AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

 

THE OUTSIDER

 

Minister tries to shame officials into action

 

                  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

                  high-profile leadership.''

 

                  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

                  church.''

 

                  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

                  human experience.''

 

                  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

                  networks.

 

                  ``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.