CULTURE AND HIV/AIDS IN AFRICA Culture is the process by which a person becomes all,” according to Albert Camus, a French writer. Culture makes us who we are and gives us a sense of pride, identity and belonging. Without culture, a society, even when perfect, is but chaos. But what if that culture has been adulterated to an extent that what remains of what we call African culture is a distorted mirage of the original culture? Some of our traditional practices have been blamed for everything that goes wrong in Africa. Modernisation viewed African culture as primitive and uncivilised; colonial religion trashed it as evil and demonic, egalitarians see it as a barrier to equal rights, philanthropists and development theorists think it is an impediment to development. Education and religion were used as social transformative agents reconstructing culture to what we are today. Whether this is good or bad is neither here nor there. Let’s admit it, we lost our original tradition a long time ago and many people are caught in conflicts between tradition and modernity. It is indeed a huge dilemma to be both traditional and modern at the same time. Miniskirts and female trousers are viewed by some as disregard for our culture and yet in our original culture we only covered private areas. It was Islamitization of Africa, Arabic cultures and British missionaries who introduced long dresses, especially for women. Most of the conservative taboos we are stuck with were never part of African tradition. For instance, how is it taboo to discuss sex and sexuality issues with our children? Isn’t it risky that they learn these things from their peers and other people we don’t know or trust, especially these days of HIV? In fact, many teenagers prefer to discuss sex and sexuality issues with people who introduced the subject to them than their parents. This begs the question: just who do we offend by breaching some of the little ridiculous taboos? Most African traditional practices are known for their sexual explicitness, which was meant to prepare teenagers for future life, marriage, birth and the passage from one stage of life to the next. In fact, sexual innuendos were inherent in traditional art such as dances, songs and drawings which are misinterpreted and undervalued elements in contemporary society. Ironically, sexual expressions regarded today as gratuitous and vulgar were employed for moral guidance. Expressions of sexuality were not casual, superficial or gratuitous in the African tradition. It had to do with the cycle of life and the importance of cycles and rites of passage. In the absence of the traditional social structures and the aunts and uncles who used to play the advisory role to teenagers, parents should step in and openly discuss reproductive health issues with their children. What we call our tradition today bears no or little resemblance to true and original African tradition. Our lives have been reorganized. The languages we speak, the dress codes we adhere to, even the social norms and values we subscribe to have been altered. It is a purely new way of life detached from the original traditional way of life. Any defence or reference to some of these archaic cultural practices is a facade, especially in the face of the marauding HIV/AIDS pandemic, one of the greatest human catastrophes of our time. Some social organization, patriarchal structures, religious beliefs, taboos including polygamy remain key socio-cultural barriers to HIV prevention and enjoyment of relationships. Stated candidly, some of the traditional ways of life are mainly problematic not only to the enjoyment of marriage and sex itself, but to the advancement of safe sex and ultimately preventing the spread of HIV. Very few people in this generation can make sense of these taboos, and I question our keeping them if we can’t make sense of them. Discarding risky practices doesn’t necessarily mean succumbing to Western cultural hegemony. Tradition is meant for the people not the way round; that’s why it’s supposed to be dynamic, especially in the face of social challenges such as HIV/Aids. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and indeed these times require us to dump some of those taboos in order to save people’s lives. Taboos were there to appease ancestors, who brought blessings such as rains, good harvests to the people etc. But times have changed; the climate change phenomenon is affecting weather and rainfall patterns, not our ancestors anymore. I guess those ancestors would be happier to see their people live longer than to see them dying every day in a futile bid to respect “taboos”. It is time our tradition and these taboos were framed within the conditions of a rapidly changing world, in which tradition is understood as a required context of action, rather than simply an obstacle. In fact, tradition and culture should be resources in the combat of HIV/Aids. BY ABDULRAHMAN ABDU YEHDI DIRECTOR HOTORO TSAMIYAR BOKA, P. O BOX 1207 KANO.