Kenya: Permissive African Sexual Traditions Spread AIDS

Men in the remote Kenyan town of Isiolo have long had sex with young virgins to purge themselves of afflictions or curses. The community practices a mix of Muslim and traditional African beliefs. Illiteracy is high, and AIDS is subject to stigma and superstition. Today, old purging ceremonies practiced by the nomadic peoples of Kenya's northeastern province are being routinely used as an HIV cure.

"I was given a girl of nine years to sleep with for a week," said Nassir, who has HIV. "I took pity on her but if it wasn't for this disease I wouldn't have slept with her... I had to do what the elders had said." After the ceremony, which includes gouging out a living goat's heart, the villagers engage in a sexual orgy intended to help a son or brother cleanse himself. Nassir still gets sick and goes for treatment in the local charity clinic Pepo La Tumaini Jangwani, Swahili for "Wind of Hope in the Arid Land."

Another custom permits a man to have indiscriminate and unprotected sex with the wife of another man of the same generation. A spear propped by the door of a man's house means that someone else is in bed with his wife. "None of us is jealous ... because we all do it," said Nassir, who said he has slept with many men's wives. He thinks his own wife, who died shortly after his cleansing ceremony, was HIV-infected.

One woman who did not want to be named said her husband stabbed her in the eye for objecting to having their daughter take part in a cleansing ceremony. She is now a member of Maula, a Tumaini-sponsored group of women who hope to stop the customs, report the use of girls for purging ceremonies, and offer alternative purifying rituals for men with HIV. However, Khadija Omar Rama, founder of the Tumaini charity, said two girls disappeared after Maula reported they had been forcibly used in a ceremony. One is still missing.