Education and Family Are Key to Stopping Epidemic
Risky sexual behavior is the culprit behind high levels of HIV infection in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a recent study.
Gay and bisexual men in both regions are the focus of HIV epidemics, and researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar found evidence for infection rates as high as five percent in several countries including Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and Tunisia.
One expert believes that the epidemics are as much a matter of education as they are a matter of culture.
"For people in Africa, education is important, but educators need to understand that they are fighting a culture of machismo in which their safe sex lessons may fall on deaf ears," said Fai, an expert who has seen the ravages of AIDS in Africa and around the world. "Sex education is a little easier in some of the industrialized nations, where people are more receptive to the need for safer sexual practices. In Africa, however, men are more conditioned to placing a high value on numerous sexual conquests, which places them in the high risk category regardless of whether they practice safe sex."
According to the latest United Nations data, an estimated 33.3 million people worldwide had HIV in 2009, with 22.5 million of those living in sub-Saharan Africa. Fai believes that educators on the ground have to be as sensitive to culture as they are to imparting key information on safe sex practices.
"Ignorance and poverty are the driving forces behind the epidemic in Africa," said Fai, author of the novel Habiba, My Habiba, a fictional account of life and romance in the AIDS ravaged countries in Africa. "Against that landscape, it is easy for men – empowered by their own ignorance – to say that it could never happen to them. That same thinking in the United States and other countries is what drove HIV and AIDS to high infection rates when the disease was first discovered. The only way to fight the culture of macho in Africa is to use the other aspect of life valued in African culture – family. A man’s worth is shown through the way he is able to take care of his family, and HIV infection is in direct contradiction to those values. If we stress the family unit, we have a better chance at fighting these record statistics."
That’s why Fai, who has a Master’s Degree in public policy and works for a not-for-profit advocacy group in Virginia, chose to use a novel instead of a non-fiction approach to educate people because he felt the cultural message might sink in better if he told a story instead of reciting statistics.
"Statistics are an impersonal way of telling the story of the ravages of the AIDS epidemic," Fai added. "Numbers mean little in an area of the world in which many people have no clocks, cannot tell time in the traditional sense and place little value in what is shown on an Excel spreadsheet. However, telling a story of how HIV and AIDS can destroy lives and families is a more powerful way of communicating our message of safety and more conscientious sexual practices. Telling the cautionary tale in a manner in which the culture of the situation is represented and respected is the best way to change minds and hearts. We’re fighting traditions and mores that have been in place for many generations. Studies and statistics may mean something in the West, but in Africa, they fall short. And frankly, we need to use every weapon we understand in fighting this disease. It is so imminently preventable. All we need is to reach people in a way that matters to them, and that’s what I’m trying to do."
About Robert Fai
Robert Fai (www.bobdanierla.com) holds a Bachelor's Degree in economics and a Master’s Degree in public policy. He has worked both in the African nation of Cameroon and in the United States with not-for-profits and advocacy groups.
If you would like to run the above article, please feel free to do so. I am able to provide images if you would like some to accompany it. If you’re interested in interviewing Robert Fai for a feature/Q&A or having him write an exclusive article for you, let me know and I’ll gladly work out details. Lastly, please let me know if you’d be interested in receiving a copy of his book, Habiba, My Habiba, for possible review.