HIV and the politics of tradition

Gender inequalities, the generation gap and issues arising from the power dynamics within a family set up are the concerns I would like to explore this week.

My memory goes back to the day Mmoni came to the kgotla with an issue that was causing her pain and trauma and the hope of finding a solution that could save her husband’s life.

She had no hesitation in telling me that she was living positively with HIV together with her youngest child.  Both Mmoni and her little girl were enjoying free anti retroviral medication.  She said they had adequately discussed the HIV issue as a family and Ditiro, Mmoni’s husband had tentatively agreed to establish his HIV status, but kept on setting new dates for the test.

During this time her husband had become seriously ill and had to be moved from his work station to his home in Francistown.  Naturally Mmoni informed Ditiro’s parents who rushed to town to support their daughter- -in-law.  When they arrived they were shocked to find out that their son could neither talk nor walk unassisted.

Ditiro’s father told Mmoni that they had to move quickly and transfer Ditiro to their church’s healing place (diagelo) but Mmoni objected strongly to the idea, stating that their first point of call should be their family doctor who had been taking care of her and the child. It was at this point that she revealed the family’s HIV problems to her in-laws for the first time.

Ditiro’s father reacted angrily, shouting (‘ona le sephiri sa malwetsi le ngwanake wena’) “So you mean to tell me you have been keeping secrets about my son’s health.”

Mmoni explained that without the counseling and testing and the subsequent assistance she had received, she would by now be dead.

Sadly her words fell on deaf ears and even led to Ditiro’s father accusing her of claiming to know what was killing his son even before they could consult their family prophet. (‘O batla go nthaya ore itse se se jang ngwanake le baruti ba ise ba mmone’)  He accused Mmoni of bewitching his son and insisted that her reluctance to go to the prophet was because she feared he would expose her as a witch.

We urgently got all the parties together and I requested the social worker to come in to assist.

Ditiro’s parents agreed to every word Mmoni presented at the Kgotla, but stated clearly that they would not agree to any test being carried out on their son.  Ditiro’s father stood up and adjusted his rather oversized jacket, and with his hat tightly gripped in both hands declared, “I have raised Ditiro from nothing till the day he married Mmoni.  His marriage to Mmoni does not make me less of a father and caretaker.  If the Kgotla decides today that I am nothing, Mmoni can take my son for those tests, and if he dies the kgotla and Mmoni will see what to do.”

Ditiro’s father meant well. The words were expressed with sincerity and pain, and between sobs Mmoni made an effort to match her father in law’s words. ‘Ntate ga ke gane go iwa kerekeng mme ke ne kere a re simololeng kwa ngakeng pele’ (“I am not against the spiritual healing process, but let us start first with the doctor,” she said)

What would you do if you were the Judge?

We have to know that when HIV/AIDS first reared its head in our communities, we were a people with deep rooted knowledge and practices concerning healing and deliverance.  This traditional knowledge cannot easily be pushed into oblivion and be replaced by knowledge and skills acquired through HIV workshops and programmes. Ditiro’s father is a 70-year -old traditionalist who does not take kindly to advice given by a daughter-in-law half his age.

On the other hand Mmoni is a young and vibrant young woman who has been dealing with the challenges of HIV for some time.  She had participated in many workshops and had developed confidence in facing HIV issues.  What she had not been prepared for was the power of cultural pressure in a life and death situation.

Ditiro’s mother tried very softly to persuade Ditiro’s father to listen to his daughter-in-law (Ako o reetse ngwetsi Ra-Ditiro) but that did not help much.

In the end we could only attempt to convince Ditiro’s father to see the value of carrying out an HIV test before proceeding to the church prophets. But he refused outright.

Ditiro was taken to the church’s place of healing and I saw Mmoni three weeks later wearing a blue dress and confirming that Ditiro had passed away eight days after the meeting at the kgotla.  In the end neither the church nor a medical doctor could help him in a situation that he was powerless to effect.


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