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Singing songs of AIDS in South Africa

Singing about the taboo subject of AIDS prevention and treatment in South Africa can have unintended consequences for those who sing

The drop (gonorrhoea) started with me
Because I didn't do it with a condom
Now the condom is in my handbag

Sung by young women working as AIDS peer educators in the Venda region of South Africa, songs such as these, promoting safe sex and retroviral medicine, are an attempt to 'sing about what cannot be talked about'.

According to anthropologist Fraser McNeill open conversation about issues such as  sickness, death, health and healing is avoided, since to talk of these things leaves an individual vulnerable to being seen as guilty by association.

Group of peer educatorsMcNeill has been researching musical performance in Venda, an isolated area in the far north east of South Africa, for over ten years. He speaks the local language of Tshivenda and plays in local bands – enabling him to get an intimate perspective on the connections between music, politics, sickness and health in the region.  

He explains: '"Dangerous knowledge" is conventionally transmitted in safe, ritual environments through the medium of songs and dances. As young women, peer educators have experience of this through participation in female initiation schools. So when they sing about AIDS or contraception, for example, they are seeking diminished responsibility for their role in imparting dangerous knowledge to the general public.'

Over 500 women work as peer educators for the Centre for Positive Care (CPC) in Venda, which is dedicated exclusively to HIV/AIDS education and care programmes. They volunteer for up to 30 hours a week and receive a small monthly cash payment in return. Many hope that their roles will lead to paid employment in the pubic sector. 

The women perform at weekly Friday public meetings held in beer halls or other public places. Their songs are adapted from the anti-apartheid struggle, Christian churches and 'traditional' repertories.

The peer educators are supposed to learn and then share knowledge about sexual health, as well as becoming positive role models by implementing it in their own  lives. This is made somewhat more complex by the fact that some of the women supplement their incomes by engaging in sex work at the beer halls.

In fact, in terms of the success of the approach Deborah James, McNeill's co-author, points out that: 'The people for whom these types of projects are most successful are often the peer educators themselves, not necessarily those they are educating.'

But singing about AIDS can bring darker consequences. In Africa the communication of 'accurate' biomedical knowledge does not necessarily lead to behaviour change. The scientific view of HIV/AIDS prevention has, for example,  been re-interpreted as it has been incorporated into folk models of illness, stigmatising the very women who promote it.

'Sub Saharan Africa is dominated by regional models of medical pluralism – so while people may well "believe" in biomedical explanations for the AIDS pandemic, they also see it through non-scientific or "folk" terms – and the two are not necessarily experienced as contradictory,' says McNeill.

Folk models of sexual illness hold women – specifically young women – responsible for generating a build up of pollution in their bodies through slack moral practices, which include using methods of contraception which regulate menstruation. These are perceived as unnatural and result in the trapping of 'dirt'. Women who use – or are suspected of using – the pill or contraceptive injection thus harbour dangerous pollution that will eventually make them, and the men who come into intimate contact with them, ill.

And just as music is used to communicate the biomedical representation of AIDs, so it also plays a role in promoting this folk model. In Venda the pattern of blaming young women can be traced through songs performed by older men – wandering minstrels called zwilombe (sing. tshilombe). While historically zwilombe may have been attached to royal courts, today they are mostly marginal figures who perform for beer, tobacco or cannabis and, like the peer educators, they 'sing about what they cannot talk about.'

McNeill recorded some of the songs of Solomon Mathase, a famous and prolific tshilombe, for his research. In one of these, called Zwidzumbe (Secrets), Mathase makes an explicit connection between AIDS and the woman who "could not conceive a child" – a reference to contraception

…when she fell in love with the child
of Mr Mukene,
she couldn't conceive a child.
The problem was these vaginal sores
They led to her getting 'gokhonya'

 In an interview with McNeill, Solomon said: 'You know women every month they have their period, now after taking the pills the periods disappear, so where does the dirty blood go? It gets into their veins, they can not conceive and they get this AIDs or whatever. Then the man gets inside her without knowing and catches it.'

Recording Solomon MathasePeer educators with their knowledge of contraception, declared publicly on a weekly basis, are thus guilty by association. For Solomon and his peers it is inconceivable that their knowledge would not be rooted in the familiarity of practice.

McNeill explains that for the peer educators, singing songs of AIDS actually 'reinforces folk models of illness in which young women are constructed as carriers of sexually transmitted illness.'

More broadly, in terms of preventing AIDS, 'Success in this game is difficult to judge,' he says. 'Whilst some reports indicate that HIV infections may be levelling off, others suggest that, after years of preventive intervention, thousands of South Africans are still being infected with HIV every day.'

What is clear is that that policy makers must take African worldviews seriously when designing health education programmes.

Deborah James says: 'Educators have to be careful – they should not assume they can attach a message to a song and then just send it out into the world. It's going to have unintended consequences – connections, meanings and implications the educators did not foresee.'

Posted August 2010


Useful links

For full details of Dr Fraser McNeill's research and publications see his profile in the LSE experts directory: Fraser McNeill|

Dr McNeill will be taking up a lectureship in the Department of Anthropology and archaeology at the University of Pretoria in October 2010. He can be contacted at frasermcneill@hotmail.co.uk|

Professor James is Head of Anthropology at LSE. For full details of her research and publications see her profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Deborah James|

Singing songs of AIDS in Venda|, South Africa: performance, pollution, and ethnomusicology in a 'neo-liberal' setting. Fraser G. McNeill and Deborah James, SAMUS South African Music Studies, Volume 28