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South African Wins Plaudits for Inspiring HIV-AIDS Film

Austin, the city in Texas that’s known as the greatest live music venue in the world, recently played host to art of a different kind. Filmmakers from all over the world gathered there for the annual Austin Women’s Film Festival. The spotlight was turned on a number of films that had either been produced by Africans or had Africa-related themes. One of the biggest hits at the event was a documentary called “My Dead Husband’s Land.” The film – a surprisingly positive twist on Africa’s HIV-AIDS pandemic – focuses on a remote village in Kenya. Here, villagers have used HIV-AIDS to transform negative aspects of their culture. In the first part of a series on African filmmakers, VOA’S Darren Taylor takes a look at this extraordinary documentary.

In “My Dead Husband’s Land,” Mia Malan, a South African journalism trainer and filmmaker, tells the moving tale of the tiny village of Orongo, on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

“The whole story is really about HIV-AIDS and culture, and the impact that culture – in this case, the culture of Kenya’s Luo ethnic group – can have on the spread of the virus,” Malan says.

The fascinating 23-minute documentary focuses on a young HIV-positive widow, Betty Tom, and her arduous struggle for acceptance by the Orongo community.

“In this culture of hers, there’s a practice called wife inheritance. And wife inheritance basically means that if I’m married to a man and he dies, then I get inherited by a male relative of his. And I would really have no say in the matter; I would become the wife of someone, have sexual relations with the person – and if I refuse to do so, I would be sent away along with my kids and have no access to my dead husband’s possessions or his land,” Malan explains.

Her film is unlike many others about Africa’s devastating AIDS pandemic.

“The rarest thing about the story for me was that (the Orongo community has) used a desperate epidemic – HIV-AIDS – to actually change (discriminatory aspects of) their culture. They started off by arguing: Well, we’re HIV-positive widows – if you allow us to be inherited, we may infect our new husbands. But the beauty of it is, this story could have ended in these widows being discriminated against because they’re HIV-positive and they (had refused to) follow the culture. But they actually determined themselves what was going to happen,” Malan says.

The women of Orongo used the fact that Tom’s in-laws were trying to force her to marry her deceased husband’s brother to enlighten the community about the spread of HIV-AIDS in their home area.

“They actually used this (situation) to explain the whole epidemic to people, and educated elders in the village about the epidemic, and today everybody there goes for HIV tests. It isn’t just women who are HIV-positive and widowed who now have access to their dead husband’s land and can refuse to be inherited – it’s led to every single woman in that village having those rights,” Malan says.

After Tom refused to be taken as the wife of a man she didn’t love, he viciously assaulted her and her in-laws chased her away. She ended up in the slums of Nairobi. In the film, Tom, close to tears, tells Malan: “I had nowhere to take refuge with my three children. Life was not so easy now. I had reached a point of no return. I wanted to do away with their lives and mine too.”

But Tom, supported by sympathetic community leaders, returned to Orongo and began a vigorous fight for her rights to her husband’s land and her right not to be forced to marry her brother-in-law – because she herself was HIV-positive and didn’t want to run the risk of infecting her new husband. After Tom’s lengthy battle, the Luo of Orongo today no longer banish women who refuse to be inherited and no longer confiscate their land.

“To use a desperate epidemic to change your life for the positive is just an incredible story and I wanted as many people to get to hear about it as possible, so that everyone can see that Africa is not just this place of war and mass graves and disease, but that there are people here who are making a difference,” says Malan.

She’s eager to emphasize that not all aspects of Luo culture are negative. The tradition of wife inheritance itself, for example, was originally a positive practice, intended as a way to ensure a male relative of a woman’s deceased husband would support the widow and her children, so that the family wouldn’t languish in utter poverty.

But because so many men in western Kenya are now dying as a result of illnesses caused by HIV-AIDS and are leaving behind widows who are themselves infected with the virus, a fatal element has been added to the cultural practice of wife inheritance, ensuring that it has become a dangerous conduit by which the disease is spread.

