The Fearful Ostrich and AIDS
What does a fearful ostrich from a children’s tale have to do with HIV/AIDS? And how can it help people to think about their own attitude towards this deadly disease?By Per Bergholdt Jensen, Information Officer
29. October 2004
During the last nine months traveling HIV/AIDS adviser, Kirsten Madsen, has only been back home in Denmark for two weeks.
The apartment in Copenhagen has been replaced by hotel rooms in San Salvador, Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi and Nampula.
And every day life in tidy Scandinavia has given way to constant travels around the world in order to give seminars on HIV/AIDS to the partner NGOs of MS.
The last leg of this HIV/AIDS world tour has been Mozambique, and by the time she finishes the last seminar, Kirsten will have spent eight months in African countries and one month in Central America.
Not my Problem
“The biggest problem concerning HIV/AIDS in Mozambique is that few people want to think that it actually has something to do with them”, Kirsten explains during a short lunch break at one of her many seminars.
“People often seem like they are in denial, and they think AIDS only concerns others. In Mozambique, for instance, it is common to blame the Tanzanians or other foreigners for the spread of the disease. In that way you don’t have to take a responsibility for what is going on. With this attitude things will only change with great difficulty.”
A Fearful Ostrich and Teenage Sex
In this context the ostrich from a Danish tale for children is very illustrative.
This particular ostrich is not the bravest of fowls, and it is famous for hiding its head in a bush every time there is trouble in the air.
“Is this how we will fight AIDS?” Kirsten asks and points to a poster where the ostrich has dipped its head into a shrubbery, completely ignoring the people dancing, drinking and kissing around it.
“A lot of people don’t want to know, what is actually going on around them”, Kirsten says to the participants. “Many parents think: Our children are not having sex. This is not our concern. And so they don’t address the problem. But many of the teenagers are in fact having sex, and the HIV infection rate is highest among younger persons.”
Matilde Sara Felix Tovela is a shy looking woman in her early twenties who is participating in Kirsten’s seminar. She tells about another aspect of the ostrich-like behavior. “Many people have HIV without knowing it. And even if they suspect they might have it, they don’t want to make the test, because they are afraid of the result. They prefer to live in blissful ignorance.”
Lack of Medical Facilities
But even if people actually want to have a HIV test made, the medical facilities in Mozambique are very poor. It can be difficult to find an appropriate clinic where you can get a HIV test, let alone get treatment with anti-retroviral drugs if you suffer from AIDS.
In comparison with other African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe the situation in Mozambique concerning test facilities and treatment is very grave. Very few people have access to treatment and thus have little incitement to get a test done.
Fortunately the Brazilian government has agreed to construct a pharmaceutical plant in Mozambique that will produce anti-retroviral drug. But exactly when the project will be completed is still uncertain and improved treatment of HIV/AIDS patients could still be a long way down the road.
Cultural Practices and HIV/AIDS
“A lot of the problems concerning HIV/AIDS are related to cultural practices”, Kirsten explains.
“It is quite common that girls have their first sexual experiences at the age of 13 or 14 years and sometimes even younger than that. And since people are very focused on having babies you can not to use condoms.”
“On top of that it is common with extramarital affairs, which of course is a danger if people do not protect themselves. And the African wives generally can’t insist on their husbands’ using a condom, even if the men are seeing other women. So the danger of infection involves the “faithful housewives” whose “unfaithful husbands” do not protect them selves.
Another aspect, which might be specific to Mozambique, is a widespread belief that Kirsten has come across during her seminars. “A lot of women believe they need the semen from the men, because it is said to contain vitamins that give the women strength. From a HIV/AIDS point of view this is of course very unfortunate.”
How does a condom work?
Another problem is that people do not always know how condoms actually work. In the “bairros” -the poor neighborhoods in the Mozambican cities- you can often see children using the condoms as balloons, but many adults do not know how to use them for other purposes.
Many African cultures give great importance to talismans and magical objects with healing powers. These complex religious practices form part of ancient traditions which possess great cultural value in the African societies.
But concerning HIV/AIDS the traditional beliefs have had an unfortunate influence.
Some places in Africa people think it will do the trick to put a condom under the pillow or hold it in your hand, because the condom is seen in the same way as a talisman.
“Before I came to this course I did not know how to use a condom,” says Matilde, a participant in Kirsten’s seminar organized by Ademo in Nampula. “I have also learned how HIV/AIDS transmits and how to avoid it. I have also learned the importance of having only one partner. And in the future I will use condoms. I will also talk to my friends about what I have heard here today”, Matilde adds.