Thursday, May 08, 2008

State of AIDS in Africa

As promised, here's a little rundown on the state of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Via Peace Corps Volunteer, Coppelia:

doesn't infect just the one (stigmatized) person that has it but everyone in that community. Children are orphaned and left with grandparents, aunts or uncles or even siblings to be raised. This leads to girls having unprotected sex with older men to pay for school fees and to get basic food.

Coppelia witnessed religious leaders who told their congregations that if they believe in God and don't sin that God will cure their HIV/AIDS. A friend once asked her, "Do you think if I really believe in God he will take my HIV away?"

"No, I believe having faith is great and thinking positive is wonderful but that will not take HIV/AIDS away," answered Coppelia, and her friend said: "Well that is what I believe, if I just believe enough, God will take it away."

This kind of denial is not unique to Africa. I've known people in New York City who believe that AIDS is a myth, that the government made it up. Of course, those are only people with the disease. I knew one guy diagnosed with AIDS, who later told me it was gone--because he stuck to a diet of organic kale. The human mind has this uncanny ability to not believe what it does not want to believe. Which brings us back to Africa.

Like conspiracy theorists in America (Obama's preacher, anyone?), there are those who believe AIDS was created to kill minorities, and in Namibia, where Coppelia lived, many of the traditional people felt/feared that AIDS was actually put into the condoms, so after distributing them to a village she often found out they burned them after she left.

Africans are notoriously superstitious--like for example, a dead bird is a very bad omen. Traditional healers, (Sangomas), or witch doctors, are a major problem in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Sangomas are the ones spreading the devastating idea that in order to cure yourself of AIDS, you must fuck a virgin, or your mother.

As Coppelia tells me:

Education with the traditional leaders is one of the latest strategies to try to end this horrible myth. It is very sad because men have raped babies and young children, exposing them to HIV/AIDS in hopes of getting rid of it. Beyond educating tribal leaders, they have also done a lot of work in communities with dramas, music, and dance to try to enlighten people in unique ways.

It is not just "whites" from outside countries that are talking about HIV/AIDS and distributing condoms in Namibia. Many Namibians work with a variety of HIV/AIDS organizations. The government also allocates money in every ministry at every level for HIV/AIDS awareness and funding within that sector.

Currently, most UNICEF and other programs don't take into account the cultural norms. More money must be put into developing culturally appropriate materials. Without an understanding of the culture and ways to educate and advocate within these norms we will forever be scratching our heads wondering why it doesn't change.

Which means, in order to drop HIV/AIDS infection rates, doctors, volunteers and professionals must work with tribal sangomas. It is the only way.

Can you picture AIDS doctors placing dead birds beside their distributed condoms? Reason and science must work together with mysticism --Is this not a Saturday Night Live skit? Can you see the comedy within the tragedy?

I believe I see comedy within the tragedy every single day.


Michael Coates said...

Jesse. Great blog today - thank you for helping to spread the word about this epidemic.

On that note, have you seen the movie "Three Needles". You should, the movie revolves around AIDS on a global scale and it had profound impact on me. It's got a star-studded cast and Olivia Dukakis narrates. What's not to love?

Tony said...

Good job, Jesse, on today's blog entry. As you point out, in places like Africa, but elswhere as well, HIV/AIDS has its most severe impact at the local, community level.
My friend Bill Sachs has just published a short, readable book on how one large NGO, Family Health International (FHI), has found a way to focus HIV/AIDS care and prevention efforts on the community by partnering with local faith organizations and their leaders. FHI is a secular outfit founded in the 70's by healthcare professionals down in the Reseach Triangle, NC.
The book recounts the significant success FHI has had in educating local religious leaders away from the "belief-in-God-will-take away-AIDS" syndrome described by your friend Coppelia. With those leaders on board, as Coppelia suggests, care and prevention programs can be implemented by local members of the religious group.
I'm sending you a copy of Bill's book by snail mail FYI.

Mark in DE said...

The denial you describe is a very powerful mechanism, and is quite similar to that used many Americans.

When I came out to my parents, who claimed to be shocked, I pointed out all the signs they couldn't have missed.

When it became apparent that my niece had a mental disorder, my parents again claimed to be shocked; apparently oblivious to the unmistakable signs.

Denial is also what permits reasonably intelligent people to give blind faith to unreasonable religions.

Mark :-)