Tuesday, November 29, 2005

'Yesterday' and the global HIV/AIDS discourse

Last night, Tuesday Nov. 28, I stumbled upon the new HBO movie 'Yesterday,' having forgotten that I had noticed an advert for it in the New Yorker of last week. I stopped everything I was doing and sat down to watch it. I came away from the experience deeply moved by the story, but unsurprised by the discursive entrenching of dominant paradigms and ways of thinking about global history, politics and contexts behind the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

'Yesterday' is an eponymous story revolving around the main character, 'Yesterday,' played by Leleti Khumalo, the talented South African actress who starred as ‘Sarafina’ in the 90s anti-apartheid movie by the same name. In the HBO film, we learn that her father named her 'Yesterday' because of his feeling that yesterday was better; today, things are not alright, or, as we would say in Malawi, "sizili bwino."

Yesterday lives with her preschool age daughter, Beauty, in the village, while her husband and father of her daughter works in the mines in Johannesburg. He comes home once a month, sometimes less frequently. Yesterday develops a bad, persistent cough, which forces her to walk a long distance to the hospital. The first time she gets there, she stands on a long queue, only to be told that the doctor is unable to see all the patients lined up. The cut off point is the person right in front of her. She walks the long, dusty distance back home without being seen by the one doctor running the busy clinic.

A friend she has recently got to know, a teacher new to the area, offers her money to take the hitch-hike taxi, what we call ‘minibus’ in Malawi, or ‘matatu’ in Kenya, and go back to the hospital. She arrives early, and is seen by the doctor. The doctor, a white woman who speaks perfect Zulu, tells her she needs to take a blood test, and asks her to sign her consent. Yesterday can neither read nor write, so the doctor goes ahead and takes a blood sample, asking Yesterday to come back next week to hear the results.

Upon giving her the results the following week, the doctor suggests she bring her husband to the clinic so he too can be tested. When she follows him to the sprawling, high rise metropolitan Johannesburg, he beats her up severely once she delivers the bad news. In time, he comes back to the village, and is sick. The village demands that he be taken out of their midst, lest he spreads the disease, but the hospital is full. Yesterday builds him a shack in the middle of the valley, away from the village, and takes care of him there, until he dies.

Yesterday comes out a very strong willed, dedicated and loving wife and mother. As the hero of the movie, she represents the dedication, strength and endurance of African women. This is perhaps the one fundamental message the story sends, amidst a backlash against women seen especially in Malawi, where, if you listen to some of the music performed by male Malawian artists, women are considered to be villains spreading the HIV virus to men (examples include 'Akunenepa nako kachilombo,' (they are getting fat from the virus, deceiving unsuspecting men); 'Tinabadwa osavala' in which the lyrics single out women as the ones responsible for tempting men; and such other songs).

Another powerful message from the movie is the Zulu language used throughout. English is used only in subtitles. The pride and depth of an African language in driving such a powerful social message should make African elites and policymakers think twice about their insistence on making English, a language used by a tiny fraction of the population, the lingua franca of policy, business, politics, administration, and education.

Being an HBO movie, the largest audience for 'Yesterday' will be mostly Westerners, who may or may not be shocked at the "ignorance" surrounding the disease in Africa. I feel this is not an honest message to send, given the awareness and publicity that has already been given to the AIDS pandemic. One would think that the larger, more significant debate now lies in the politics of global justice, where questions about why huge numbers of Sub-Saharan Africans bear the brunt of the epidemic, despite sexual promiscuity being equally rampant, if not worse, in the West and elsewhere, remain unresearched.

The movie leaves unmentioned issues such as the racist, apartheid era bio-war research suspected to have been aimed at blacks, dismissed as a conspiracy theory by dominant, mainstream views. Also unmentioned is the role played by the capitalist mining industry which sequestered male miners in hostels, away from their wives and families for months or years on end, a situation that facilitated the spread of HIV/AIDS. Thus the dominant ideologies keep framing the HIV-AIDS debate in the same terms of individual responsibility, ordinary villagers as ignorant and needing "education," and Africans as more promiscuous than the rest of humanity.

Even as Yesterday looks forward to the future and the education of her daughter Beauty, the dominant paradigm of education as panacea is entrenched, without questions about what kind of education is necessary, and what legacies meaningful education needs to confront for global peace and social justice.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Prisons in Malawi, Africa: legacies of borrowed paradigms?

On the front page of today's Sunday New York Times (Nov. 6, 2005) is a feature article, by Michael Wines, on conditions in Malawi's prisons in particular, and Africa's in general (click here to read the article; you might be asked to register before proceeding; it's free).

I can predict, almost always, that such an article will, as a rule, catalog all the social ills visiting upon Malawians, and will leave me and most other readers sad, numb and angry. While my reactions are aimed at my country and our failure to solve some fairly common problems, they are also aimed at the pattern of reporting about Africa, by both the Western and the African media. As with Mr. Wines' article, most of the reporting manages to put a human face on an intractable problem, bringing out the voices of people the politicians and bureaucrats have shielded themselves from. And that's always a commendable job.

But because the articles do not go beyond the vivid portrayal of the problems to attempt an analysis of the contexts within which these problems occur, African problems are written about in a manner that portrays Africans as having no clue as to how to solve their own problems, and making no efforts to even understand how and why we end up with such problems. The elites quoted in these articles, such as prosecutors, activists, government officials, etc, are portrayed as having no deep thoughts on how to understand a problem with such historical, ideological and global contexts as prison overcrowding and the malfunction and dysfunction of the justice system in Malawi. For instance, one reads an article such as this one without ever having to consider the fact the the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, worse than Malawi's own rate. Granted, problems in those prisons are of a different nature compared to conditions in Malawi's prisons.

I do not discount the probability that we are all clueless as to how to solve a problem such as this one, but my wish is to see a bit more of deeper thinking, questioning and putting the problem in the larger contexts that surround it.

At what point do we begin questioning our adoption of a legal and judicial system designed to work in Europe, in historical, economic and social settings different from ours? At what point do we start wondering whether we might want to work with our indigenous judicial systems, more suited to conditions obtaining in our societies? Our capacity to borrow and learn from other societies is commendable, but should it come at the expense of energy and resources needed to move our indigenous, locally relevant systems with the times, and negotiate change and innovation on local terms, rather than on terms dictated by the ideology we are borrowing from?

This is where I find Hizkias Assefa's (1996) words, referring to countries caught up in this type of dilemma, telling: "For these countries, the goals of modernisation and economic growth became receding targets. Hence these societies are caught in a tragic situation--they have given up much of what they were, but are unable to attain what they aspire to. No doubt this frustration will be a constant source of disruption, conflict and disillusionment at both the individual and societal levels" (Peacemaking and Democratisation in Africa, p. 65).