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Working to prevent the spread of HIV in Malawi

This is territory that even National Geographic hasn’t been to. I’m with my colleague, Nicky Ndovi, in a village close to the shores of Lake Malawi. Around us, over 1,000 men, women and children are sitting in a circle under the shade of a large tree and under shadows cast by the village’s mud huts.

Facing them under a canopy is the ‘VIP section’, where 20 village chiefs and four religious leaders drawn from the Christian and Muslim faiths sit on chairs. As visitors, Nicky and I, are also seated there but only after receiving a ceremonial welcome involving 16 swaying women in traditional dress singing a lovely chant,(much to our embarrassment and gratitude). The crowd are not here to listen to speeches. They look far too expectant for that. No, they are here to witness the mysterious ‘Gule Wamkulu’, a secret society within the Chewa tribe, perform.  This is part of a remarkable collaboration between the local people and the Malawi Interfaith Aids Association to share best practice messages on preventing the spread of HIV (MIAA), and the first of its kind in Malawi.

A secret society within the Chewa tribe in Malawi

‘Gule Wamkulu’, a secret society within the Chewa tribe in Malawi perform. Photos: Emmet Bergin.

Malawi has more than one million adults and children living with HIV – about one in every twelve of the population. Gule Wamkulu follow some practices that have contributed to the spread of HIV, including engagement in sexual initiation ceremonies for girls. Other harmful practices that traditionally put girls at risk include being married at an extremely young age, and in some cases being forced to gain sexual experience through sexual intercourse with older tribe members after the ceremony. Initiation ceremonies for boys include forced circumcision using unhygienic and dangerous methods, such as sharing a razor blade, which greatly enhance the risk of HIV.

Quote: Malawi has more than one million adults and children living with HIV

After attending workshops conducted by MIAA, Gule Wamkulu has altered the initiation ceremonies for both girls and boys. Many boys now attend hospital to have the circumcisions conducted safely. With circumcision being 60% preventative against HIV contraction, this is a practice that everyone wishes to preserve as long as it is conducted in hospital. In a number of villages Gule Wamkulu are not involved in initiation ceremonies with girls and discussion is ongoing in the communities about delaying their age of marriage.

We witnessed certificates being awarded to male volunteers who met individually with up to 50 other men to share information on safe sexual practices and male gender roles with them. Plays scripted and acted by the villagers investigated themes of domestic violence, unfaithfulness and the taboos surrounding pregnant women.

Then the Gule Wamkulu performance started and their athleticism and dance sprayed dust and scared children and adults. I felt privileged to witness this blending of tradition which brought together some of the most elusive and hard to reach groups, to share and be informed about the hard facts of HIV.

This event and the hundreds of other meetings and events associated with this project will surely have a major impact on the prevention of HIV in Malawi.

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