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'Our Kind': Unpacking Misconceptions About AIDS


A new book about global attitudes to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, lays some of the blame at the door of Joseph Conrad. Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness," says the author - who's Uzodinma Iweala - connected inferiority and disease with Africa and Africans, in way which is still evident today. Uzodinma Iweala was himself was born in Washington D.C., the city with the worst incidence of AIDS in the United States. His first book, a novel called "Beasts of No Nation," told the harrowing story of child soldiers in Africa.

The latest, an account of the chronic misconceptions surrounding AIDS in Africa, is no less disturbing - all the more so, for being true. And Dr. Iweala is in Washington, D.C., for this weekend's summit about AIDS. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

UZODINMA IWEALA: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Your book is called "Our Kind of People." But in many ways, it's about excluding people, isn't it?

IWEALA: Right. So the title comes from a conversation that I had with a young woman who, when I asked her about HIV-AIDS, she said people used to think that HIV is a disease of those people over there - dirty people who are promiscuous, who do different things; not our kind of people. And I think in sub-Saharan Africa; and Nigeria, specifically where I write about; I think you had a similar situation, where people were saying initially, this is not something that is - affects everyone. It's something that affects a specific group of people and therefore, why should we care? Now, that's changed a lot.

SIMON: According to your book, there are 33.4 million people in the world who are HIV-positive; 28.2 million of them, in sub-Saharan Africa. I must say, I was surprised to - without in any way minimizing the severity of the epidemic - to discover what percentage of the population of Africa that represents.

IWEALA: Right. I mean, you're dealing with a continent that's a billion people. And so when you bring out a number like 28 million, that's not necessarily that large a percentage of a population of a billion people on the whole continent - which is why I think people are making the argument that AIDS is real, but it is not my identity as an African, or as a Nigerian.

However, I mean, I think people would also say that look, we recognize this disease exists. And we recognize that it is in our society, and it's affecting the way that we live. And we have to acknowledge that if we're going to live productive lives, and if we're going to actually tackle the epidemic and make sure that those who have it get the treatment and the services they need; and that those who don't have it are also made aware of it and get tested; and also know that this epidemic exists, and how to deal with it.

SIMON: I want to talk about a couple of the - I think because we have to - some of the more explicit sections in your book. You say, for example, that demonstrably, Westerners aren't any less promiscuous than Africans. But you do add that there are societies, like Nigeria, which might help itself by changing some of its sexual mores and habits.

IWEALA: I think there is this idea that the reason why the epidemic has spread so quickly, and why so many people are affected in sub-Saharan Africa and different countries, is that there is just - people were just much, much more promiscuous. And that's actually not true.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Westerners, we've said, just tend to be serial monogamists.

IWEALA: Serial monogamists...

SIMON: Yeah.

IWEALA: opposed to the development of sexual networks, which might happen more frequently in places in sub-Saharan African. Now, in terms of the discussion about sex and Nigerians' relationship to HIV/AIDS, I think Nigeria is a outwardly relatively conservative society, and so discussions about sex and sexual practices are not necessarily held as openly as they might have been here.

SIMON: Well, let me get you to talk about that a bit.

IWEALA: Right. So, I mean, I think there's things that, for example, issues that come up around condom use, where it's clear that people know about condoms; people would like to use condoms, but there are a couple of things that prevent that. In some cases, they're not necessarily as readily available. They might be too expensive for people to use.

I mean, I interviewed a bunch of people who were complaining about the cost of condoms and how - you know, I would love to use them, but I have other things that I also need to take care of, that are more pressing, you know. Or also, this thing where, when someone goes into a shop to buy a condom - I interviewed a number of people who would talk about how people would look at you, make judgments about you, and make it very uncomfortable.

In fact, I interviewed one man who runs a magazine, who actually sent one of his staff writers - a young woman - to go buy condoms, just to test out and see what people would do. And she had some very interesting experiences, where people would either lecture her about the need to not have sex, and how it was immoral that she was buying condoms; or maybe people would follow her around, thinking that she was quote-unquote, "easy" or "loose." So there are a number of interesting stories. But, I mean, I think it's something that comes up everywhere.

SIMON: Do you think attitudes towards AIDS have changed substantially, in the America you grew up in - or even in the course of your lifetime?

IWEALA: I think so. I mean, obviously, when the epidemic came out, I was very young. But just from reading, you know, from - even in the course of the first 10 years of the epidemic, when activist communities started making a lot of noise about what we needed to do to deal with it, there was a definite change.

Now, I think there are a lot of interesting things to say about AIDS fatigue, in some ways; where now here, we've gotten very good at providing resources to deal with the epidemic, that it's no longer this crazy specter. It's no longer something that really scares people, in some senses, and that maybe that's driving people to not take it as seriously.

And, you know, in some senses it's a job extremely well done. But now you have the other side, which is that people are not being as vigilant about protecting themselves, in ways that they should.

SIMON: Uzodinma Iweala. His book, "Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope." Dr. Iweala, thanks very much for being with us.

IWEALA: And thank you for having me.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.