Culture has been described as a collective programming of the mind that differentiates members of one group from those of another. And while it offers us a sense of identity, it can also be quite at odds with the wave of modernity. We look at some of the cultural practises across Africa that beggar belief in today’s world, but have yet to be eradicated.
Kenyan society has made great strides in getting rid of harmful traditions. There’s the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), which can cause serious bleeding, infection, infertility and even death; the efforts made to stop parents from giving away their daughters as child brides; and the push to eliminate sexual torture from the tradition of wife inheritance.
But a story that recently went viral shows we still have plenty of ground to cover. Last December, a woman we’ll call Milicent got the surprise of her life when her husband brought home a man and demanded she have sex with him.
His reason? Milicent had broken a cooking pot and, according to her husband’s ingrained beliefs, this meant death would visit their family. To prevent this, he brought home a ‘cleanser’, a man she was expected to have sex with in front of elders so the curse could be lifted from their home.
“I thought my husband had taken one too many and was joking. But I soon realised he was serious,” said the 39-year-old Murang’a County resident.
Crazy Monday spoke to Muiruri Waithaka, 60, Milicent’s ‘cleanser’. He said his community believes a woman is the custodian of the cooking pot, and her breaking it is taboo.
Waithaka said he doesn’t go looking for women to ‘cleanse’, “kazi yenyewe inajileta” (it’s clients who look for me). He ‘cleanses’ his clients, irrespective of their age or health status.
“I put my life on the line so that others are not cursed. I have so far cleansed 21 women,” he said.
“It is only that you people in the media got wind of me recently, yet this practise has been there since the days of our forefathers, and I am not the only known cleanser.”
Waithaka, who is from Rwanganga village in Kigumo Sub-county, said he has been divorced three times.
Joseph Kaguthi, an elder and career administrator in the Agikuyu community, said he does not see the logic in this form of retribution, which he had not heard of before.
He called the ritual “societal terrorism” that takes advantage of the fact that curses arising from mothers are dreaded by the members of his community.
“This ritual is testimony that any advice will be embraced as an affected family searches for an escape route out of the curse,” he said.
Waithaka’s fee in Milicent’s case included a Sh500 alcohol stipend, Sh200 for food and Sh2,000 for the physical act.
Kirugu Ndung’u, who’s also from Kigumo, says a ‘purification committee’ sets the terms of the ritual, as well as the final fee to be paid. And while many frown at the practice, they lack a “suitable alternative for the victims of a curse”.
However, Ndung’u noted, the curse of the broken cooking pot does not affect girls who have not attained puberty. And if a man breaks the pot, the committee’s only requirement from him is alcohol. If it’s a boy, he’s beaten.
Milicent’s case got women’s rights crusaders incensed. Through Federation of African Women Educationists (Fawe) representative Faith Muthoni in Murang’a, they termed the so-called cleansing a “case of public rape of women, a useless piece of cultural belief that defies any logic”.
Area Police County Commander Josephat Kinyua admitted he has heard of the “gravely suspect act” and that some chiefs and their juniors “speak in favour of the ritual. We will soon catch up with them”.
Kinyua says the world has moved to civilisation and all human deeds are measured against civil acceptability.
“I would like all women who will be subjected to this criminal ritual to record police statements. It is enough grounds to have us prosecute all the conveners,” he said.
Africa has more than one thousand tribes, so the continent provides its fair share of traditions and customs that tend to put women at a disadvantage.
Sexual cleansing is one that goes by different names in different countries, but its end goal is the same.
In parts of southern Africa, especially Malawi and Zambia, ‘kusasa fumbi’ bears an uncanny resemblance to wife inheritance gone rogue. A woman is required to have sex with a man – who could be her brother-in-law or an identified future husband or a hired hand – when her husband dies. On paper, Kusasa fumbi’s end result is to ensure a woman remains a good wife.
In rural southern Africa, the practice affects girls when they start their menstrual period and women who have had an abortion. The selected man in these parts of the continent is called a ‘hyena’.
In official circles, however, the ritual is frowned upon and reported cases have led to the arrest and prosecution of the guilty parties.
In the northern parts of Namibia, a man can try to impress a guest by handing him his wife for the night. If the house is too small to have a spare room where he can rest his weary head after such an act of selflessness, the ‘benevolent’ husband sleeps outside the house. It is a custom also found in rural Angola.
The South African government is fighting to make illegal a number of pervasive harmful traditions. One of them is virginity testing.
But this is not a solely African problem. American rapper TI recently caused social media uproar when he announced on radio that he accompanies his teenage daughter to the gynaecologist to ensure her hymen is still intact. He later backed down from defending his position after a flood of hate and shame-on-yous.
Back to South Africa. In rural areas, locals take their daughters to a virginity tester, who uses the rudimentary tools of her hands and eyes to check the condition of the girl’s hymen.
Once satisfied that she is still a virgin, the girl is given a certificate that allows her to participate in customary dances.
Flip the script
But then there are parts of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and the Central Africa Republic where women get a taste of the cultural power men yield when it comes to sex.
During a seven-day ceremony, women in parts of these western Africa countries are allowed to have sex with a man of their choosing. These men parade themselves in costume, and the women pick whoever catches their fancy.
When she sees something she likes, she walks up to the man, taps him and then gets to keep him for a week. After this period, assuming she didn’t pick her husband, she goes back to him. No questions asked, no consequences, just culture.