|Buffeted by drought and famine. Plagued by poverty. Overwhelmed by the grim reaper of AIDS. How did this happen?|
It's one of the most diverse and beautiful continents in the world. A cradle of civilization, home to thousands of unique plant and animal species. Vast plains of productive crop land. Home to thousands of diverse ethnic groups with rich cultural legacies.
Unfortunately, the story of Africa includes more than beauty, diversity and potential. Africa is and has been exploited by opportunists. Ripped for centuries by national and tribal upheaval.
Buffeted by droughts and famine. Plagued by poverty. And now, overwhelmed by the grim reaper of AIDS.
How did this happen? How could one gifted continent suffer so much for so long a period of time?
Unfortunately, for many in the Western world, the question can be academic. Africa could lose half of its population, and it would not affect us. Wildlife species could become extinct, and we would still have our local zoo and adventure TV shows. Food shortages in Africa do not translate into food shortages in North America.
Africa is far away. It's not that we North Americans don't want or try to careit just seems that there are so many more pressing things here that need attending to.
But Africa is dying and needs help. Who will give it? Consider how sub-Saharan Africa got in the state she is in now, and then ask what can be done to help this desperate continent.
AIDS -- Where Did It Come From?
HIV viruses have probably existed in Africa for thousands of years, living quietly in the monkeys and great apes of the jungle with few visible symptoms.
Humans have hunted and eaten these animals for thousands of years as well. So why, suddenly, in the late 20th century, have these viruses emerged as one of the most devastating human plagues in history?
Some Christians claim HIV is God's judgment on homosexuals. But in sub-Saharan Africa, with over 30 million HIV-infected people, AIDS is everyone's disease.
To understand the real cause of the African AIDS crisis we must examine how several factors have converged to create the best possible environments for one of the worst possible diseases.
Before the age of colonization, sub-Saharan Africa was a vast and impenetrable wilderness inhabited by tribes and nations living in relative isolation. There were notable empires and kingdoms, such as Benin (beginning in the 12th century). Yet unlike Europe and Asia, no empire had conquered the limitless stretches of central and southern Africa's jungle and grasslands. No single language or road system encouraged mixing of peoples -- until the coming of the Europeans.
The European Conquest
Exploitation and trade in Africa is nothing new. For millennia, merchants from civilizations in the middle east made the trip across the Sahara, taking gold and slaves from the interior of west Africa to the civilizations of the east and north and bringing back textiles and other finished goods.
Other ancient trade routes existed through the Red Sea and from the Indian Ocean ports, where Muslim countries engaged in the slave trade from the ninth to the 19th centuries.
Beginning in the 15th century, sporadic raids by Europeans soon gave way to regular commerce. There is debate as to how willingly Africans initially participated in the slave trade, but the record of history is that when they realized the benefits of doing so, they cooperated with Europeans to sell neighboring tribes and enemies into slavery.
Nzinga Mbemba, ruler of the Kongo Kingdom, converted to Christianity in 1491. Initially, he complained when the Portuguese captured some of his subjects for slaves. But he quickly learned that he could trade slaves for rifles to resist attacks from his neighbors and to expand his kingdom.
The first Catholic missionaries came to central Africa from Portugal in 1458. In 1652, a Dutch expedition of 90 Calvinist settlers founded a settlement on the Cape of Good Hope, but the first official Protestant mission in Africa was not established on the Cape until 1792.
Some missionaries, such as David Livingstone, combined conversion with exploration and geography. Besides offering salvation, education and literacy, missionaries provided another link between African rulers and European rulers who might have arms or other commodities to sell.
European travelers increased the understanding of geography, resources and climate. This information (although sometimes inaccurate) fueled European ideas of controlling Africa.
In the latter half of the 1800s, no longer content with alliances, trading colonies and protectorates, the British and French established administrative hierarchies with
Europeans on the top and Africans on the bottom. Germany, Italy and Belgium added their bids to the European race to take over Africa. This culminated in Africa's partition at the Berlin Conference of 1884.
