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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An AIDS-Hit Village Turns to 'the Terrorist'

GANGRE, Kenya -- The women of this village call Francise Akacha "the terrorist." His breath fumes with the local alcoholic brew. Greasy food droppings hang off his mustache and stain his oily pants and torn shirt.

He is always the first one in line for the village feast, tucking into a buffet like he is diving into the ocean, no restraint. He is too skinny and has, as the women point out, poor taste in clothes.

But for all of his undesirable traits, Akacha has a surprisingly desirable job: He is paid to have sexual relations with the widows and unmarried women of this village. He is known as "the cleanser," one of hundreds of thousands of men in rural villages across Africa who sleep with women after their husbands die to dispel what villagers believe are evil spirits.

As tradition holds, they must sleep with the cleanser to be allowed to attend their husbands' funerals or be inherited by their husbands' brother or relative. The custom has always been unpopular among women. But in midst of an AIDS pandemic, which has led to the deaths of 19.6 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, having relations with the cleanser has become more than just a painful ritual that women must endure.

Cleansers are now spreading HIV at explosive rates in such villages as Gangre, where one in every three people is infected.

Areas that still practice the tradition have the highest rates of the disease, and health workers say the custom must be stopped. It is a striking example of how HIV and AIDS are forcing Africans to question and change traditions as the disease ravages the continent.

Twenty years ago, women -- even when they formed social clubs that frequently started projects to sell goods -- often could not question customs like cleansing, for fear of being beaten or having their property stolen.

But as HIV and AIDS started killing husbands in greater numbers, these women's groups, which were mainly social alliances and a way to make extra money, began to turn into powerful and political widows' groups.

As their husbands perished, the widows were largely left to make money for the village and help care for a large number of orphans left without food or financial support.

In this Kenyan village, the women said 30 percent of them were telling the cleanser to go away. They have formed a group called Standing Idle Does Not Pay, or Chungni Kimiyi in Swahili, a phrase that has become a mantra among women in the surrounding villages. They want the cleanser to go.

The issue has become so tantalizing that village elders are currently debating what to do about the custom, and activists and local women are hopeful that they will have the sense to drop the custom.