[asa] Fwd: REVIEW: 'Review: "Religion, AIDS, and the Negotiation of "Modernity""'

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Thu Dec 10 2009 - 21:34:44 EST

I forward this review without commentary.

>>> "Carsten Timmermann (h-sci-med-tech)" <smtedit@MAIL.H-NET.MSU.EDU> 12/10/2009 6:26 PM >>>
Subject: H-Net Review Publication: 'Review: "Religion, AIDS, and ...
From: "H-Net Staff" <revhelp@MAIL.H-NET.MSU.EDU>
Date: Wed, December 9, 2009 6:02 pm

Felicitas Becker, Wenzel Geissler, eds. Aids and Religious Practice
in Africa. Leiden Brill, 2009. vi + 404 pp. $184.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Matt Heaton (Virginia Tech)
Published on H-Africa (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Brett L. Shadle

Review: "Religion, AIDS, and the Negotiation of "Modernity""

This volume of collected essays provides needed perspective on the
diversity of ways that individual Africans and their religious
communities of choice understand and cope with HIV/AIDS. Consisting
of twelve chapters, an introduction by the editors, and a brief
conclusion by John Lonsdale, the collective emphasis of the book is
on how discourses concerning AIDS within religious communities in
East and southern Africa (with one outlying chapter on West Africa)
have become arenas through which Africans are negotiating new
definitions of the "self" in the context of "modernity," a term only
nebulously defined throughout the text. Through case studies
involving Christian and Muslim communities, the authors illustrate,
however, that religious discourses on AIDS are not strictly
reactionary: they do not necessarily work against the "modernization"
project or dissociate from it. Rather these communities and the
individuals within them are striving mightily to make sense of the
very tangible negative effects, in particular AIDS, that have
accompanied "modernity" in African settings, and to forge new paths
for themselves in what are often rapidly changing and, in some cases,
disintegrating social structures.

For many Africans, AIDS is understood not simply as a biomedical
phenomenon preventable by practicing safe sex and treatable with
anti-retroviral therapy (ART), as it is so often presented by
governmental and international aid organizations, but as one aspect
of a much more broadly recognized spectrum of social decay that has
been afflicting African societies at least since the onset of
European colonial rule more than one hundred years ago. The
widespread poverty, underdevelopment, poor governance, and overall
weakening of "traditional" social structures that have accompanied
African societies' resulting encounter with "modernity" are often
seen as part and parcel of the AIDS epidemic. The "downward spiral"
that has occurred as these social ills exacerbate each other begs for
holistic explanations and proactive agendas beyond those that the
Western, secular worldview can provide.

Several chapters note the effects that seeing AIDS within a larger
pattern of social decline has had on the ways that Christian
communities and individuals understand AIDS. Heike Behrend
illustrates the extent to which these conditions of generalized
decline and widespread death have led to a resurgence in beliefs in
the presence of cannibal witches in western Uganda. The Catholic
Church has provided some assistance to anti-witchcraft movements in
the area. Ruth Prince shows in her chapter on widow inheritance
practices among the Luo that the general social and economic decline
associated with "modernity" has sparked widespread debate in western
Kenya about the cause of AIDS. "Traditionalists" argue that God has
brought AIDS to punish the Luo for abandoning the old ways, notably
the practice of widow inheritance (_tero_) whereby a widow must sleep
with another man in order to cleanse her household of the ritual
uncleanliness of her husband's death. "Saved" Luo women who have
converted into Pentecostal Christianity, however, argue that such
practices as tero contribute to the spread of HIV. Catrine
Christiansen's chapter on widows in Uganda makes a similar
observation and adds that the "Saved" status of born-again Christian
widows makes them "brides of Christ" who are not required to engage
in such practices. Such a religious stance allows widows to protect
themselves from the risk of AIDS and to forge some independence from
kinship networks, but only in the context of what amounts to a pledge
of abstinence.

Similar constructions of AIDS occur in Muslim contexts. Nadine
Beckham portrays attitudes toward AIDS in Zanzibar as directly linked
to non-Muslim influences, particularly immigration and political
hegemony from mainland Tanzania in conjunction with the rise of a
Western-oriented tourist industry. These influences have brought a
decline in adherence to "traditional" Islamic mores in Zanzibar,
which has caused God to bring AIDS as a punishment. Felicitas
Becker's chapter makes the same linkages between AIDS, "outsiders,"
and God's wrath in Muslim communities in mainland Tanzania, adding
that many here are particularly skeptical of official, scientific
explanations of the causes of AIDS given that science, technology,
and the state have historically caused more harm than good when taken
together, as in the failed "villagization" schemes of the 1970s. This
has led some Muslim Tanzanians to reject ART, even when available,
out of a belief that it might actually make them sicker.

