Thandeka Moyo-Ndlovu, Health Reporter
SINCE the first HIV infection was recorded in Zimbabwe almost 40 years ago, the epidemic has negatively impacted every facet of human security.
Traditional customs synonymous with African cultures such as polygamy, sexual cleansing and other common ritual practices have long been perceived as a stumbling block in the fight against HIV, which claimed 22 000 lives in Zimbabwe last year.
Binga district, the home of the BaTonga, the third largest tribe in Zimbabwe has for years been criticised for having cultural practices that seem to be fuelling HIV.
The Tonga society is founded on the matrilineal kinship principle. When a man dies, his younger or elder brother or the religious or ritual leader (simuzimu) in the clan “cleanses” the widow (mukamufu) through sexual intercourse (kwiinzya or kusalazya) and inherits her.
However, in other parts of Zimbabwe, widow inheritance (kunjila munhanda) or levirate marriage has become less common due to HIV and Aids awareness.
This is mainly because people are becoming increasingly aware that if the widow’s husband died of Aids-related illness, if the surviving wife is HIV-positive there is a risk that the inheritor could be infected.
And, the opposite is true if the inheritor is HIV-positive. Polygamy is also one of the most common practices in Binga.
In the midst of all these preconceptions on culture, Binga has defied the odds, emerging as the district with the least HIV prevalence in the country.
Statistics from the National Aids Council (Nac) show that Tsholotsho district has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the country with the lowest infections recorded in Binga.
According to the report, Tsholotsho has 21,9 percent prevalence while Binga has 5,3 percent.
Overall, Zimbabwe has a 11,9 percent HIV prevalence, the fifth-highest in Africa, translating to about 1,3 million people living with HIV.
In an interview Nac national monitoring and evaluation director Mr Amon Mpofu said the Tonga people had a lot to share about their culture which kept the prevalence lower than other areas in Zimbabwe.
He attributed the low prevalence to strong moral values practised by Tongas coupled with less movement.
Mr Mpofu said a mapping exercise showed that a majority of the 5,3 percent with HIV in Binga are from growth points and fishing camps.
“HIV is a sexually transmitted disease as we all know and this means Tonga values are strong and as a result, the transmission is low. They also have strong values when it comes to marriage. They avoid casual sex and value marriage, something which we should all emulate,” he said.
“For HIV to spread there should be the presence of the virus. This also shows that their polygamous relations are pure as they are known to love that practice. Binga is also remote and there are fewer people coming in and out as it is a known fact that mobile people are the ones who spread HIV.”
Mr Mpofu said spousal separation, which is alien to Binga communities is one of the reasons why HIV continues to spread in Zimbabwe.
“Tsholotsho is a border district for Botswana and South Africa and many who go to these countries work without identification documents.
This means when they get sick, they cannot seek services in the neighbouring countries hence they return home with infections which they easily spread to their spouses and sexual partners,” he said.
Mr Mpofu said Nac is working hard to ensure that the HIV prevalence remains low.
“We also have trained peer educators on the ground who are sharing information on the importance of using condoms and the pre-exposure prophylaxis so that HIV does not spread,” he said.
Mr Mpofu said Covid-19 has affected some of their outreach programmes in border towns like Plumtree, Tsholotsho and Beitbridge which are battling with a high HIV prevalence.
Chief Siabuwa said the Tonga culture is deep rooted in respect, loyalty, love and hard work which explains why most of their marriages are thriving.
He said they also urge local men who find it difficult to stick to one sexual partner to consider polygamy.
“From the time we are born, our parents take time to teach us about the importance of family unity. Our marriages do not easily collapse largely because we respect our culture, which forms the backbone of any community,” said Chief Siabuwa.
He said youths are encouraged to marry early to avoid falling into the trap of risky sexual behaviours which contribute to the spread of HIV.
Chief Siabuwa said youths as young as 18 years are allowed to marry and establish their homes, a trend that helps prevent sexual promiscuity among teens.
“Once one is married, they spend their time building a happy home. We were also taught to work hard and provide for our families and therefore our women have no reason to seek ‘greener pastures’ because they are satisfied,” he said.
Chief Siabuwa said respect for their in-laws is another key factor, which has contributed to healthy marriages and a lower HIV prevalence rate.
According to the BaTonga culture, sexual offenders are supposed to compensate offended families with at least two beasts, which minimises risky sexual behaviours.
“If one is caught sleeping around or having an affair with someone’s wife, we force them to bring forward a beast for the wronged man and his family as punishment. This practice has managed to keep our men from mischief and I believe men would rather marry more wives which is permissible than risk losing their wealth over women.”
Chief Siabuwa admitted that in some areas, people use traditional medicines to “lock” their wives to avoid promiscuity.
“Yes, it is true that some of us still use lunyoka and traditional medicines to deter sexual predators from sleeping with our wives. This is a good way of combating the spread of HIV,” he said.
Church leader, Reverend Mackson Nsiasia said the Tonga have love and respect for each other.
He said they also encourage young boys and girls to take pride in being virgins until marriage, a practice which has kept many away from contracting the deadly HIV virus.
“We are deeply rooted in values and we believe in unity which makes it easy for us to achieve anything despite criticism from other people.
We have a traditional dance called tshilimba where we celebrate culture, sexual purity and encourage our youths not to indulge in sex before marriage,” said Rev Nsiasia.
He said those who opt for sex before marriage are encouraged to marry each other to maintain dignity of the offended families.
“Generally, Tongas are close-knit community which has always firmly believed in marrying from the same tribe as this preserved our values and cultural norms. However, due to changing times, we are now into inter-tribal marriages,” said Rev Nsiasia.
Ms Rachel Mudenda, also from Binga said:
“Our mothers raised us to value family, marriage and treating the next person with the highest level of respect. From an early age, we were encouraged to abstain from sex. My father has seven wives and it was a normal set-up as one big family, which even up to today, still stands. I am proud to say our culture is what keeps us strong and no matter what people think, we are proudly Tonga and yes, we will continue doing our best to keep the HIV prevalence low.” — @thamamoe.