I know there is that pressure when the whole world is laughing at you. I have received calls and Facebook messages from as far afield as the United States and Japan, from acquaintances I last spoke to ten years ago. “Hi, how are you?” they say. When you answer, the next question is: “Tell us about this hyena thing in your country.”
If a nobody like me is being asked questions like these, what about our president? No wonder he was driven to take action without carefully weighing the matter. Earlier this week, President Peter Mutharika ordered the arrest of Eric Aniva, the man from Nsanje district who is hired to sleep with adolescent girls and widows as required by his culture.
The arrest has been widely applauded as a great move. The country, especially some of the educated elite, argue that what Aniva did was wrong and he must be punished.
And yet the matter is not as simple as it looks. Arresting Aniva is like treating the symptoms rather than the disease.
Aniva did not go looking for widows and adolescents to sleep with. They hired him; ‘they’ meaning custodians of culture in his community. They even paid him to do it.
Arresting Aniva will not stop the ‘hyena’ culture. Remember that Nigerian proverb in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? “The Eneke the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.” Custodians of the culture will continue to secretly hire ‘hyenas’ and make them vow never to talk to BBC reporters.
Deal with the culture. Aniva just happens to be a small actor in the scheme of things, and his arrest is of no consequence.
Arrest custodians of the culture. Arrest the parents who accepted that Aniva should sleep with their children. Arrest whole villages, if not the entire tribe. Which, in a way, means arrest no one.
What needs to be done is to outlaw that culture, then embark on a civic education campaign telling girls and women that if anybody compels them to sleep with a ‘hyena’, they should report to the nearest police.
If a law says the ‘hyena’ culture is banned, everyone will begin to understand that it is an illegal thing to do.
Short of that, Aniva is a scapegoat. He is being taken advantage of because he is a poor man who cannot even afford to hire a lawyer. He said things to a reporter that self-incriminate, and it is against the principles of natural justice to self-incriminate.
The arrest itself is also wrong on the procedural front. Aniva was arrested first and the police had to shop around for charges later. As late as Friday morning this week, they were still looking for someone to lodge a complaint against Aniva.
A statement from the President’s spokesperson, Mgeme Kalilani, says: “The Malawi leader and Commander-in-Chief of the Malawi Police Service, the President has directed the Police to immediately arrest Mr. Eric Aniva, investigate him and take him to court forthwith for the defilement cases which he apparently confesses to.”
What is supposed to start first, arrest or investigation? Why is Mr Aniva being treated as guilty before any investigation whatsoever?
Eminent lawyer, Professor Edge Kanyongolo, has also argued that the President has no powers to order the arrest of anyone. Quoting chapter 15 of the constitution, especially section 161, Kanyongolo says that the Malawi Police Service must be independent of the Executive.
Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it, even if it is the president of a republic. A decision is not right because it is popular.
An angle that is complicating Aniva’s story is that he admits being HIV-positive, and that it is possible he spread the disease in the course of his work.
But that needs to be treated separately. Somebody needs to come forward and complain that she was deliberately infected by him. If there is no complainant, Mr Aniva should be released.
We should not be hysterical in dealing with this issue. We must not do things so that the world should praise us. We must do what is right. Aniva must not be taken advantage of because he is a poor man from Malawi’s rural areas.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t support the ‘hyena’ culture. It is a bad culture and must be ended right now. Some organizations have been trying to fight such harmful cultural practices. As far back as 2009, for example, Action Aid funded a project known as Social Empowerment on Rights for Vulnerable and Excluded Women which fought not only the ‘hyena’ culture, but also similar harmful practices across the country.
We must not, therefore, look at the ‘hyena’ culture in isolation. In Chitipa district, for instance, there is kupimbira, a cultural practice in which parents arrange marriages between girls as young as 13 years and older men just so they can get money from a dowry.
Other traditional practices believed to violate the rights of women include ‘kudika hlazi’, giving into marriage a young relative of the wife, as a reward to her husband for being good to her family; ‘kulowa kufa’, sexual intercouse between a newly widowed woman and a designated man to ‘cleanse the village of death’, and ‘fisi’, hiring a man to engage in sex for the purpose of having children, especially when the husband is impotent.
We must deal with all of these holistically.
And that will not be achieved through the arrest of Eric Aniva.