Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 16:07:08 -0500 (CDT)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rich Winkel)
Subject: HEALTH-KENYA: Cultural Practices Hinder The Fight Against AIDS
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Cultural Practices Hinder The Fight Against AIDS
By Judith Achieng', IPS, 21 May 1999
NAIROBI, May 21 (IPS) - Among the Luo people in Kenya's western province of Nyanza, a man's funeral rites are incomplete until his widow has been "inherited".
This traditional practice requires her to remarry or at least be "cleansed" through sexual contact with a member of the decease's clan.
If she refuses, she is confined to her home and prevented from planting crops on her husband's farm, or even to visit her neighbours' homes, because people fear she will bring a curse to the clan.
Even in the face of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus(HIV), cultural practices like sexual cleansing, inheritance and polygamy die hard.
"Culture is a big obstacle to the fight against HIV/AIDS in this area (Nyanza Province)," says Paul Dache, who heads the local theatre and puppetry group for AIDS awareness.
Out of the total of 83,750 reported cases of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) from Kenya's eight provinces, Nyanza has about 20.6 percent of the reported cases.
An estimated 420, 000 Kenyans have developed full-blown AIDS since the epidemic was first diagnosed in the East African country in the early 1980s. Some 1.5 million Kenyans are said to be infected and are living with HIV.
The latest National Surveillance Programme report has projected that at least 200,000 Kenyans will die of AIDS in 1999. This figure, the report adds, will rise to 300,000 per year by 2005.
Health officials say the spread of HIV is higher in the Nyanza Province due to the deeply entrenched cultural practices. "We have tried what we can to educate the people," says Dr Richard Muga, the top medical officer in the province.
"We have tried to discourage harmful cultural practices like wife-inheritance and polygamy..., but the statistics we have show that the behaviour change is slow," he says.
According to Dr Muga, awareness about AIDS among the population is above 90 percent, but behaviour change is at best only about 30 percent.
Despite all the information, educational campaigns and knowledge of the disease's existence, people are caught between knowing that AIDS kill and their belief in witchcraft.
"Many people will accommodate these extreme cultural practices, because they fear the repercussions of possible curses," says John Malago, the director of Matata private hospital in Oyugis, a small town in the province.
The paradox is that the curse for which widows are forced to avert by being inherited, is locally known as "chira", a disease with symptoms similar to those of AIDS.
This has contributed much to the belief by the Luo population that AIDS is nothing but a curse.
Richard Omondi, a father of six who recently settled in his village after retiring from his job on the Kenyan coast, says he has watched several of his clan members die of AIDS.
He says that in his village, Kitare, which is some 20 kilometres from Oyugis, most married men rush to inherit widows who they say give them better treatment than their wives. "Some widows are booked when their husbands are still ill," he says.
Dache, who uses theatre for health education in the province, believes that AIDS education programmes have failed, because "most HIV/AIDS campaigns here are not culturally sensitive".
Some Lou community leaders have become part of efforts to encourage people to shun cultural practices that spread the disease, but they have met resistance even from Lou who are in key decision-making positions.
"We must begin to call a spade a spade and speak against confusing AIDS with 'chira' ," says Peter Raburu, who is in charge of the Nyanza provincial administration.
But others like Richard Kwach, a leading Kenyan court of appeal judge, sees no need to change any of the Luo cultural traditions. "Luo customs are sacrosant and can not be tampered with," he argues.
Philip Ochieng, a Luo and a leading comentator on topical issues in Kenya, disagrees. "Culture must be adapted to the new social, political, economic and cultural climate," he says.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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