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Malawi's 'Hyena' Convicted for Traditional, But Illegal, Sex Customs

Eric Aniva leaves court in Nsanje, Malawi, after a magistrate announced it was proven beyond reasonable doubt that Aniva had engaged in harmful and illegal traditional sex practices.

A magistrate's court in Malawi has convicted a 45-year-old man accused of practicing traditional sex customs — deflowering young girls and comforting bereaved widows — that were outlawed three years ago in the southern African nation.

Malawi's president, Peter Mutharika, ordered the arrest of Eric Aniva due to concerns that he may have spread HIV infections in the course of his work as a practitioner of "kusasa fumbi," or "removing dust," and "fisi," the local name for a hyena.

Fisi is a traditional custom in southern Malawi: a man is hired and paid to have sex with widows to exorcise evil spirits that may bring death to the bereaved family.

“Kusasa fumbi” is another custom practiced in the area: hiring a man to sleep with young girls who have reached puberty, in order to prepare them for married life.

Six testified against Aniva

Both of these have been around for centuries, but of course they do not fit in with modern laws and social systems.

Magistrate Innocent Nebi told a jam-packed court Friday that it was proven beyond reasonable doubt that Aniva had engaged in harmful and illegal practices.

One of the six witnesses who testified against the 45-year-old defendant was a woman who said Aniva asked to sleep with her soon after the death of her husband.

Aniva and his fellow practitioners of "fisi" - sleeping with widows — are known as hyenas, which is what "fisi" means in Chichewa, the most widely spoken language in Malawi. He pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and told VOA after Friday's court proceedings that he believes he is still innocent.

“No one complained to the court that I slept with her. And the other thing you should know is that I was doing this before the passing of the law (that outlaws such harmful cultural practices),” Aniva said. “When this law was put into effect, I was given the responsibility of asking my fellow hyenas to stop this practice."

Harsh sentence requested

Malawi prohibited "fisi" and similar practices in 2013. Aniva says he stopped comforting bereaved widows in 2012.

State prosecutor Chiyembekezo Banda asked the court to give Aniva a harsh sentence, "to serve as lesson to others" who are violating the law.

But Aniva's lawyer,Michael Goba Chipeta, said Aniva should receive only a suspended prison sentence.

“Here we are dealing with a cultural practice that has been here for hundreds of years, against a law that is three years old,” said Chipeta. “Culture is a psychological collective element which you cannot just do away with like a switch. I mean, the court should be humane enough when giving punishments against such offenses."

Appeal is expected

Chipeta said he will likely appeal if the judge disregards his plea.

"We can't talk much on the details (of an appeal) but most definitely there are issues that we feel are worth appealing against the details which we can discuss after the sentence is done," said Chipeta.

Aniva faces a maximum term of five years in prison when he is sentenced on Tuesday, November 22.