Breaking the silence and stigma around HIV-Aids using the arts

It's not only been written about but has also claimed our best writers

In Summary

• The condition is complicated by discriminatory attitudes towards those infected 

World Aids Day, commemorated annually on December 1 since 1988, stands as a poignant global initiative dedicated to raising awareness about HIV-Aids, honouring those who have succumbed to the virus and expressing unwavering support for individuals currently living with HIV. Kenyans last week joined the rest of East Africans and the world in marking this important day.

A stunning 2 million people living with HIV fall within the age range of 10 to 19 globally. Shockingly, in 2023, we are being told that more adolescents are contracting it, with young women and girls accounting for a staggering 80 per cent of these new cases. Indeed, recent reports highlight a troubling surge in HIV cases among young adults and teenagers.

As we embark on the longest school holidays in Kenya, engaging in conversations about HIV-Aids proves to be a challenging task for parents, guardians and caregivers among our villages and estates. Nevertheless, it is imperative that our communities undertake the responsibility of educating the youth about both HIV and Aids, considering the numerous benefits of such discussions.

Given that many families have had a member, be it extended or nuclear, living with HIV or succumbing to Aids-related complications, imparting knowledge to the youth becomes a fundamental strategy in combating the stigma deeply rooted in society.

Within the realm of the arts, the HIV-Aids pandemic has not only been a subject of discussion but has also claimed some of Africa’s most brilliant literary minds. Examples include the Congolese writer Sony Tansi, whose demise on June 14, 1995 resulted from Aids-related complications.

Tansi was not only a prolific writer but also a playwright and political activist, leaving an indelible mark on African literature by addressing social and political issues in his works. Another poignant case is that of the troubled genius of African literature, Dambudzo Marechera.

The Zimbabwean writer passed away on August 18, 1987, with the exact cause of his death not definitively established. Various reports and speculations surround Marechera’s demise, with some sources suggesting complications related to Aids and others attributing it to pneumonia. The complexities surrounding his tragic life and death underscore the far-reaching impact of the HIV-Aids pandemic, which has not only been a subject of discussion in the arts but has also claimed our best pens.

Closer to home, numerous Kenyan writers have utilised their talents to raise awareness about HIV-Aids. The trend picked with the coming of the new century. Noteworthy contributions include Meja Mwangi’s The Last Plague (2000), Joseph Situma’s The Mysterious Killer (2001), Wahome Mutahi’s The House of Doom (2004), and my late teacher Francis Imbuga’s Miracle of Remera (2004).

However, the focus should extend beyond mere representations of the pandemic or contemplation about its impact on the arts. The pivotal role of art in the wake of the HIV-Aids pandemic is to challenge the widespread stigma that has long affected individuals living with HIV.

The HIV-Aids situation across East Africa is significantly complicated by stigmatising and discriminatory attitudes towards those infected and affected. While other countries, notably Uganda, have witnessed a decline in stigmatising attitudes towards people living with HIV (PLHIV), Kenya continues to grapple with persistent discriminatory behaviours. Strategies implemented by national and county control programmes must prioritise the elimination of stigma and discrimination as central objectives.

Stigma and discrimination remain major social determinants driving the HIV-Aids epidemic, despite considerable advancements in medical treatment and increased awareness about the disease. I believe that mass-media campaigns related to HIV-related stigma should extend beyond celebratory days like December 1 and be sustained throughout the year(s) and made more comprehensive.

For instance, children’s books that include portrayals of characters with HIV-Aids can be particularly effective in educating students about the pandemic and raising awareness around it. Books of this kind should be co-opted as class texts in our curricular transition moment. If we can get readers accustomed to talking about cultural erosion, gender-based violence and tribalism, why not include those talking about our health challenges as a nation?

Utilising children’s literature and young adult literature genres as a tool to raise awareness about HIV-Aids and challenge stigma can be a game-changer in fostering understanding, compassion and empathy among young minds. Both offer a platform to introduce early our complex and sensitive health topics in an accessible and age-appropriate manner.

By incorporating engaging stories, relatable characters and educational elements, authors can help us to demystify the subject of HIV-Aids for young readers. This approach allows children to develop a foundational understanding of the virus and its impact on individuals and communities without overwhelming them with complex medical details.

In fact, books of this kind shall play a significant role in breaking down stereotypes and challenging stigma associated with HIV-Aids. Through well-crafted narratives, our authors and raconteurs can present diverse characters and situations that dispel myths and misconceptions surrounding the virus. These stories have the potential to encourage empathy, resilience and a sense of shared humanity, fostering an environment where stigma is questioned and rejected.

By empowering our children with knowledge and compassion, authors contribute to shaping a future generation that is more well-informed, empathetic and actively involved in addressing global health challenges, including the fight against HIV-Aids that decries the effects of the pandemic as is the case now.

Integrating children’s literature into the curriculum as part of government campaigns against Aids can be a powerful strategy for education and childhood development. Governments of our 47 counties can collaborate with educational institutions to organise special events or reading weeks focused on HIV-Aids awareness.

Another effective approach is to incorporate literature into existing subjects, such as health education and language arts. In health education classes, teachers can include age-appropriate literature that addresses the biology of HIV-Aids, helps our children gain accurate information and fosters compassionate attitudes.

Such frameworks as intimated above, that build our synergy between literature, education and intervention, may become dependable catalysts for transformative change in our societal attitudes toward HIV-Aids across our motherland.

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