MULANJE —With her sweet smile and schoolgirl backpack, Awa Kandaya, 20, seems to be the picture of innocence. But it's just a facade. Her virginity was taken away from her at the age of nine when she was sent to a "sexual initiation" camp in Southern Malawi. Following a local tradition, a "hyena" — a man paid by her parents to "teach her about life" — raped her.
Sitting on the steps of a building in Nampugo, a village in the district of Mulanje, Awa explains the sexual initiation tradition, which continues to be practiced and tolerated in Malawi despite efforts by politicians to do away with it. She says that here, like in many rural areas, girls have to attend the camp as soon as they have their first menstruation. They leave the camps no longer a virgin, and deeply changed.
"Parents enroll their daughter in these camps. It's a family affair," says Esitele Paulo, one of the organizers of the camp where Awa was sent. "They usually come during September break, and we have them for two weeks."
During these two weeks, girls are taught how to become "women" early so that they'll be ready and able to take charge of a family. Interestingly, the camp — clearly a tool for male domination — is run by two women.
"We were sent away from the village, alone with the organizers and without any men," Awa recalls. "Once the first rituals began, we understood we were here to learn how to sexually please a man." Her smile disappears as she recalls these memories.
Mystery and silence hover over the camp's practices. If girls refuse to follow the rules, ancestral superstitions promise them skin diseases and back luck for their families. Some of them, in their juvenile innocence, are excited about what they think are holidays. Others — those who've heard rumors or complaints issued by NGOs — are more reluctant to attend the camp. Either way, the vast majority of them end up going, encouraged by their mothers to carry on a tradition they themselves suffered through.
"We bring them to the river. They get naked and try the Chisamba dance, moving their bottoms to turn men on," the organizer explains without any hint of embarrassment. Esitele Paulo has been doing this for decades and has no plan to stop anytime soon.
Mount Mulanje, southern Malawi —Photo: Jon Spaull/ZUMA
Still naked, these girls rub up against each another, and then lie down on the ground, where each simulates the sex act even though they've barely entered into puberty. For many of the mothers, including Awa's, this is the only way for them to learn about "life."
"Why did I send my daughter to the camp? Because of tradition, and to teach her good manners," says Lima Kandaya, Awa's mother, dismissing with a wave of her hand the "city people" who complain about the psychological and physical trauma these practices cause.
Trapped by tradition
In these villages, traditional rites trump individual consent, elementary hygiene standards and family planning. One of the rules taught in the camp is that girls should keep anything related to menstruation hidden so as not to repel men and take their desire away. But they're not taught anything about their genitalia, procreation or the use of contraception. Nor do they learn anything about the risk of HIV transmission.
Joyce Mkandawire works for Let Girls Lead, an NGO that promotes health, education and equality for girls and women, particularly in Africa and Central America. "These camps brainwash girls into becoming women too fast," she says. "The consequences are disastrous. After the camp, most of the girls get married and drop out of school."
A tenth of Malawi's population is HIV-positive.
In Malawi, half of all girls marry before age 18. In rural areas like Mulanje, these traditions are as weighty as they are enduring. "How many people have the strength to question this culture when their mothers and grandmothers say it's good?" Joyce Mkandawire asks. "How many have the strength to say that a hyena is really just a rapist?"
The hyena practice was outlawed in Malawi in 2013, and so from the perspective of political authorities, it no longer exists. Many girls, nevertheless, still report having to engage in non-protected, non-consensual sex with hyenas at the end of the camp.
At the camp Awa attended, everybody denies the existence of such a practice. But Awa says hyenas are still present in her community, and confesses that at the end of her stay at the sexual initiation camp, she was forced to have sexual relations with an older man.
A tenth of Malawi's population is HIV-positive. Awa doesn't know if she's part of that group. She doesn't want to get tested, she says, because she doesn't want to worry about it for now. She wants to hold on, it seems, to some part her innocent childhood, her childhood before the hyena.