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Musa Dube on the key to addressing the spread of HIV & AIDS

musa dubeMusa W Dube wants to see African Indigenous Religions (hereafter AIR/s) viewed in their own right, arguing that those who view them as awaiting the fulfilment of Christianity have had their minds ‘colonised’, and, along with it, their methods of doing theology. Her article in African Women, Religion and Health, ‘Adinkra! Four Hearts Joined Together: On Becoming Healing-Teachers of African Indigenous Religion/s in HIV & AIDS Prevention’ is a sad indictment of the failure to access and embrace African indigenous cosmology, to the detriment of many of the poorest and most vulnerable on the African continent.

The statistics are baffling. In Dube’s native Botswana over 90% of the population can be considered to have been correctly informed about HIV & AIDS and yet HIV infection rates continue to escalate. Why? Dube argues that approaches to HIV & AIDS have failed to capitalise on the more communal nature of African cosmology.

First, she contends that in its early days, HIV & AIDS ‘remained a distant myth that had nothing to do with the people’ because it had an English name. The disease was discovered from outside and communities failed to mobilise on what merely seemed to be ‘American Ideas of Discouraging Sex’ as some teenagers called it. Dube says, ‘that most AFrican nations have not allowed themselves to officially name HIV & AIDS in African languages that that would speak to AFrican people, who are among the hardest hit by this pandemic. This in itself reflects a colonial mentality; rather than assisting in HIV & AIDS prevention, it has helped doom millions.’ (By the way, there is a Swahili word for AIDS – UKIMWI. It stands for ‘Upungufu wa Kinga Mwilini’, translated ‘deficiency of defences in the body’. I have no idea how broadly it’s used or when it came into usage though. Arthur’s written on the importance of local language here and here.)

Second, she argues that testing methods have focused on the individual, even down to confidentiality procedures. While the intention of such policies may have been to protect individuals, instead they made a ‘heavy contribution to killing both individuals and communities by creating an unprecedented amoung of HIV & AIDS stigma and discrimination.’ While other diseases had been a problem to tackle together, HIV & AIDS became the burden of the individual, shrouded in secrecy, and thus, in shame and fear.

Third, Dube holds that Botswana had the structures to address the pandemic and that they were left unused. For example, When President Festus Mogae declared HIV & AIDS a national disaster, the slogan was ‘war is declared on the pandemic’. However, there was no attempt to engage traditional cultural structures. A declaration of war normally calls for a pits (a compulsory camp meeting of all men) to discuss and understand the enemies’ strength, possible strategies, and the call for protecting the community from the enemies, in this case HIV & AIDS’. No such meeting was arranged.

Fourth, Dube claims that African cosmology provides significant resources for the bringing of healing from HIV & AIDS. In her experience, ill health normally calls the sufferer and their family members to consult with a diviner-healer. This is a participatory process, as the diviner-healer questions the family about their relationships, because ‘unhealthy relationships are held to be an integral part of one’s ill-health… Physical healing of the body is thus accompanied by the healing of all relationships.’ HIV & AIDS is a symptom of social ills beyond ‘individual morality and health;  rather, it is also about the morality and health of our cultural, spiritual, social, economic and political structures. It is about broken relationships within communities and the world. Given that AIR/s approach to health and healing is holistic and focuses on the healing of all relationships, it is clear that the African cosmology has a significant contribution to make to HIV & AIDS prevention.’

Dube believes in transformation and in education. She speaks of calling out harmful cultural perspectives such as widow inheritance, tolerance of multi-sexual partners for men, and the rape of virgins in search of HIV & AIDS healing. She builds her own ideal of how to deal with HIV & AIDS on the foundation of African ethics, that ‘I am because we are and we are because I am.’ It’s about carrying each others cares, acknowledging that ‘a person’s humanity and existence are inseparably united and can be expressed only in relationship to respecting others and being respected by others. Hence a person’s humanity can be realised only through relationships.’ It is in this process of earning respect by first giving it, and of gaining empowerment by empowering others, that Dube believes hold the key to addressing the spread of HIV & AIDS.

Categories: Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

4 replies

  1. Fascinating Tam! Shows up the problems for other cultures with our western individualised approach to things.

  2. Yeah I LOVED this post too! So many problems that I didn’t see, and so many solutions that I never would have thought of! This post really shows up the richness of some of the traditional African constructs!

  3. A nice post, but I’m left wondering what exactly AIRs have to do with what is being suggested. Everything you mention is part of culture, tradition, convention and seems to have little directly religious, theological or spiritual content. I know you’re about to suggest that I’m just being a crude westerner at this point, which is fair, but the semantic distinction is one I’m familiar with, and I want to know if I’ve just misunderstood what is meant.

    1. Sam, I don’t think this is just a matter of being a crude westerner – I was asking myself similar questions as I read Dube’s argument. I do think it’s a matter of a radically different worldview

      In the AIR worldview, there aren’t things that are ‘religious’ and things that are ‘cultural’ – it’s all bundled up. In particular, the diviner-healer is a religious character, but they don’t separate out the categories like we do. Likewise, I think the big war council has some sort of religious/divination role.

      This is interesting for a discussion of contextualisation as well. It’s one of the reasons some people don’t like contextualisation – because they feel like it endangers the purity of Christianity because even cultural things aren’t just cultural. And those of us who do think there’s integrity in contextualisation (of the gospel) have to be careful that by taking some things from a culture and not others, we’re not imposing our western categories.

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