Francise Akacha's job as the ritual 'cleanser' of his local village is to sleep with widows and other unattached women to dispel 'evil spirits.' Many women have rebuffed him.
He's always the first one in line for the village feast, tucking into a buffet carefully prepared by the women of the village like he's diving into the ocean, no restraint. He's too skinny and has, as the women point out, terrible taste in clothes. His latest hat is a visor styled from shabby paper stolen off a local cigarette billboard.
But for all of his undesirable traits, Akacha has a surprisingly desirable job: He's paid to have sexual relations with the widows and unmarried women of this village. He's 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, another controversial custom that aid workers said is causing the spread of HIV-AIDS. Unmarried women who lose a parent or child must also sleep with the ritual cleanser.
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's a striking example of how HIV-AIDS is forcing Africans to question and change traditions as the disease ravages the continent.
"We don't want it and we won't accept it anymore," chanted Margaret Auma Odhiambo, as women ululated in agreement in her village, a lush rural farming community about a nine-hour drive northwest of the capital, Nairobi. "I refused it once and I will keep refusing it."