘non sexual contact’ cleansing process, are the Tonga people of Chikankata, 130km south of Lusaka.

Since the late 1980s the Tongas of Chikankata, through the influence of the late Chief Samson Mwiinga (Chief Mweenda), have spearheaded the fight against the disease by abandoning the old cleansing process. The practice has since been replicated in other parts of the province, Zambia and in the region including Botswana.

Headman Leonard Mwiinga (84), said although the ritual was still in progress, people were now cleansed through ‘Thigh Brushing’ which allows people of the same sex, while naked to slide on each other but without sexual contact.

“We abandoned the old tradition involving people of different sex as well as marriage inheritance, because many people got attracted to each other and in the process had sexual intercourse in privacy. Most of those that inherited marriages also inherited the virus and died eventually.”

He said initially, the introduction of ‘sex free’ cleansing had faced resistance from the subjects because women were considered inferior in their customs and their rights could not be championed by anyone.

“Anything who wanted to improve the welfare of women was seen as a problem, because they (the women) were and are still rated second-class members of our society,” he explained.

The shift from the ritual sexual cleansing and marriage inheritance has helped reduce the rate of infection in the area, according to headman Mwiinga.

Subjects with Christian beliefs are not subjected to sexual cleansing but instead allowed to undergo the process without undergoing thigh brushing.

Headman Mwiinga explained that traditional leadership in Chikankata in Mazabuka district of Southern Zambia, were persuaded to change the old ‘ritual sexual cleansing’ traditions after hearing testimonies of victims of the scourge.

The involvement of traditional leaders and other HIV/AIDS activists in sensitising the people on the effects of the pandemic, helped change the mind set of the subjects, making the Tonga people pioneers of one of the none HIV/AIDS traditional practices in Zambia.

“Under the leadership of Chief Mweenda (late) we saw that people were dying in numbers especially those that underwent sexual cleansing,” he told Southern Times in an interview on September 2.

“After holding several meetings with HIV/AIDS activities and testimonies from victims we decided to change our ways of life and now the rate of infection and subsequent deaths has normalised,” said headman Mwiinga.

Senior headman Hanyulu told Southern Times in Chikankata recently that the ‘non- sexual’ contact practice had helped reduce on the number of HIV/AIDS related death and that people were now free to decide their destiny without duress.

“We are happy that our people have accepted the new customs and we hope with the introduction and distribution of free Antiretroviral (ARVs) to those carrying the virus, will help prolong people’s lives,”

Senior headman Hanyulu has intensified sensitisation programmes with help from Community Based Care Givers and HIV/AIDS counselors from Chikankata Mission Hospital.

Senior headman Hanyulu of Hanyulu village in the same area, supports Mwiinga, explaining that he was forced to persuade the subjects to avert the spread of the disease.

Chikankata HIV/AIDS co-ordinator Patrick Mweemba said the introduction of the new methods has helped reduce on the rate of infections in the area. According to Mweemba about 5,000 people are carrying the virus in Chikankata, adding that the availability of ARVs at the Salvation Army run health institution has helped most of the inhabitants to prolong their lives.

He, however, explained that despite the increased interest by people to know their HIV/AIDS status, the lack of CD4 count machines at the health institution was frustrating.

“We rely on Lusaka’s Teaching Hospital in Lusaka to test and verify people’s HIV/AIDS status before we can administer ARVs. The lack of the CD4 count machines has proved to be very a problem,” he said.

Chikankata, undaunted by the lack of CD4 machine, has stepped up various anti-HIV/AIDS sensitisation programmes to fight the scourge.

It is estimated that the HIV/AIDS infections in Zambia has affected 16 per cent of the 10 million population, dropping from 22 per cent recorded last year.

One in every six adults is reported to be living with HIV, while about 98,000 people died of AIDS in 2005 and 710,000 children are AIDS orphans.

UNAIDS/WHO, estimates that 130,000 of these children were living with HIV or AIDS at the end of 2003.

Globally, it is estimated that more than 23 million lives have been claimed by HIV/AIDS.

Life expectancy at birth has fallen below 40 years.

According to UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation about 17 per cent of people in Zambia between 15-49 years old were living with HIV or AIDS, of which women represent 57 per cent.

Young women aged 15-49 are six times more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS infections than are males of the same age.

September 2006
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