Morality, Hope and Grief: Anthropologies of AIDS in Africa/The Land Is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya

By Smith, Daniel Jordan | African Studies Review, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Morality, Hope and Grief: Anthropologies of AIDS in Africa/The Land Is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya


Smith, Daniel Jordan, African Studies Review


HEALTH AND DISEASE

Hansjorg Dilger and Ute Luig, eds. Morality, Hope and Grief: Anthropologies of AIDS in Africa. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010. χ + 354 pp. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Contributors. Index. $95.00. Cloth. $37.95. Paper.

Paul Wenzel Geissler and Ruth Jane Prince. The Land Is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010. xix + 423 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $95.00. Cloth. $39.95. Paper.

These books, part of Berghahn's "Epistemologies of Healing" series, offer empirically rich and theoretically innovative ethnographic accounts of social life in Africa in the era of AIDS. Quite different in their orientations-Geissler and Prince provide a detailed monograph focused on one small community in western Kenya, while the Dilger and Luig edited volume surveys many settings through fourteen contributed essays-both books speak to the deep and complex interconnections between AIDS and wider arenas of social life. Particularly compelling is the way each volume analyzes the relationship between AIDS and broader processes of societal change with which the epidemic is associated. As depicted in these books, the causes and consequences of AIDS (as they are explained anthropologically, but even more significantly as they are experienced emotionally and socially by people in Africa) epitomize many contemporary problems and anxieties. Yet these books also emphasize that lifestyles linked with AIDS are symbolic of numerous opportunities and aspirations associated with modern life. Readers of these volumes will learn of the conflicts, contradictions, and ambivalences spurred by the epidemic, but also of countless examples of hope, resilience, and care-giving, even in the face of tremendous hardship and daunting challenges.

In addition to their broad examination of the intertwining of Africans' experiences of AIDS and associated social changes, a theme that connects these two books is their extended and sophisticated treatment of morality as an integral aspect not only of the AIDS epidemic, but also of every dimension of the social responses it has produced. While the relevant scholarly literature is replete with evidence that interpretations of AIDS are tied to widespread stigma, these volumes push well beyond recognizing the moral underpinnings of stigma. Instead, they reveal the social-relational nature of morality as it is produced, interpreted, contested, reproduced, and sometimes transformed in relationships along lines of gender and generation, inflected by exchange and inequality, but also by duty and desire. A great merit of these books, and one of their most important contributions, is that rather than discussing morality in the abstract, they examine the ways in which morality is empirically and theoretically tied to sociality, as illustrated through rich and compelling ethnography.

A second shared contribution of these books is their attention to death, mourning, and the social consequences of AIDS mortality. The third of three sections in Morality, Hope and Grief includes five essays that examine issues such as the consequences of AIDS for funeral practices, care-giving for the dying, the social position of widows, the plight of orphans, and the ways that religious mourning and remembrance of the dead are tied to (re)negotiations about the structure and meaning of kinship ties. In The Land Is Dying, Geissler and Prince (who also have a chapter in the edited volume), provide graphic and moving accounts of families coping with death and dying. Rather than shying away from the details of death, they provide intimate portrayals of the physical and emotional tasks of caring for the sick, washing dead bodies, and navigating the conflicts among kin that death inevitably brings to the surface, while also presenting examples of human courage and compassion in the face of immense suffering. …

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