Our Kind of People
In Our Kind of People, novelist Uzodinma Iweala reflects on the damaging misconceptions which shape the way the world sees HIV/AIDS in Africa.
The rhetoric of HIV has “brought to the foreground a whole set of images and stereotypes about Africans, our societies, our bodies, our sexualities”, writes Iweala.
Even as the so-called ‘developed’ world casts a sympathetic eye towards the so called ‘undeveloped’, diseased, poverty stricken African continent, urging medical and political intervention in the name of human rights, equality, and social justice, the ‘developed’ world all too often implies that the humans of Africa are not quite as human or as deserving of dignity, joy and freedom from suffering as those in the ‘developed’ world.
Iweala goes a step further, asserting that the basic structure of this kind of thinking is present in the hearts and minds of people living in Africa too.
HIV has taken on meanings within cultures across the continent, which make the prevention and treatment of the disease difficult to implement. Those who have it are often shunned and shamed because of incorrect ideas about the nature of the disease, how it is spread, and how it can be controlled.
In this work of autobiography, narrative journalism and sociological analysis, Iweala, in the tradition of Franz Fanon, brings to light and debunks these mistaken, dangerous and widely held views about HIV/AIDS.
The basic scaffolding of the book is the interview, where the knee-to-knee flow of conversation prevents the disease and its sufferers from being judged from a distance. Iweala was concerned to “consider the hard truths of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and to impress upon people the urgent need for action in a way that was fundamentally humanizing and empowering for those living in the epicentre of this crisis”.
The initial documenting and subsequent social analysis of interpersonal encounters with people living and witnessing the day-to-day realities of the disease in Nigeria, allows Iweala to build his project in a gradual but purposeful manner. The reader cannot avoid facing uncomfortable and disorienting truths about the disease.
From this close vantage point, myths and illusions are shattered under the pressure of attentive experience-grounded analyses, which show how HIV is not outside but deep within “regular life”.
The first character Iweala meets is the lady-loving Jerome who hides from his positive status. This kind of fearful denial, the author notes, has devastating consequences, promoting the transmission of the disease and preventing its sufferers from seeking out knowledge and medicine which are both life-preserving and life-affirming.
Then Iweala introduces us to Rolake Odetoyinbo, an HIV positive AIDS activist able to find a new enthusiasm for life through the solidarity of HIV support groups. This unity inspired her to form a lobby group campaigning for wider access and availability of ARVs. Iweala left this meeting excited by “her feistiness and aggressive pushback against the status quo, by her desire to reduce the representational distance between people who have HIV and people who do not”.
Next, Iweala introduces us to Hope from Iwerri, who lost a husband to HIV and is herself HIV positive.The brute facts of the immense physical and psychological pain the disease causes is brought home. So too is the fact that it is manageable. Hope continues to live, like anyone else, a life containing many moments of ordinariness. In an assertion of self-dignity, she remarks, “when malaria comes to you, you go to hospital and take drugs; it will stop. Instead of me to have cancer or diabetes, it is better I will be into this problem because it doesn’t disturb me. Nothing. This is just like ordinary sickness.”
Iweala turns to the tremendous stigma that attaches to the disease. Fear makes it as much a disease of community value systems as it is of the human body’s immune system. Those who get it are often seen as wrong-doers, as having done something sinful in the eyes of society or God.
Doctor Çhukwumuanya Igboekwu, working for Physicians for Social Justice in the rural north of Nigeria, relates the story of a policeman who contracted HIV and retreated into silence and denial. He refused treatment, care and love, ringing his death knell prematurely.
The stigma of HIV has a high social impact. It clings to the body, to a person’s character, and even to whole nations of people. This plays out in the global conversation concerning Africa in a destructive way, keeping colonial ideas alive.
Using several examples drawn from the Western media, Iweala shows how ideas about Africa’s inferiority and alleged backwardness, which should be long dead and buried, are repurposed to explain the quick-fire spread of HIV in the so-called “heart of darkness”.
One of the ways this dangerous story is kept going is by associating African sexuality with HIV. The accusation goes: loose sexual patterns and practices increase the risk of HIV/Aids. According to this line of thought, Africans are extremely promiscuous, hence the prevalence of HIV in Africa.
Drawing on the insights of dialogue, this time with a former policeman named Samaila, Iweala debunks both the idea that “African” sexual cultural practices are riskier than any other sexual behaviours, and reveals how these corrosive assumptions creep into general conversation. Iweala mixes storytelling, reportage and socio-cultural criticism to fight these misconceptions.
This book is worth a careful read by South Africans. It manages to instruct, delight and warn its readers: ideas, beliefs, lore and disease give life to one another in ways that can be both harmful and hopeful. The common thread, which stitches all Iweala’s encounters together, is that “the driving force for everyone, it seems, is a profound sense of commitment to the idea of a common humanity….HIV/AIDS, however real, cannot change that”.
Our Kind of People by Uzodinma Iweala is published by HarperCollins.
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