Americans sometimes think the main question facing those involved with AIDS in Africa is whether they have access to antiretroviral drugs. For American Catholics, it seems the main question is whether or not to use condoms to prevent AIDS. However, these are not the most pivotal concerns for Africans, including African Catholics. It is more difficult to summarize African perspectives in a single sentence, and partly because of this, most of us don't know what they are.
We should. Two-thirds of the world's AIDS burden is in Africa. A careful review of African writings reveals that Africans and Westerners do not always view the world with the same questions, concerns and emphases. Before we suggest--and fund--programs to control AIDS in Africa, we need to be aware of how Africans understand their own epidemic. A good starting place is the writings of three African priests.
In 1992, Fr. Laurenti Magesa published "AIDS and Survival in Africa: A Tentative Reflection." This was the last chapter in a collection of essays by African authors titled Moral and Ethical Issues in African Christianity, published only in Africa. Fr. Magesa is a Catholic priest and moral theologian, sometimes serving as a parish priest in Tanzanian villages, sometimes teaching in African or U.S. universities.
He begins with an observation that is still true 12 years later: "Two distinct tendencies characterize discourse on AIDS in Africa. One tendency caricatures the continent and all but defines Africa in terms of the epidemic.... The other [recognizes] AIDS is a problem 'with social and political causes and hence in theory resoluble.'"
He then suggests three ways to understand AIDS in Africa--three "cosmologies." The first is the traditional one, where people see AIDS as a matter of magic and taboo, with the appropriate response being ritual. While this view still clearly influences how people behave, it is "inadequate from the contemporary standpoint ... There can be no going back completely to that cosmological view." The third cosmology is the modern view, which sees AIDS as linked to sexual activity, with the appropriate response being sexual continence. While this is clearly a reasonable goal, in 1992 Fr. Magesa doubted that it was the predominant cosmology of most Africans. The number of AIDS cases was--and still is--rising across the continent; the direct link between AIDS and sexual activity, and the response to limit sexual activity, had clearly not yet happened.
Between these two cosmologies, Fr. Magesa proposes a second approach, one that sees AIDS as "directly linked to sexual activity," but with people responding in a "confused" or "muddled" way. "In response to the threat of certain death caused by the disease, [their] behavior is not appropriate; it indicates nonchalance or even helplessness." It is this cosmology, "the confused view," that Fr. Magesa sees as predominating in Africa today.
The priest goes on to consider which countries are most affected by AIDS. His discussion of "the AIDS map of Africa" leads back directly to why people might be confused. While "massive sociopolitical upheavals" and poverty both are important in the spread of AIDS, he says, these factors alone cannot account for why some regions are more heavily affected than others. He then proposes that religion is an important factor: places with low AIDS prevalence "have either a predominantly Muslim or a non-Western (deeply indigenous) Christian influence." In contrast, places with high AIDS prevalence "have a predominantly Western Christian influence."
The point is not that the doctrines or practices of Islam are more AIDS-protective than those of Christianity; they are in fact similar. Rather, Islam "adapted itself more readily and much more thoroughly to significant aspects of African traditional view of sex and sexuality." Christianity, on the other hand, "was overwhelmed by its Western cultural medium, and negated and undermined in real life what it taught in theory. …