The colonizing nations used different ruling styles in Africa. The French favored a centralized form of colonial rule, making little effort to involve local rulers. The British colonial style, by contrast, employed indirect rule through the local Emirs and chiefs. By the end of the 19th century, Europeans were straddling the continent with railways and roads in place.
Native rulers either learned new strategies or fell from power, depending on their ability to acquire new technology, to communicate effectively and to cooperate with and to submit to the Europeans.
The Impact of Colonialism
The effects of colonization on Africa were monumental. No aspect of African society was left unchanged.
The slave trade brought about the deaths or deportations of some 28 million people between 1650 and 1900. The Atlantic slave trade reached its peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries due to the demand of southern American plantations. Slavery was comparable to the plague in Europe, permanently weakening the continent of Africa, and leading to its colonization by Europeans in the 19th century. Slavery was a major factor in creating the racism from which Africans still suffer.
Displacement. European settlers often took the best farmland, forcing the indigenous populations into less productive areas.
Urbanization. Europeans created centers of industry and commerce, attracting displaced and impoverished people in search of income, but diminishing ancient tribal and national identities.
Common languages. Tribes previously divided by language were brought together through the use of French or English. Later communication advances such as mail, telegraph, telephone and radio further eroded cultural barriers -- and further diminished tribal identities.
Transportation. Previously isolated populations were connected by roads, railroads and later, trucks and automobiles.
Mining. In the quest for gold and diamonds, European companies needed cheap labor. African men were -- and still are -- willing to leave their families and live in large hostels for months at a time. Transient workers attract large prostitution communities.
Christianity. Catholic and Protestant missionaries brought schools, western medicine and the gospel of Jesus Christ. But advocates of African culture assert that Christian missionaries were overtly or covertly helping to subjugate the population for their colonial overlords.
Ironically and tragically, sub-Saharan Africa, evangelized by Christianity -- and where Christianity is still the predominant religion -- is the same portion of Africa hit hardest by AIDS. In fact, Muslim northern Africa has fared relatively well, probably due to the strictly enforced morality prevalent in many Islamic states.
For better or worse, Europeans brought Africa into the modern world. European technology, education and communication revolutionized the continent. But, colonialism did great violence to the African social structure of families and tribes. It decimated portions of the environment and wildlife. Colonialism at its most exploitive left segments of the population impoverished, rootless and morally lost.
In the last century, most African countries have returned to self-rule, although the transition has not been easy.
A Return to African Traditions
Today, many Africans advocate a return to traditional African culture and religion, claiming that AIDS is nothing more than a conspiracy -- an invention of Western capitalists, designed to keep Africans in subjection.
African cultural apologists are highly defensive about anything that resembles Western criticism
of their culture. Yet while there are many fine, creative and enduring elements to traditional African culture, there are a number which have unfortunately played a role in giving rise to the AIDS epidemic.
Patriarchy. As in some other cultures, African males control and own everything. This includes when, where and how to have sex, when to conceive children, and whether to wear a condom. Women are virtually powerless to protect themselves from HIV or from conceiving children who will be born with the virus. Women who resist these traditions often find themselves beaten and expelled from their families with no support. Since some cultures encourage polygamy, one less wife is of no consequence.
Another common practice is that of levirate marriage, where a deceased man's brother inherits all of his possessions, including his wife and children (even though he may already have a wife or wives). The widow has no choice but to submit to her brother-in-law's consummation of the relationship.
A Zambian variation of this practice involves ritual cleansing, where it is believed that the widow will be haunted and driven mad by the ghost of her husband, unless she is "cleansed" by having sex with one of his male relatives. In some cases, the widow will cleanse herself by travelling to another city and finding a stranger to sleep with.
Another ingrained custom in rural Zambia involves secret societies of men who share sexual favors with each other's wives. Of course, these superstitious customs greatly increase the spread of HIV.
Risky sexual practices. Sex in African culture is traditionally tailored to please men, with little regard for women. One example is the widespread practice of dry sex, where various herbs are used to remove moisture from the vagina. This is not only painful for women, but lack of lubrication increases the chances of HIV transmission by leading to condom failure, and causing abrasions and bleeding in the vaginal wall.