Malan says many Africans place a premium on culture, and “vehemently resist” any modifications to their traditions. But the people of Orongo decided that transformation was essential to their survival and their humanity.

“The fact that such a cultural change has happened in Kenya – even though it has only happened in a small part of the country – is a major thing. And the fact that women had such a major influence in forcing their culture to change – in male-dominated African society – makes it an even bigger story,” she adds.

“The (major) change that has happened is that, in this village, women are now allowed to choose whether they would like to be inherited or not – and if they refuse to be inherited, they will still have access to all their dead husband’s possessions and land. So this is really a story about evolving culture, and about the role that women have played in changing this culture, and becoming empowered in the process of doing so.”

Although she’s now based in Washington, D.C., Malan became aware of the unfolding events at Orongo while heading an HIV-AIDS journalism training project in Nairobi.

But “My Dead Husband’s Land,” in its final form, almost didn’t happen. The non-profit organization for which Malan works only had the funds to enable her to produce a short news story about Orongo and Betty Tom.

“Our budget goes towards the training of journalists. To try to produce a film from the same budget was very challenging. Doing a film is a really expensive thing to do,” she says.

In addition to a small budget, another factor counted against Malan in her attempts to produce a film that would do justice to what she now terms a “groundbreaking” African story: Time.

“If you had to compare this: If someone in America or Europe is to make a documentary of 30 minutes, they’ll go and film in the area for two to three weeks or longer to get the material they need. But I had three days to film this.”

Nevertheless, Malan considers herself “very lucky” when she compares herself to many other African filmmakers. She, at least, had some money to use to make her film, and, after the organizers of the Austin Women’s Film Festival selected her documentary, Malan’s employers sponsored her to attend the festival. Other African filmmakers weren’t as fortunate.

“This is a very small film fest in comparison with others that happen in the United States. We didn’t have the funds to bring the African filmmakers over here, and they themselves couldn’t afford the airfare,” explains one of the organizers of the festival, Texas DJ and filmmaker POW – Poet-on-Watch.

When Malan finally arrived in Orongo village to begin filming, other challenges awaited her and her team as they worked “around the clock” to document the story.

“Most African villages have no electricity, so it’s hard setting up equipment there. And you have to respect the culture of the people, so you can’t just go in and start filming. You have to make sure that you’ve got the chief’s permission, you have to make sure that you take time to go and meet everyone in the village first. That means that the filming goes slower, because there are so many things that you have to do out of respect for the village, before you can actually start to film.”

Initially, because of funding and time problems, Malan and her crew planned on producing a “five to ten minute news feature” to show to journalists and budding filmmakers in Kenya, “as an example of a positive story about HIV.”

But the plan changed, says Malan, when she met Tom, who spoke “so moving, and so well. Betty Tom’s story was just so inspiring. It inspired me personally, because all you ever hear when people do HIV and AIDS stories is death and gloom, and you never hear about a solution for something. And here was something very different. It was a success story. It was about an organization that has helped this woman to change her village. But it’s really about the determination of the women in this village – they’re young widows; they’re all HIV-positive. But they’ve come together, and they fight for what they believe in and they’ve made something to change positive in their lives.”

The film evolved into a documentary. “My Dead Husband’s Land” also focuses for a period on Luo elder William Guti, who had previously believed that women who were HIV-positive were “dirty” and had no right to own land. But, after being educated about the disease, the film shows how Guti underwent a radical transformation – to such an extent that he began supporting Tom in her struggle, at great personal risk.

The film is, indeed, “groundbreaking” in several aspects, also turning the camera on Jenipher Kosome, one of only four female Luo chiefs in Kenya.

Despite the praise the film has received, Malan isn’t satisfied with the final product. She still wishes she’d had more time to film at Orongo and that she’d been able to shoot more interviews.

But filmmaker POW dismisses Malan’s concerns.

“A little is better than nothing at all, and the little we see of Orongo in ‘My Dead Husband’s Land’ is powerful enough to fill me with great hope for the future of Africa’s film industry.”

A segment of Malan’s documentary is available for viewing at