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05/25/2011

The plight of the condom

Mercy_2 (condom)
Malawian student Mercy Khowoya says “HIV and AIDS is real – if you can’t abstain then don’t be ashamed to use a condom.” Photo by Katie Lin. 

By Katie Lin

“Nyimbo imodzi sachezelela gule.” (One song won’t keep you dancing throughout the night.)

As this Malawian proverb suggests, just one sexual partner won’t satisfy a person for their entire lifetime.

But in a country where approximately 12 per cent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS and having multiple concurrent relationships is common, only 72 per cent of sexually active men and women are using condoms, says a 2010 health report by the National Statistics Office of Malawi. 

An informal survey of management-level professionals in Malawi conducted by a Canadian public health specialist found that 100 per cent of the participants agreed they are “personally at risk for HIV and AIDS.” Yet, less than 10 per cent reported feeling “confident” when purchasing condoms.

While the survey results are not statistically representative, they do indicate that many people are simply too embarrassed to buy condoms and indicates that knowledge doesn’t necessarily inform behavior.

Condoms can be purchased in Malawi for 30 kwacha ($0.19 CAD) for a pack of three.

They can also be found for free at all government hospitals.

So if condoms are indeed so widely available, what’s the excuse for not using them?

For one: “Switi sadyera mpaketi.” (You can’t taste candy if you eat it while it’s still in the wrapper.)

This popular Malawian adage speaks to the belief that the use of a condom will make sex less pleasurable. As Veronica Chikafa, Capacity Building Coordinator at the Malawi Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS (MBCA) explains many believe “sex was made for there to be no barrier in between.”

Secondly, using a condom is generally viewed as the man’s domain.

“It’s the male who puts [the condom] on,” she says, “so it’s the male who makes the decision.”

Chikafa says that opening up communication between partners is a priority, no matter what the circumstances of their relationship.

However, there remains a gap in sex education which also must be addressed, she maintains.

“I was told that there was a lady who went for family planning and somebody did a condom demonstration using their thumb,” she says. “[She] put the condom on her thumb and got pregnant, of course.”  

Dickson Chidumu, Head of Operations at the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (MUSCCO) and leader of a campaign called “Be a Hero. Use a Condom,” acknowledges that such misunderstandings are not only a result of poor sex education, but also not wanting to talk candidly about sex.

“To some people, this language is considered obscene language. But they need the facts. We are running away from speaking about the facts.” 

Through the continued efforts of organizations such as MUSCCO and MBCA, and of course with time, Chidumu is hopeful that cultural attitudes towards sex and sexual practices will change.

For the fact remains that you just never know:

Wokaona nyanja anakaona ndi mvuu yomwe.” (When you go to the lake, you might see hippos.)

In other words, you may think you know your partner’s status, but there exists the possibility that you may encounter the unexpected – so it’s best to be prepared.

(For easy listening on safe sex, check out Condom Nalila by Zambian musician, Dalisoul, and Safe Sex by Malawi’s Kaye Styles.)

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Well said, Katie. There is a lot of promotion of condoms as well in Mozambique, but I don't actually know of anyone who uses them for the purposes they are created for. They make nice temporary soccer balls, if you pad them with plastic bags and rubber tyre strips. Or interesting hats for young kids. Or fun balloons with a strange tip on the end. Let's hope the culture starts to accept their proper use.

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Africa Without Maps


  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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