Another common tradition is that of female genital mutilation or circumcision in which part or all of the clitoris is ritually removed from pre-pubescent girls. This has the effect of decreasing female libido (ostensibly to ensure chastity and fidelity) and increasing vaginal dryness.
Additionally, many men refuse to use condoms. A variety of urban legends circulate that condoms are either ethnic cleansing tools or actually spread HIV themselves.
Dietary practices. Bush meat is a term for anything that hunters kill in the wild, often including monkeys and apes which carry the HIV virus. The meat is traditionally eaten cooked, but is often butchered under unsanitary conditions. Contact with blood from such animals could transmit the disease to humans. Scientists estimate that various forms of HIV have moved from ape to human populations no less than eight times in recent history. Transmissions may have occurred historically, but the relative isolation in which African tribes lived at that time may have prevented an epidemic.
Folk remedies. Many Africans, distrusting Western medicine, consult traditional healers for relief from their AIDS symptoms. In any case, the expensive drug cocktails used to combat AIDS in the Western world are unaffordable for the average African. Sometimes, traditional therapies may bring a certain amount of relief, but with no controls, charlatans and misinformation abound. One widespread superstition has it that sex with a virgin is a sure cure for AIDS, which of course only serves to spread the disease.
Traditional Communities. If there is anything positive about the AIDS crisis, it is the way in which some areas have responded to take advantage of traditional support structures to care for AIDS victims and orphans. Rather than expensive facilities and government programs, many have opted for a return to caregiving from extended families, villages and communities. These are the human networks that were damaged by centuries of colonialism and displacement.
A return to traditional forms of community support and networks would go far to rebuild the fabric of African culture.
Yet in some areas, AIDS has taken such a toll that there is no traditional support left. Orphans, who would normally seek help from extended family, are forced to fend for themselves.
HIV is constantly mutating. And in Africa, where new varieties of the virus have been transmitted from monkeys to humans, medical researchers are hard pressed to keep up with the changes. This presents two major challenges for medicine: 1) tests do not detect all strains, and 2) while medical researchers are working to produce an HIV vaccine, it would not necessarily protect against the emerging strains of the virus.
Drugs to treat AIDS and its opportunistic diseases are far more expensive than most Africans can afford. Charities and government programs can provide few of these drugs. And some governments have either been slow to act or publicly denied the effectiveness of certain drugs. The majority of Western pharmaceutical companies have refused to lower prices substantially, or to allow drugs to be manufactured locally and cheaply.
African governments would be in a better position to fight AIDS with drugs if their economies were healthy. But in a vicious cycle, so many able-bodied workers have contracted the virus that it is hurting some economies.
Yet, even if drugs were provided free, it would be hard to administer them under the necessary strict medical supervision. And they would be of little use to AIDS victims who are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. That's why some local charities have made food their first priority. But in Africa, good nutrition is increasingly elusive.
A severe and ongoing food shortage fuels the escalating AIDS crisis. Nearly 15 million people face starvation in Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. The immediate cause of this famine is drought -- in this case the failure of two successive years of rainy seasons. But drought alone is not the entire reason for food shortages.
Most African countries are not self-sufficient when it comes to food production and must rely on imports to make up the shortfall. Even in years of sufficient rainfall, a food shortage could happen if a country -- or the people in the country -- did not have enough money to buy food.
One of the best -- and least expensive -- ways of alleviating the symptoms of AIDS is through improved nutrition, yet the disease has taken such a toll on farm workers that there are food shortages.
Much of African subsistence farming is done by women -- who account for sixty percent of AIDS cases in southern Africa. Seven million agricultural workers in 25 African nations have died of AIDS since 1985, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.
