Tuesday, November 25, 2008

HIV/AIDS and Botswana’s Battle


In the 1990’s I used to feel like a blanket of sadness covered the country. People were dying everyday it seemed. No family was immune from loss, including mine. You wouldn’t see someone for awhile and then you didn’t want to ask as it was likely they were dead. We went to so many funerals. Achingly sad funerals of people far too young to die. I think about all of those dead and how if they could have lasted just a few more years they would have been saved. Now the government gives out free ARV treatment, so those same people would likely have survived and they would still be with us today.


The government in so many ways must be applauded for their efforts regarding HIV/AIDS. Former President Mogae, unlike many presidents around the world, never hid the problem. We are a small country, only 1.6 million, and he knew if nothing was done we could perish, all of us. That’s how it felt at that time anyway.


I was under the impression that things were getting better, but in yesterday’s Daily News (the state newspaper) the headline reads “Botswana leads in HIV/AIDS Prevalence”. According to a speaker from Scottish Livingstone Hospital in Molepolole in the south of the country, Botswana is still number one in Southern Africa for the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. I found the article so disappointing. I really thought we were getting better.


Part of the problem might be a disconnect between traditional practices and modern life. PSI Botswana is running an advertising campaign about ‘the small house’ and how it fuels HIV infection. Traditionally it was accepted to have concubines and this is what the small house refers to. But there were rules that governed this behaviour. What has happened now is the traditional practice is maintained without the rules, which were lost along the way.

When a young woman gets married she is taken to the side to sit with the older, married women to be told the ways to be a good wife. Among the advice is that a married woman should never ask a husband who is coming home late where he has been. Again there were reasons for this. Those reasons have been forgotten, but men have held tight to the practice. A wife who queries a husband arriving late in the night is a bad wife needing a sharp clap or a visit to her uncles for a complaint.


Both of these practices lead to concurrent relationships which is one of the drivers of HIV/AIDS in the country. Culture is often a sacred cow that should not be questioned or tampered with, but sometimes cultural practices that are causing harm should be dropped or at the very least questioned and better understood.

Botswana’s Vision 2016 has as one of its goals zero new HIV infections by 2016. Something is not working if after spending millions of Pula we are still having the highest prevalence rate in the region. We better change tactics if we want to reach that 2016 goal.

10 comments:

Selma said...

Hearing about HIV/AIDS from the point of view of someone who lives in Africa offers such an important perspective. I am heartbroken to hear you have lost so many loved ones. I guess changing the face of tradition is a difficult battle to fight but such a necessary one.

To my horror I read a piece last week saying HIV was on the rise in Sydney due to complacency over the easy access to HIV treatments. I don't understand that way of thinking. Surely prevention is always better than cure. Your government sounds very forward thinking. Ours, I fear, has closed the door.

Lauri said...

I must say even here the free ARVs have made people complacent. It costs the government so much money to run the programme too.

Sheila Damodaran said...

Would you help me understand what does the traditional practice of not asking the husband where he has been, and whencombined with rules look like?

Lauri said...

Hi Sheila
The answer I've received regarding this is that in the past men, sometimes within their regiments, were required to do things that if women knew might put them in danger. I'm not sure how true this is but that was the answer that I got.

Also, there is a way of interacting in Setswana culture which is the antithesis to how I was raised. It is the thought that telling people bad things harms them. It is almost seen as a selfless act to keep your badness to yourself.I know in western cultures honesty in relationships is paramount, but I also see the Setswana point of view. Sometimes information is given by a person to relieve their own guilt and it only serves to burden the other.

Sheila Damodaran said...

My that's quite something. Thanks Lauri. That was really helpful.

I'd not seen it that way at all and it feels rather noble (almost romantic) indeed. I suppose deep within the practice it includes, wives coming across as placing unwavering levels of trust on their husband. Could that be the case too?

This has all the signs and foundations of creating lasting relationships between the couples. So what could have shifted it?

And why were multiple relations allowed within the traditional cultural practices (did I hear you say that so far)?

Lauri said...

Sheila I interrogated my husband further on this topic after your question yesterday. So much in Setswana culture is maintaining peace and avoiding conflict. The traditional practice of not asking the husband was, according to my husband, primarily to avoid conflict. I don't think it was so much about trust. Also, marriages were traditionally arranged so perhaps emotions in some cases were different than modern marriages.

In Botswana right now we have almost an epidemic of something dubbed 'passion killings'. Men kill their wives or girlfriends and then kill themselves. I think this is part of the whole difficult process of cultural change. In most cases the woman wants to leave him or has another concurrent relationship. I think there is fury that the man is no longer the one in complete control.

Anyway, this whole topic is very complex and I'm certainly not the one with the answers. I only have my observations and lots of questions too.

Anonymous said...

The point of the pre-marriage counselling of the bride by married women and of the groom by married men is to educate the newlyweds about marriage.
My interpretation of 'a man is not to be asked where from' is based on the premise that if you have to ask there is already a problem. A wife should should know where he is going before he goes out. I believe it is also to avoid confrontation and to grow the trust that the partners have in each other. Besides, if he's late home, its unlikely that the question will be,'Darling, would you be so kind as to tell me why you are late?'

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