AIDS AND THE AFRICAN
By Kurt Shillinger, Globe Correspondent, 10/13/99
JOHANNESBURG - The prospect of a straight-talking minister from
Dorchester prodding African leaders with a new gospel that casual sex is
tantamount to violence meets skepticism from Cape Town to Kampala.
It is the aim of the Rev. Eugene Rivers to stir the waters rather than still them.
Angered by the ravaging of Africa by AIDS, he is launching a campaign to
shame African governments for doing and spending too little, and prominent
black Americans for watching in silence as millions of Africans die each year.
``It is time to embarrass the ambassadorial representation of African
countries in Washington,'' Rivers says. ``If they could mobilize around the
issue of apartheid, why don't they do the same for AIDS?''
The blitzkrieg approach might work on American politicians in Washington,
where confrontation is the norm in politics and the Clinton administration
sympathizes with issues such as the need to ease Africa's debt burden and
break the corporate grip on anti-AIDS drugs.
But Africans may be harder to influence. As leaders like South African
President Thabo Mbeki promote their vision of an African renaissance, they
are increasingly impatient playing the junior partner in North-South relations.
They reject implicit assumptions that the West has all the answers for Africa.
Against this backdrop, Rivers raises thorny issues. He argues that the AIDS
epidemic is a symptom of a cultural collapse in Africa, and wants to make
abstinence a human rights issue. But Africans are traditionally reticent talking
about sex. Most find it difficult to discuss the subject even with their own
partners, studies have shown, let alone outsiders. At a church conference in
Zimbabwe last December, when Rivers first floated the idea that in the age of
AIDS male promiscuity is a form of violence against women and children, his
pleas for open discussion were met with shocked silence.
``It is dangerous to bring in outsiders to talk about sexuality,'' says Patricio
Rojas, representative of the World Health Organization in Namibia. ``The
field is so complex. If you talk about changing mores, mores in Boston are
very different from mores in Namibia. We try to promote a strong
interchange of experiences within Africa. That is more useful. Closeness is
fundamental to the success of the message.''
But John Caldwell, an expert on Africa at the Australian National University
in Canberra, has grown impatient with the light-handed approach. In his
latest book on the AIDS epidemic, he argues that ``government silence is
partly explained by the surprising fact that overseas donor governments have
not put sufficient pressure on political leaders to speak out and do so
continuously, and to organize against the disease.
``There have been no inducements, such as massive help to the health system
and to programs to curb AIDS given on condition of sustained and
If donor governments have the clout to attach conditions, however, smaller
players probably don't. Mark Ottenweller, an American doctor who runs 12
AIDS support groups in Soweto in a partnership between local officials and
the US organization Hope Worldwide,says that engaging African leaders
often is a matter of tact and tone.
``Frequently it's out of guilt that they get involved, as long as you're not too
critical,'' he says.
The same rule applies at the street level. Ottenweller, who still carries the
Bayou accent of his Louisiana upbringing, holds informal workshops on
marriage in his free time. The way to break through silence, he says, is to
establish a sense of common experience.
A health official in the northern Namibian town of Rundu, where AIDS is
taking a particularly grim toll, agrees. ``If you just walk in and start talking
about sex, you will make people resistant,'' the official says, requesting
anonymity. ``People must feel you're not an outsider. You must use `we' and
not `you,' and have an entry point into the community like a school or a
Adds Bart Cox, director of the AIDS Committee at the Anglican Diocese in
Johannesburg: ``It is the interdependence of people that matters. Stories of,
`Oh, you too?''' he says. ``We have to create bonds of compassion through
Still, as the epidemic swells, it is creating an increasing ``compassion
burden.'' More people are falling sick and dying, more families are losing
breadwinners, more children are left parentless. Governments must be held
more accountable, AIDS experts say, but it is also critically important to get
new players - notably churches - involved in building community-based care
``One of the main objectives over the next couple of years is to bring
churches on board,'' says Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, a joint
program of several agencies in the United Nations. ``To be blunt,
orphanages will mean tremendous business for churches.''
The outsider question doesn't deter Rivers, who models his initiative after the
Biblical story of Joseph. Sold into slavery by his brothers, he later saved
them from famine and ruin.
``Until Africans in Africa confront their complicity in the slave trade, they
have no moral standing to challenge blacks in the US who challenge them
regarding the same indifference that they now express toward the holocaust
in Africa today,'' Rivers says.