Unfortunately, some of the blame for these problems falls on African governments. While Angola brings in huge revenues from oil exports, the International Monetary Fund estimates that in 2001 almost 900 million dollars of this money simply disappeared -- three times the amount of humanitarian aid supplied this year. In Angola, 1.5 million people are suffering from malnutrition.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has transferred most white-owned farms to blacks who have neither the background in farming, nor the money to buy seed and fertilizer. As a result, food production has dropped dramatically. Furthermore, the government refused to accept aid in the form of genetically modified grain -- and much of the aid it did accept went to Mugabe's political supporters. Six million people in Zimbabwe are suffering from food shortages.
Swaziland's King Mswati III attempted to purchase a 45 million dollar jet aircraft this year, in spite of the fact that 40 percent of adults in his country are HIV positive, and nearly 300,000 are suffering from malnutrition.
Other contributory factors to the current famine include floods, civil strife, displaced populations and industrial work forces decimated by the AIDS epidemic. The picture becomes even more bleak when growing numbers of infirm people and AIDS orphans are added.
These overwhelming problems combine to make malnutrition perpetually widespread in Africa -- the most undernourished population in the world.
Some Encouraging News
In the midst of this bleak picture, Uganda stands out as a beacon of hope. In the last decade, Uganda has brought its HIV infection rate down by about 30 percent in rural areas and 50 percent in urban areas. This astonishing turnaround has been accomplished not by using expensive drugs or vaccines, but by encouraging sexual abstinence and fidelity.
This is one instance in which cultural traditions are having a positive effect, as traditional values among tribes found in Uganda encourage women to be virgins at marriage.
Additionally, the government has disseminated its message of fidelity and abstinence through Christian churches and Muslim mosques, bringing religious leaders on board to work in their communities.
Uganda has also had a head start. It was one of the first African governments to declare the disease a national crisis. It adopted a vigorous national plan to combat AIDS as early as 1992.
Ugandan health official Tayebwa Katureebe says: "First, abstain from sex. If you cannot abstain, stick to one partner. If you can't stick to one partner, then you have to use a condom. But be sure that condoms are not 100 percent effective."
While condoms have played a role in Uganda's prevention efforts, the more important message is about abstinence and monogamy.
Could such a strategy work elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa? Time will tell, but other nations have not acted as quickly -- nor do they all have the same cultural predisposition toward abstinence and monogamy.
What Can We Do?
Even with some successes, and with the successful work of charities such as World Vision (see "AIDS in Africa -- the Eve of Destruction?" in our March/April 2002 issue), the AIDS crisis in Africa is far from over. In fact, it will probably get much worse.
While awareness and responsiveness among American Christians show some signs of growth, much more help and action is needed.
There are several things to do:
Support a Christian Charity. There are many to choose from. You may wish to sponsor a child, or simply send a donation. See the accompanying sidebar for a list of African AIDS relief charities. In addition, Christians can show their support for President Bush's global AIDS initiative.
Help Proclaim the Gospel in Africa. It should be obvious that Christian morality would be of great help in combatting the spread of HIV. But victims need the hope of the gospel just as much. Plain Truth Ministries is one of many ministries actively involved in supplying printed materials and Bibles for several ministries in Africa.
Pray for Africa. Even if you can do nothing else, you can have a major impact by asking God to alleviate the suffering in Africa. It is clear that this crisis is too great for humans to solve on our own.
How to Help
Numerous charities, including faith-based charities, work both domestically and internationally to combat HIV/AIDS through education, prevention and treatment.
440 R Street, N.W.
E-mail: [email protected]
161 Cherry Street
New Canaan, CT 06840
Phone: (800) 486-4357
151 Ellis Street NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30303-2440
Catholic Relief Services
209 West Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-3443
155 Plan Way
Warwick, RI 02886
E-mail: [email protected]
353 West Lancaster Avenue
Wayne, PA 19087
E-mail: [email protected]
Mennonite Central Committee
21 South 12th Street
P.O. Box 500
Akron, PA 17501-0500
E-mail: [email protected]
P.O. Box 3000
Boone, NC 28607
Phone (828) 262-1980
E-mail: [email protected]
P.O. Box 9716
Federal Way, WA 98063-9716