The men sitting in the shade of a large thorn tree on the outskirts of Kano-Angola village, 10 miles inland from the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya’s Nyanza province, are in buoyant spirits today. There is bravado, there are lewd jokes, but there are also long periods of silence.
One man in particular commands attention. As soon as he begins to talk, the rest of the group listen deferentially. Esban Ochanga is tall and slender with a far-away look in his eyes. He has called the men together to talk about the practice of widow cleansing, whereby Luo women, after the death of their spouse, are pressurized into having unprotected sex; ostensibly to allow their husband’s spirit to roam free in the afterlife. It is a tradition rarely spoken about in public. ‘I knew my brother had died and they told me it was AIDS, but I thought a Luo could not die because of that virus,’ says Ochanga. ‘So I cleansed his widow and I contracted HIV. That is what killed my first wife.’
With the spiralling rates of HIV, men have become reluctant to inherit or cleanse widows. About 15 per cent of the population in Nyanza have HIV; 63 per cent live below the poverty line. In Kano-Angola, two-thirds of people who have tested for HIV have turned out positive.
Increasingly, ‘male cleansers for hire’ – who go from village to village to perform the service – are being brought in. Ochanga tells the group that a cleanser operating in Kano-Angola is even having sex with recently deceased women, at the behest of their families. None of the men look surprised. ‘The commercial part of widow cleansing, I also did,’ admits Ochanga to the group. ‘It was for the money and it seemed easy.’
Though most of the men gathered are HIV positive, Ochanga is the only one to have come out openly to his wives and community, not only about his status but also about his work as a cleanser. Working as a volunteer peer educator with the Movement of Men Against AIDS in Kenya, a charity which encourages men to play a more prominent role in Africa’s response to HIV, Ochanga and other members of the community are supporting people to have HIV tests and to use condoms. Ochanga says he takes antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and practises safer sex with all his wives. Two are HIV positive, the other is negative.
Mother-to-child HIV transmission rates are dropping and Ochanga says that – as a result of discussion groups like this – attitudes are beginning to change. ‘How much were you paid to cleanse?’ asks a man in his thirties, laughing nervously. ‘The price of a cow. Just one night and you’ve got a cow,’ replies Ochanga, shrugging his shoulders. ‘My grandfather did it, my father did it, so I was not afraid of doing it. But the sons of this village will cease to do it.’