My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When it comes to HIV/AIDS on the African continent we, as Westerners, are often blinded by the ubiquitous stereotypes that permeate our perspectives and opinions about Africa. We then can only rely on the authentic and experienced voices of authors, reporters, and first-person stories from those who have lived and grown up on the continent. We have to rely on those who have committed themselves to setting the record straight about what it is like to be an African who has to face HIV/AIDS every day in his/her community, country, continent and the depth of what it means to them. We can’t guess. We have to lean on their understanding so as to better understand ourselves.
Uzodinma Iweala set out to chronicle the stories about HIV/AIDS in his birth country, Nigeria, in Our Kind of People. He traversed the country to discover how his countrymen and women view the disease; how they cope with it, and how they have learned to live with it. This is especially important in a country like Nigeria that is religiously conservative, but has one of the highest HIV infection rates in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Our Kind of People, Iweala traveled the country from Lagos to small rural villages to hear first-hand how people – men and women, old and young, rich and poor, are coping with HIV/AIDS and how those who have succumbed to the disease dealt with the realization that they too were living with the disease that would eventually take their lives.
Iweala talked with doctors, activists, advocates, researchers, and ordinary people about how HIV/AIDS has changed their lives, their families and their communities. What most of them revealed is that having HIV/AIDS is disgraceful for many Africans. They don’t want to discuss it with others and in some cases, paralyzed by fear of people finding out, they don’t even seek treatment at the hospital to get tested or to get the cocktail of drugs that will allow them to live with the disease instead of being tortured by it.
Nigeria has come a long way. Its citizens, urged on by those brave enough to face HIV/AIDS from a realistic perspective and can-do approach, have also come to live with it instead of hiding in fear from it. HIV/AIDS is a part of life in Nigeria – few people are not touched by the disease in some way.
One of the painful truths about Our Kind of People is that while Iweala discounts the Western stereotypes about Africans and HIV/AIDS those same stereotypes seem to be played out throughout the book. I suppose that is the power of stereotypes – everyone is plagued by them no matter how hard we try not to be. Nevertheless Our Kind of People is a much-needed look at the African perspective of HIV/AIDS, one that is sorely needed in the conversation about the disease and its affect on the African continent.
Photo: UN Photo/Louise Gubb