A number of studies have shown that HIV awareness is very high among Malawians
and yet infection rates are rising. Local cultural practices have been identified as
contributing to this contradictory situation. Using data from 12 focus-group discussions
collected in Balaka, Zomba, Machinga and Mangochi, the paper explores the
reformulation of nine cultural practices as a preventive measure against HIV. The study
reveals that cultural practices that involve sexual acts for completion are mediated
through condoms and HIV tests. The study also shows that traditional herbs known for
healing ailments are repurposed to symbolise sexual acts. We conclude that the idea of
repurposing offers an avenue in which initiation and cleansing rites that involve sexual
acts are replaced by other semiotics such as a traditional medicine called mtela.
We also conclude that the modifications to cultural practices do not indicate complete
abandonment of associated traditions, rather, they constitute the renegotiation of
cultural practices and meanings associated with particular rites of passage. Lastly,
we propose that a comprehensive prevention programme needs to be part of a wider
national HIV-prevention effort combining a women and child rights and empowerment
agenda and, critically, lifestyle lessons in a process of cultural renegotiation.