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An interview with Craig Timberg, author of the book How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, conducted by Dave Davies on the NPR show, Fresh Air

AIDS, as a disease which involves the most intimate of behaviors, reflects differences between cultures in the way they approach marriage and sex. This makes it a prime locus for poor communication between the leaders of a people and the people themselves, and between different peoples. Both in its origins and the ill-advised ways that it has been addressed by outside parties, it has been a mysterious and difficult disease to identify, to track, to understand, and to prevent, much less cure it!

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Craig Timberg, a journalist with years of experience in South Africa, has written a book about the origin of the AIDS epidemic and the ways that Western countries have contributed to the problem. According to his interview with NPR radio’s Dave Davies, he makes a number of important and revealing points, including the following:

The AIDS virus originated in the chimpanzee, and genetic testing of samples from all over the world has shown how it may have spread from the non-human to the human primate population. He contends that the genetic tests which identify the amount of mutation which has occurred to the virus suggest a date of entry into the human population that coincides with the imposition of forced labor on the indigenous tribes by colonial powers.

This labor (carrying goods across the continent through the deep jungle, by foot or train or steam ship) would have pushed into the chimpanzee’s territories, and exposed them to contagion by, for example, butchering a chimpanzee. Additionally, the forced labor in mines placed huge numbers of men far away from their wives, and encouraged promiscuity. Many of these behaviors have been exacerbated in recent decades, and AIDS has exploded.

The circuitous route that the virus took allowed African leaders, like Thabo Mbeki., to deny the reality of the situation. Such ‘denialists’ blamed outsiders for its introduction. This led them to some very unconstructive responses. Timberg notes that in South Africa, effective drugs were not introduced in the way that they were in, for example, Zimbabwe.

Timberg notes that in countries where, paradoxically, western help was not forthcoming to the same extent, for example in Uganda, indigenously generated solutions have been remarkably helpful. He notes that the choice to encourage staying with your plural wives, as opposed to discouraging all sex, such as that made by leader Yoweri Museveni, which was more congruent with existing behavior, was easier to implement.

He used a homely image; that of the goat grazing in a circle while tied to a stake, to represent the kind of sexual behavior that would prevent death. He also asserts that the traditional African practice of circumcision would help to halt the spread of the disease (Timberg).

It is virtually impossible to understand or evaluate all these points without reference to anthropological ideas and techniques.

First, the European colonists entered Africa with absolutely no sense of cultural relativism (Scupin 2008, 58). They were deeply ethnocentric” (Scupin 2008, 18), and therefore regarded anything that the indigenous peoples did or avoided as mere superstition or pagan deviltry.

Thus, any local objections to going deep into the bush would have been dismissed and ignored, and the polygyny (Scupin 247) practiced especially by ‘big men’ (Scupin 221-222) was discouraged by missionaries without replacing it with workable sexual rules of behavior, according to Timberg (Timberg).

Second, the reaction of some of the indigenous leaders to the onset of the AIDS epidemic has been very reminiscent of the response to other disorders such as the Creutzfeldt-Jakob or “mad cow” disease, which was acquired from human brain ingestion. Indigenous theories of causation for such illnesses focused on sorcery (Scupin 229), or, in some cases witchcraft (Scupin 228).

This sort of belief system is mirrored in the way that some African leaders have been able persistently to deny the relationship between AIDS and sexual behaviors engaged in by the vast majority of the population rather than as purely a manifestation of poverty or sabotage or racism (Timberg) (a perspective which may be part of what leads to the appalling rape of baby girls for magical protection against AIDS).

Timberg contends that the most effective measures against the spread of AIDS have utilized the indigenous values (Scupin 2008, 53), norms (Scupin 2008, 56) and enculturation (Scupin 50) of the existing community, rather than any such values, norms, or cultural expectations imposed from outside.

Thus, scaring people into remaining faithful to their multiple wives works better than counseling abstinence in a culture that has little history of monogamy and regards sex as a positive good. Furthermore, Timberg asserts that traditional circumcision practices can reduce the spread of the virus by removing the fragile tissue that the virus apparently can populate more readily than the other tissues in that region of the body (Timberg).

This last is one of the areas for further careful investigation. There is already an appalling amount of damage done to young girls by genital mutilation. To encourage the re-introduction of a surgical procedure in a region where clean water is not even usually available seems risky. Furthermore, the practice of circumcision can mean all sorts of things, depending on the specific group, and may not accomplish the intended and hoped for effect.

Additionally, Timberg does not mention in his interview the destructive practice of ‘dry sex’, which sets up a receptive environment for the transmission of all sexually transmitted diseases. If he does not mention this in his new book, this would be an area for encouraging behavior change to investigate.

This interview gives what seems to be a thorough overview of the book, and the topic is compelling. The history of this dreadful disease offers multiple chances for the application of anthropology to understanding and problem solving. Only by endeavoring to understand human behavior in its own context can we hope to help humanity survive over the long term, and anthropology is a crucial tool in that endeavor.

Works Cited

Scupin, Raymond. Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective. 7. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. 2012.

Timberg, Craig. “‘Tinderbox’: How The West Fueled The AIDS Epidemic.” Fresh Air. Dave Davies. NPR, 27 February 2012. Web. 27 February 2012. .