Although most religious communities tend to explain AIDS within this
larger climate of general social decline, the authors make clear that
religious responses to AIDS should not be generalized. Negotiations
between "traditional" and "modern" explanations of AIDS cause
fractures and fissures both within and between religious communities
that make it impossible to define the "religious" response to AIDS in
uniform terms. Beckman notes that many Muslims choose to see their
HIV positive status not as a curse from God, but rather as a trial: a
challenge to be coped with and possibly overcome. Jonas Svenson lays
out the tensions in Islamic education circles in Kisumu, Kenya, about
how to handle the subjects of fornication and condom usage in
relation to AIDS prevention measures. Most Muslims recognize
fornication as a sin, but many realize that it is a sin they will
likely commit. Condoms are seen as promoting fornication, and are
therefore not acceptable to many Muslims, but some teachers are
beginning to accept the use of condoms within marriage. Still others
are beginning to suggest that their use is acceptable for fornication
as well, the argument being that if sex outside marriage is always a
sin, then using a condom does not make it more of a sin.

Christian communities are also negotiating religious with
"traditional" and "modern" explanations of AIDS. Hansjorg Dilger
discusses the interplay between these belief systems in a particular
Neo-Pentecostal church in Dar es Salaam. Faith healers within the
church make strong linkages between destructive spirits (_pepo_) that
can infect the body in the form of HIV or other viruses biomedically
defined. This mixing of indigenous conceptions of illness with
Christian faith healing is also noted in Isak Niehaus's chapter on
the Zionist church in South Africa. Niehaus's main point, however, is
to draw connections between AIDS and leprosy, which frames Zionist
understanding of AIDS both from a biblical perspective and a
historical one. AIDS patients are seen in this context as highly
contaminating and occupying a zone between life and death, leading to
high levels of witchcraft and zombie imagery.

While religious communities are increasingly being seen as offering a
necessary and valuable critique of lackluster national and
international responses to the AIDS crisis, several chapters in this
book point out the caveats associated with Christian and Muslim
approaches to AIDS. Jo Sadgrove's contribution on transactional
sexual relationships among university students in Uganda discusses
how many Pentecostal women engage in "de-toothing" relationships with
older, more financially secure men whereby sex or the prospect of
future sex is traded for the material needs that are necessary to
support themselves through school. At the same time, however, they
maintain a born-again status within the church that is based in part
on a pledge of abstinence. Such circumstances force women who enjoy
the community of the church and the social marker that "saved" status
represents to keep their sexual activities secret for fear of
attracting charges of hypocrisy. Rijk van Dijk's chapter makes clear
the "social distancing" that Pentecostal churches engender with
non-Pentecostals in Botswana through discussion of Pentecostal hair
salon owners' ambivalence about providing their non-Pentecostal
employees rubber gloves to protect themselves when working on

The final two chapters focus on the efforts of religious communities
to provide AIDS counseling to their congregations. Marian Burchardt's
chapter discusses the synergy that exists between Pentecostal notions
of breaking with the past and starting life anew with the need of HIV
counselors to help patients to cope with the life-changing nature of
their illness. Vinh-Kim Nguyen chronicles the transition of voluntary
counseling and testing services in West African settings from the
struggle to get people to discuss openly their experiences with
HIV/AIDS toward helping patients to access ARTs and to manage their
treatment regimes as medications have become more available,
illustrating again the positive side of religious community as an
outlet for much needed services.

Lonsdale's conclusion makes some historical comparisons between the
effects of the AIDS pandemic on the African continent today and the
widespread famines that brought such difficult circumstances for much
of East and southern Africa in the late nineteenth century, noting
the prospects for a "repoliticization" of African communities around
the issue of AIDS and through religious organizations. Lonsdale's
hope for this repoliticization is tempered, however, by recognition
of the deepening and variegated fissures emanating in many African
societies as the consequences of the AIDS pandemic become ever more
sharply felt.

Readers may find various shortcomings in this book, as with all
edited collections, depending on the perspective taken. Scholars of
religion may find perturbing the editors' squeamishness about
providing a definition of "religion" and, possibly as a result,
limiting the scope of the book only to perspectives from Christian
and Muslim communities. Those reading from a public health
perspective may be disappointed in the somewhat tangential role that
AIDS itself plays in many of the chapters that focus so much on
seeing AIDS as part of the larger crisis of "modernity." Those
interested in gender and sexuality will be pleased with the prominent
role that female sexuality, gender roles, and empowerment play in
many of the chapters. However, male sexuality is at best an implicit
theme in this book and all sexual relations are discussed exclusively
in terms of heterosexuality. Those with a strong background in the
anthropology of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa will likely find little
new conceptually in these chapters. However, the case studies are
illuminating and effective. An audience with little background on
African perceptions and responses to AIDS will likely find that,
taken together, this collection provides an alternative perspective
on AIDS as a problem more encompassing than simply a syndrome brought
on by a viral infection. This is a perspective that large numbers of
Africans themselves take, although by no means uniformly, and one
that is no doubt extremely relevant, if not central, to any long-term
efforts to combat, control, or cope with AIDS in Africa.

Citation: Matt Heaton. Review of Becker, Felicitas; Geissler, Wenzel,
eds., _Aids and Religious Practice in Africa_. H-Africa, H-Net
Reviews. December, 2009.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=25641

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

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Received on Thu Dec 10 21:35:30 2009

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