Institutt for sosialantropologi

Our culture is the best cure for HIV/AIDS

A study of the escalating problem of HIV/AIDS in Zanzibar.


Supervicer: Associate professor Frode Storås

This thesis addresses the escalating problem of AIDS in Zanzibar; a Muslim, sex-segregating society where HIV/AIDS – normatively speaking- should not be on the rise. First, I pay attention to an organised group of people who are living with HIV/AIDS (ZAPHA+). I show that rather than disclosing their diagnosis, they rely on strategies of concealment and avoidance. One reason for this closure is a stigmatising ideology in society which links HIV/AIDS with ‘promiscuity’ and ‘looseness’ through the local concept of malaya (‘prostitute’). The ZAPHA+ members fear further to be discriminated in terms of loosing customers. And in accordance with local understandings, personal matters, in particular those associated with assumed or real immorality should not be exposed.
A main prevention message in Zanzibar declares that: “Our culture is the best cure for HIV/AIDS. Observe our culture and religion in order to stop the spread of the disease”. By deconstructing local conceptions of ‘our culture’, I show that there is considerable variation in sexual practices in life as lived, as opposed to the normative ideology referred to in the prevention message. In order to manoeuvre in this many-faceted sexual field, people stress the importance of discretion, secrecy and conformity.
The view of ‘our culture’ as protective against AIDS implies that risk and blame must be located elsewhere. I show that through locally constructed discourses, people blame “Mainlanders”, “Italians”, “malaya”, and “spirits” in the time of AIDS. These othering-discourses draw on pre-existing networks of meaning deriving from specific social, historical, economical and political conditions. As a result, AIDS is not seen as a problem concerning people who “observe our culture and religion”, understood as “virgins” or the “properly married”. However, a majority of the women of ZAPHA+ contracted HIV while married from what they argue was an unfaithful husband. “Our culture”, understood as everyday practice, does in other words not protect people from HIV/AIDS.
As long as the rhetoric in current prevention messages highlights normative ideals rather than addressing people’s lives as lived, processes of silencing and othering are upheld. This, I believe, can help explain why HIV/AIDS is on the increase on the islands.