Key Speeches & Articles

The Challenge of AIDS in Africa

By Wangari Maathai
December 12, 2004

HIV/AIDS is a devastating pandemic in many villages in Africa, moving silently and rapidly through homesteads and leaving a trail of death and misery. This is partly because it predisposes infected persons to opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis. As a result, HIV/AIDS continues to undermine development efforts of both the present and future Africa. It is a new, silent, powerful, misunderstood and overwhelming threat to peace and security on the continent. Walking around the villages burying the dead beside the graves of their relatives, the reality of losing tens of thousands to AIDS-related illnesses leaves me and fellow Africans with tremendous pain and fear for the future.

Soon enough, we will have nearly 15 millions orphans who have lost both parents to AIDS and have to be nurtured by grandparents or whoever is left of the extended family. Today there are many homes, whose grounds are without footprints and the doors are latched because all the occupants have died. In others, older children abandon school to care for their siblings, making children extremely vulnerable as they face the future alone.

No people and no continent are experiencing such devastation in the midst of abject poverty and abandonment. It is an unprecedented challenge for Africa.

There is need for the right information to reach local communities not only to inform but also to empower them. For I see women, girls and even children, increasingly infected, affected and dying due to HIV/AIDS. There are many reasons for this, but women and girls are especially disadvantaged because of their socialization and economic position in society.

Girls are disproportionately affected. Unable to access education, medical care and property rights, they are increasingly victims of violence, rape and prostitution. Yet they are expected to be caregivers when people fall sick. Their predicament gives me particular pain as I watch their future slip away.

I am particularly concerned about the many poor girls who see no other option to earn a living, but selling sex as their survival strategy. This makes them increasingly at risk of being infected. What became of moral values and the responsibility of the adults to protect children and the vulnerable in society? How about justice and equity? What other options are there? Is anyone listening? Anyone caring?

Faced with all this, I sometime wonder whether I should first address the destruction of the environment linked to greed and poverty, food insecurity, corruption, oppression, lack of education and unemployment OR the AIDS pandemic?

Like many others I wonder about the theories on the origin, nature and behaviour of the virus. I understand that there is consensus among scientists and researchers internationally that the evolutionary origin most likely was in Africa even though there is no final evidence. I am sure that the scientists will continue their search for concluding evidence so that the view, which continues to be quite widespread that the tragedy could have been caused by biological experiments that failed terribly in a laboratory somewhere, can be put to rest.

My hope is that those who understand the virus better can work with those of us struggling to better understand and eliminate ignorance, fear and a sense of helplessness.

As I have said repeatedly, I am not an expert on HIV/AIDS and therefore, have never claimed to have the answers. But faced with the monumental impact the epidemic has in my society, I do inquire. When my advice is sought, I genuinely say that I really do not know that I depend on what I hear or read, because I am privileged to read and write. It is important to understand the questions presented to me and my responses to them in the context of the cultural and economic environment in my country. I repeatedly emphasise to local communities the need to take the disease seriously, get tested, and curb its spread. Married women, when they know that their husbands are infected, must have the right to say no to unprotected sex. I underline the need to uphold the positive societal values that held our traditional societies together through abstinence amongst the youth and faithfulness by both partners in marriage. Today, condom-use is an option. What is important is that all available options are used properly and responsibly.

I have further emphasised that we are often faced with irresponsible behaviour among people out there. In Kenya, for example, there are many instances of people who have deliberately infected others and confessed to doing so. I also mention the case where during the previous administration in Kenya, the disease was kept a secret and people lived in denial for over 16 years! That was very irresponsible political leadership.

I have warned people against false beliefs and misinformation such as attributing this disease to a curse from God or believing that sleeping with a virgin cures the infection. These prevalent beliefs in my region have led to an upsurge in rape and violence against children. It is within this context, also complicated by the cultural and religious perspective that I often speak. I have therefore been shocked by the ongoing debate, generated by what I am purported to have said. It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people. Such views are wicked and destructive.

We in Africa must encourage more free and enlightened debate on the HIV/AIDS threat. We must at the same time learn from our own successes in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In Uganda 15 years ago the fear was that HIV/AIDS could destroy the whole society. Now 15 years later there is a dramatic improvement, and one major part of the explanation is responsible political leadership under president Museveni. All leaders in Africa should seek inspiration from the former presidents, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. They are spending a lot of their time and efforts in fighting the pandemic.

HIV/AIDS is hitting so hard in many parts of Africa that it is, as already stated, becoming a threat to peace and stability in the continent. This fact has been discussed in the Security Council of the United Nations and voiced as a particular serious concern by the Secretary General himself, Kofi Annan. I fully agree with this, and I hold the view that HIV/AIDS should be made a standing first priority issue on the political agenda of the Africa Union.

We in Africa cannot win the battle against HIV/AIDS alone. We need global understanding of our cultural context in Africa. We need solidarity and practical support, including allowing the production of generic drugs for greater access, eliminating poverty and improving the nutritional status of the people. This is a global challenge for both political and religious leaders. In this decisive and difficult struggle in Africa we need the critical encouragement, support and cooperation from the rest of world so that we win the battle. We also need the respect and trust that some of the solutions will emerge from our own value systems.