Religion and AIDS in Africa

Religion and AIDS in Africa

Religion and AIDS in Africa

Religion and AIDS in Africa


The African AIDS epidemic has sparked fierce debate over the role of religion. Some scholars and activists argue that religion is contributing to the spread of HIV and to the stigmatization of people living with AIDS. Others claim that religion reduces the spread of HIV and promotes care and support for the sick and their survivors.

Religion and AIDS in Africaoffers the first comprehensive empirical account of the impact of religion on the AIDS epidemic. Jenny Trinitapoli and Alexander Weinreb draw upon extensive fieldwork in Malawi, including hundreds of interviews with religious leaders and lay people, and survey data from 26 other sub-Saharan African countries. Their research confirms the importance of religious narratives and institutions in everything related to AIDS in Africa. Among other key findings, Trinitapoli and Weinreb show that a combination of religious and biomedical approaches to prevention reduces risk most effectively; that a significant minority of religious leaders encourage condom use; that Christian congregations in particular play a crucial role in easing suffering among the sick and their dependents; and that religious spaces in general are vital for disseminating information and developing new strategies for HIV prevention and AIDS mitigation.

For anyone wishing to move beyond the rhetoric and ideology that plague debates about one of the most challenging crises of our time,Religion and AIDS in Africais the authoritative account. It will change the way readers think about religious life and about AIDS in the region.


Our initial exposure to the AIDS epidemic in Africa came during the late 1990s, first in Kenya and then in Malawi. Of course, we’d read about AIDS in popular literature and somewhat more systematically in graduate courses prior to ever setting foot in Africa. But it was only after first setting foot on “that Dark Continent” (as one of our mothers tactlessly put it) that we became aware of the magnitude of the presence of AIDS. Conversations about AIDS, or casual references to it, began to take place wherever we were, as if shadowing us: on the street, in offices and small businesses, while waiting in line at the bank or post office, on crowded matatus (minibuses). These conversations included an increasingly diverse cast of characters: local researchers, village headmen, teachers, hazy-eyed drunks drinking homebrew (sometimes these three were one and the same), a gamut of African women—from reserved and traditional to vocal and flamboyantly modern—and religious leaders. And all were set to a backdrop of rapidly expanding AIDS-related campaigns and growing public awareness. This is not to say that people talked only about AIDS—far from it. It was simply that they talked about it a lot.

A few themes emerged very clearly from our conversations. One, which didn’t surprise us, included heartfelt laments about the deaths of friends or family members, in particular people in their 20s and 30s, the age groups most affected by AIDS in terms of mortality. “Today’s world has turned against younger people,” said one elderly informant in Kenya in 1997. “We are left dying of hunger in front of our houses while younger energetic people die,” said another. Other themes, which surprised us more but in retrospect shouldn’t have, moved far beyond these lamentations. We heard people speak about friends’ and family members’ deaths not having been in vain because they had been “saved.” We heard that people who had been “born again” were less sexually active outside marriage, implying that a personal religious state could lower the likelihood of infection. We began to hear new care-centered discourses, often framed in profoundly religious vocabulary and emanating from churches and mosques. We also heard that extended families and community-based networks were reconstituting themselves to more effectively care for surviving orphans and others affected by an AIDS-related sickness or death, sustained by these . . .

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