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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

African Traditions Do Not Spread AIDS!

The NY Times is running an article entitled Traditional Ways Spread AIDS in Africa, Experts Say" In which they attempt to smear various African traditions such as naming ceremonies as major means of HIV transmission. For example:

NKOLONDOGO, Cameroon — When Innocent Zamba Manga was born this summer, doctors advised his mother, Marise, who is H.I.V. positive, not to breast-feed, because nursing can pass the virus that causes AIDS from mother to child. Mother and baby left the hospital with bottles and formula supplied by a Catholic charity.

But the very next week, the proud parents took their baby to the father’s village in the south of Cameroon, to take part in a traditional birth and naming ceremony. Custom required the new mother to nurse little Innocent, so she did. And she continued for two weeks.

Umm the problem is not the 'African traditions" rather than a lack of understanding (or respect) for a medical condition. My attitude here is the same as my position on FGM (so called Female circumcision). The problem in not with the right of passage that such a thing represents and it is a bad idea to abolish such traditions. however, the culture should evolve to the understanding that FGM is not an acceptable means of marking such a passage. Thus my argument is, and has been for many years, that various African customs have not been allowed to modernize as other cultures have done. This is partially because of the "fetishization" of these cultures and the attitude that if they are not "primitive" then they are not authentically African. It is this insistence on "authenticity" that is responsible for the HIV transmission.

Here's another example of a "tradition" that could easily have been sighted in America:

In scarification ceremonies for ethnic identification and cutting for ritual healing, blades are used in sequence again and again.

That could describe just about any Tattoo parlor. The difference is that the practitioners in a Tattoo parlor understand the importance of sanitation and sterilization whereas the latter do not. This is not to say that such knowledge cannot have occurred indigenously as we have the example of the Cesarean section as practiced in Africa prior to colonization and the commentary by European explorers that the indigenous practice of c-section delivery was done in a matter that had a better survival rate than that of Europe of the time and it included the use of disinfectants. The issue is similar to that highlighted in the previous "Orient Express" post where we find that the Centuries of European exploitation and colonization and the later wars have acted to stunt the development of African knowledge. So as the Times points out:

In Africa, there is one medical doctor for every 40,000 people, but one traditional healer for every 500.

But the traditional healers were put in positions where they could not expand their knowledge to the modern situation.

Another important issue is communal breast feeding:

Polygamy is legal in Cameroon, and a chieftain might have 30 or 40 wives, Mr. Biatcha said, because wealthy men routinely marry the wives of male relatives who have died. It is common for the wives — or even friends — to help out by nursing each other’s infants. In fact, it is an essential service if a mother has to go to work or take a trip into the city.

In such a situation education is most important. Just as the women feel the social "need" to help out each other in this manner, they also need to be aware of their status. The challenge is the tap into the community spirit and where it is present work to remove the stigma of being HIV positive which would then remove a huge barrier to finding out one's status as a means of protecting the community.

So to close, I want to stress that one should not think that it is African traditions that are responsible for HIV transmissions. It is clear to anyone looking that many of the traditions discussed here can be seen in any American state (including the sharing of breast milk). What is at the root here is the lack of understanding of the importance of sterilization and the understanding of the disease. It is the lack of education, another by-product of the colonialism that is spreading HIV.

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