This post was written by FHI 360’s Tanzania field office staff.

A Swahili tradition—initiation of young women into adulthood—has long served as a vehicle for older women to pass on reproductive health knowledge and skills. Swahili families hire traditional “initiators” (manyakanga) to lead small groups of young women through several days of training on puberty, sex education, and the roles of husbands and wives. The initiation culminates with a celebration attended by hundreds of community members.

Young women in Tanzania, as elsewhere, face a disproportionate threat from HIV and AIDS, and reaching them in creative, effective, and culturally-acceptable ways is increasingly important. To address this need, PEPFAR has funded a groundbreaking pilot activity through FHI 360’s youth-focused UJANA project, which employs a range of innovative HIV prevention methods. Implemented through a local nongovernmental organization, Partnership for Youth Development (PAYODE), 21 manyakanga and a group of musicians who lead the graduation ceremonies were trained on HIV prevention and supported to integrate HIV prevention education in the initiation teachings and ceremonies.

Girls ranging in age from 10 to 18 were initiated by trained manyakanga. Both younger and older women praised the training they received. Asma, 14, says, “We spread all the good information we learned. Our friends wish they had done the same initiations. They missed something important.”

The chairperson of the manyakanga group, Blandina Mbagi, concurs, “I wish my young girls could have known all these things before. There is a big, big difference between girls who go through our initiations and girls who go through other initiations. These ones know the risks; they become careful.”

Community members and local government authorities praise the use of culturally grounded methods for imparting HIV education, rather than attempting to eliminate a valued practice. This integrated approach, as manyakanga Amina Sadiki points out, means that “Now we give them our cultural values together with an HIV component.”