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Why do we still have Aids myths?

- By Vivienne Rowland

“As a topic, I know Aids is not sexy anymore, but we are still burying people every Saturday in the townships. Surely after 30 years of Aids education, we should think differently about the messages.”

This is one of the motivating factors behind Wits Professor of Sociology David Dickinson’s new book, titled A Different Kind of Aids: Folk and Lay Theories in South African Townships, tackling Aids myths in townships and the circumstances around it.

In the book Dickinson links the alternative explanations of Aids to real life stories that he came across in his travels and sojourns in townships, but he uses fictional names for the people and places in the book.

“We have to ask why non-scientific, alternative Aids theories exist after all these years, despite antiretroviral and educational efforts. I went out to tackle Aids myths in a culturally sensitive way,” says Dickinson.

The book is based on two research projects, one of which was with a group of 28 African HIV and Aids peer educators between 2008 and 2009. The peer educators were asked to identify Aids myths existing in the communities.

“Aids myths are beliefs about HIV and Aids that are not medically correct but present in the peer educators’ communities. There is however a difference between folk and lay theories,” says Dickinson.

He says that in the book, he tries to make sense of people’s beliefs in the context of their lives and realities. A Different Kind of Aids introduces the reader to the lives and thoughts of Bafana and Paseka Radebe, Grace Dlamini and Neo Pakwe, as well as the actors around them. Dickinson himself, through ethnography of his own thoughts and inner conflict, forms a member of the cast, relaying a deeply sympathetic portrait of South African realities today.

He describes the story of one of the characters: “In the chapter about Neo Pakwe, who believes that her HIV positive status is the result of her sin, and that she got it because of her infidelity, I try to tackle it quite sensitively. Her belief is very biblical and her church confirms that belief. Neo believes that she can be cured through those religious beliefs and she is supported in that by her church. As long as there are people who come up with these beliefs, there will be people believing them,” says Dickinson.

He says that the most common explanation he derived was that people need an alternative to science to believe in.

“I have a chapter in the book that points out that some of the scientific theories are quite bizarre if you are not a scientist, which most people are not. If we were all scientifically trained, folk and lay theories would not exist, thus whenever science cannot easily solve a problem, there is a vacuum to be filled.

“These are done through religious beliefs, racial beliefs, traditional African beliefs, to name a few, which is strongly held in different ways. These debates rage compared to a more scientific approach. With HIV AIDS science has a partial answer, but it is not what everyone wants, for example, nobody wants to wear condoms to start with. Science can’t solve the problems of our relationships so we turn elsewhere for answers,” explains Dickinson.

Dickinson’s previous research in the field of HIV/Aids has included workplace responses and peer education in a book titled: Changing the course of Aids.