The AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa has killed millions, sickened many more, and caused immense social upheaval. While the Great Lakes Region and Southern Africa have been hit hardest, countries such as Nigeria, which has “only” a 4 percent infection rate compared with 20 percent in Botswana, have also suffered terribly from its impact.
In “Our Kind of People: A Continent’s Challenge, a Country’s Hope,’’ Uzodinma Iweala, a Nigerian-born, US-trained doctor, set out to explore how AIDS has affected his country by interviewing local physicians, patients, activists, clergy, and sex workers. He organizes the observations thematically, in chapters with titles such as “Sex,’’ “Death,’’ and “Healing,’’ and manages to get to the big picture: Noting how society shuns AIDS patients and blames them for the “sinful immoral lives they had led,” he draws parallels to what he sees as the stigmatization of the African continent and its people by the West.
“HIV/AIDS and its stories have again brought to the foreground a whole set of images and stereotypes about Africans, our societies, our bodies, our sexualities. Many of these representations of Africa are deployed to elicit sympathy. . . . Often, however, they unknowingly encourage the opposite, distancing and disconnection, because they provide an image . . . to which few people can relate.”
It is a problem with humanitarian, political, and medical consequences, one that can only be resolved by a clear-eyed view of the problem. Iweala observes, “There are too many instances in which egregiously racist beliefs and subtle prejudices have colored both descriptions of Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and the responses to it. There are too many examples of how sensationalism . . . has impeded our understanding of this disease and the people it affects, creating distance where none need exist, making a terrible fantasy of something very real.”
According to Iweala, these preconceptions and misperceptions led to a patronizing arrogance toward Africans taking hold within some of the very organizations committed to helping Africans deal with this, and other, crises. “Those white people, they really don’t think very highly of us at all,” an African employee of a US organization combating poverty in sub-Saharan Africa tells Iweala.
As a result, many of the initial efforts of foreign groups to stanch the spread of AIDS in Africa failed as local customs and sensibilities were not taken into consideration. And Iweala sees how stereotypes about Africans continue to cloud the vision of those who make policy for Western relief organizations in Africa. An AIDS activist he interviews decries the “emotional blackmail” some of these groups use in their fund-raising, portraying Africa as “poor, hungry, [and] beggarly.” This is wrong, she tells Iweala, because “HIV is not a disease of the poor. It’s a disease of the working class.” She continues: “My face won’t bring money. But it should. . . . My face should tell you that if we have access to treatment, we will remain productive.”
Iweala presses the need to improve the access of Africans with HIV/AIDS to antiretroviral medications so they can continue to function within their societies. He reminds us that in the West the disease is becoming a chronic one where in Africa it largely remains fatal. Unless the possibility of recovery and emergence from the epidemic is presented, Africa will never be seen as anything other than a failed continent condemned to eternal suffering. This, in turn, may cause the West to stop trying to help, leading to further suffering and misery that might otherwise be averted.
Iweala’s arguments are well reasoned. By making generous use of the voices of many Africans, Iweala’s writing possesses an immediacy that makes his message powerful and compelling. It is too bad, though, that he has chosen to quote verbatim what is often broken and grammatically incorrect English. This makes dialogues difficult to follow in places and many of the speakers sound uneducated, though clearly they are not. Ironically, this may contribute to the very stereotypes that he rightfully finds so offensive.