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Reveller Traditionalists Unaware of Threat of AIDS

By Daniel Benno Msangya O, African Church Information Service, 16 July 2001

Once every year, people of all ages and gender from Tanzania's largest ethnic community gather to witness and celebrate their biggest cultural fete. This is the beginning of the harvesting season for the Sukuma, a large community of some seven million people occupying Mwanza, Shinyanga and Tabora regions. For them it is a compulsive traditional ceremony but it carries with it devastating health implications.

May 30 is always the day for Mbina ye kisukuma ya kukaribisha mwaka (literary, a ceremony to welcome a new year). The ceremony is inaugurated by famous and influential village diviners, manju, who compete at playing the drums for long durations at the beginning of the week-long fete.

The winner has to be awarded a bull or a calf and that is when mbina starts throughout the Sukuma land. Manju is extremely supreme and has to select a beautiful girl to accompany him everywhere he goes for a short rest during the night of mbina.

The mbina business has become familiar in Sukuma land. It has social, cultural, political and commercial implications. It is everything in the life of people and everybody has to participate. Parents worry when their teenage children abstain.

There is great intimacy between the genders and even among the young people throughout the night of revelling. The Sukuma people still maintain that mbina is the effective way of developing their culture.

For some youth it is the start of marriage life but for some it is disastrous because they end up getting pregnant and abandoned by their boy friends and parents, says Lucius Ikanda, the project manager of the AIDS Control Programme Cluster of Shinyanga Region.

We have had disastrous experiences rather than what they (Sukuma) demand as benefits. For instance, it is estimated that about 230 school drop-outs were the result of pre-marital liaisons and pregnancies in 1999 in Shinyanga Region, said Ikanda.

The Sukuma sons and daughters are in most cases educated, but sometimes are offensive especially when they start to abuse each other through the songs during the mbina ceremonies.

They use the outdated traditions to defend their mistakes, Padre Paul Ladda, a Catholic Parish in charge at Ng'hokolo Cathedral in Shinyanga Diocese says. He is disturbed because of the link between some of these traditions and the prevalence of STIs or more especially, AIDS.

During mbina, it is common to find a group of boys gathering together watching the girls, half naked and twisting their waists. When they start to move home in groups the boys run after them chasing them like cats and rats.

When she is caught up by one of the boys the others disperse leaving the partners walk alone negotiating, says Manyota Mande, a resident of Vituka Village in Geita District. The consequence is pregnancy or marriage and worse than anything else, AIDS, adds Mande.

There is a story that if a girl is not chosen, the mother feels sorry and might seek divine service over the matter. This business is well known among the Wasukuma and commonly known as Chagulaga mayo, (meaning, choose one among other girls).

The consequences of such harmful practices have been shared in both urban and rural areas. The number of AIDS orphans is increasing and becoming an alarming problem in the society.

Statistics available in the Ministry of Health show that more than 530,000 people had died of AIDS since the scourge started in Tanzania about 20 years ago. Currently there are 1.6 million people estimated to be living with the HIV virus.

Unlike the Sukuma ethnic group, the Luo tribe in Tarime District had abandoned such ceremonies before 1990s. Their was known as luobang' nyako and chodo (the general meaning is seduction) but the traditional practices no longer take place among the Paluo of Tanzania.

Christian Jacob Conjra , the well known author of Otieno Achac (a novel), the chodo practice was part of marriage ceremonies which involved a group of girls, between 10 and 20 in number, who went to perform before their brother-in-laws. They had to stay for two days singing and dancing to comfort and encourage their sister to start a new life.

However, during the night every one had to choose a partner to spend the night together. Even though only mature girls were invited to such rites, no one cared about such practices to protect them against STIs.

The time and education had eradicated such harmful traditional practices in the Luo community, says Conjra, adding that poverty tended to enhance such practices. Preparations of such marriage ceremonies required the slaughter of nyuok, a he goat to slaughter for the nyiri (girls) and the consumption of local brew.

The Mara Regional AIDS Control Co-ordinator Dr Gerald Rutashongerwa explains that more AIDS victims are dying either at their homes or at traditional healers huts.

The death toll could be as staggering as elsewhere in the country, says Rutashongerwa. According to him, three cases were reported for the first time in 1986 in Mara Region and the number rose to 11,000 as of towards the end of 1999.

Currently, it is estimated that only one person out of every six get access to hospital services, leaving others (about 60,000 victims) helplessly groaning at their deathbeds.

In every ten people admitted to government hospitals, four are AIDS victims or related health complications, making the infection rate stand at 12 percent. Mara Region is presently occupying the number 18 slot at the national level, says Rutashongerwa.

According to research by the Anglican Church in Mara Diocese, 50 percent of adolescent girls aged 15 start having sexual relationships very early, thus getting exposed to STIs.

The research conducted in North Mara (Tarime District bordering Kenya in the South) among the Kuria and Luo communities where polygamous unions are accepted indicates that most of the young women fall easy prey to lustful elderly men.

The question of multiple sexual contacts is widespread. The main contributing factor to such practices is tradition. The most deeply established tradition which is notorious for enhancing the spread of HIV/AIDS is that of re-marrying widows whose husbands have died of AIDS.

Says Jacob Konjra: After burial ceremonies of the husband are over, tribal elders convene a gathering commonly known by Bantu groups as ekikoma or duol by the Luo, with the main agenda to pick-up an in-law who will 'take care' of the widow.

Taking care in this case includes having sexual relationship and even continue rearing children with the new husband, explains Conjra who is also a former Catholic Catechist at Kowak Parish and retired Regional Cultural Research Officer in Mara Region.

The new husband and his relatives including spouse, feel honoured as tradition demands. They do not bother much about the cause of death because most deaths are attributed to bad omen and witchcraft.