Professor Trent Newmeyer
Sociology of AIDS
June 21, 2004
Impact of Culture on the Spread of HIV/AIDS in Kenya
a national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature….a national culture is the whole body of the efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence (Fanon, Frantz).
Culture, even in the twenty first century, has numerous denotations. In various parts of the world, it has been and is still considered to be important for the development of civilization and of people’s minds; a particular society or civilization is considered in relation to its beliefs, ways of life and values. In short, culture plays a crucial role in a groups’ quest for identity and is therefore at the centre of the socio-cultural development of a people, region or even county in terms of identity and politics-it serves as a code of life that must be followed under any circumstances even with an HIV/AIDS epidemic. These observations help illuminate responses to our central thesis: that cultural barriers and the ensuing gender bias have not only perpetuated the spread of HIV/AIDS among women, but are also hindering an effective HIV/AIDS prevention campaign in Kenya. Our position is that HIV/AIDS prevalence is a gendered issue because women in most parts of the developing world, due to the repressive cultural practices women have no power. Furthermore women continue to be betrayed by outdated traditional norms such as widow inheritance, widow cleansing, polygamy and gender inequality, as is the case in parts of Kenya. When these issues may seem to differ, in reality they are intertwined and date back to generations. To make matters worse those infected with HIV, both women and men blame witchcraft as the source of death (McGeary, J. Time Magazine, p, 30). Moreover as Madhu Bala Nath states “myths are also rooted in the nature of denial that is associated with HIV/AIDS. Because HV/AIDS is so frightening, there is a temptation to deny the existence of the disease (2001, p, 32). Such denial plays a large part in sustaining such outdated practices. We should point out from the outset that the current risky practices were at one time seen as strength (pre HIV/AIDS era) since they were really helpful and appropriate for their communities. Among the merits of such traditional practices were, among others, the widow’s security within the household was guaranteed and the orphaned children were guaranteed the extended family support and therefore survival within the community. It was meant to ensure the widow and children never became homeless. According to the Washington Post, In Western Kenya, the custom known as wife inheritance once held an honorable promise: A community would take care of a widow and her children. She did not remarry. Her husband's family simply took responsibility for her. If a brother-in-law could not care for her, then a cousin or a respected outsider would. The inheritor made sure that the widow and her children were fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, protected, kept (Buckley, Stephen. Washington Post, November 8, 1997).
For the purpose of this paper, we take a position that the spread of HIV/AIDS has rendered what were once cultural assets into deadly liabilities particularly towards women and children. That is why there is a need to be creative and embrace alternative rituals that do not involve risky sexual behavior. Our position is that inheritance per se is not bad, but widow inheritance and cleansing that endanger the lives of the widow and the inheritor/cleanser should be discarded. Wife inheritance or wife cleansing involves an inheritor who has his own family. As reported by the Washington Post “he infects his first wife and...