Posted on June 21, 2005

‘Africa’s Fatal Sexual Culture Spreads Aids’

Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), June 19

Joshua leant forward, raising his voice over the blaring music: “Myself, when I finish drinking I just go for any girl and have sex with her. I do flesh to flesh. There is no reason of using a condom once I am HIV. I’m dying.”

Joshua was in a Zambian nightclub talking to Sorious Samura, the British Bafta award — winning documentary maker from Sierra Leone. Samura had moved to Zambia to live with a family suffering from HIV/Aids and spend a month working in a hospital where more than half the patients had the disease.

Having carried the body of an infected child from his hospital to the mortuary and seen death and suffering day in, day out, Samura reacted with anger to Joshua’s words. “So you’d prefer to take more people with you?” he shouted. “Don’t you have a conscience? Can’t you think you’re destroying the world? You are sinking Africa.”

Joshua remained emotionless and calm. When asked how he would react if someone had unprotected sex with his sister knowing that he was HIV positive he simply said he would “feel nothing”.

This shocking scene will be aired in a powerful Channel 4 documentary, Living with Aids. Samura made the programme to try and find out why HIV/Aids was destroying his continent and after speaking to a number of men such as Joshua came to realise that sexual attitudes played a huge role.

He went further on Saturday night, saying that in the pervasive culture, where children start having sex at five, six or seven, “success [for men] is measured by the number of women they sleep around with” and women “were disempowered”.

He felt qualified to make the controversial comments, he said, because he had grown up in the same environment where it was normal to be promiscuous. “The majority of poor people tend to live in single rooms and it is very difficult to have privacy,” he told UK newspaper, The Observer. “We [would] see elder members of the family when they were having sex. I grew up in that setting.”

Samura said that many of the youngsters would copy their parents. “I was hooked on the game of practising what I saw,” he said. “We used to call the game Mum and Dad. I started having sex when I was seven.”

Samura admitted he went on to have unprotected sex with multiple partners. It was “disciplined friends” and ‘religious Muslims’ who eventually convinced him to change in his 20s.

“They had to fight”, said the 42-year-old. “It took them so long to talk me out of it and get me to practise monogamous relationships.”

His childhood attitudes remain ubiquitous 20 years on and continue to act as a deadly catalyst for the disease. According to Samura, Africans have to face up to this if there is any hope for the future.

His stand is controversial; he is pointing the finger at the victims themselves. But he said he was not afraid to make such comments because of the horrifying statistics.

“There are 6 000 people dying every day,” he said. “That is twice those who died in 9/11.” He also pointed to the 26-million Africans who have died from HIV/Aids, the same number who are living with it and more than 11-million children who had been orphaned by it. Zambia is not one of the worst hit countries, yet one in five of its people are infected.

“We have to get to the bottom of this,” said Samura. “That means challenging our culture. I know it is controversial but if it will help Africans to win the fight against this epidemic then so be it.

“What tends to happen in an environment like Joshua’s,” he said, “is that people who suspect they are infected seize the hopelessness. They have grown up in a culture where women and cars signify success, and African women are not empowered like in the West. To some extent tradition makes married women bow down when they know their men sleep with younger women.”

Samura said he and others often challenged “lifestyles and attitudes” in Britain so they should be able to do the same in Africa. If the same number of deaths were taking place in the West, he added, leaders would take action. Samura accused African leaders of being in denial, except in Uganda, where “[President Yoweri] Museveni stood up and said, ‘This is the problem, this is destroying the country,’ and somehow the disease has been contained.”

Being from Africa himself helped Samura get the truth out of those he talked to. People told him: “You are one of us; you know the culture.” This helped him to empathise.

Samura’s told how his attitude changed in his late 20s when he became involved in an HIV awareness campaign with Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund. There he volunteered for an HIV test because he knew he “was a wild one”. “I think in those days it was the waiting that kills you — because you just keep thinking, ‘What will happen?’“ Samura had to wait more than three weeks for his results: “I was thinking if it came back positive I would just take my life, because the stigma was very heavy.”

Samura said his friend who had tested positive became an outcast. But even though Samura expected to see a similar situation in Zambia, he was nevertheless shocked to see families abandon their loved ones.

Kenny had 23 children from eight mothers and was suffering health problems. When he returned home from hospital, not one of his 22 brothers or sisters came to meet him.

Irene, who has four children and six grandchildren, had not told her family that she and her husband Felix both had Aids. “Taboo is a big problem,” she said. Despite their situation she admitted she had not told her son to use a condom. When asked why, she replied: “I get shy.”

In the programme she finally told her family the truth. Her two daughters decided to be tested themselves, and in a heartbreaking scene one had a positive result. The girl said she had not thought to use a condom with her last partner.

In Zambia, Sumaru witnessed preachers condemning the use of contraception. One priest told a room full of orphans: “I do not support the use of condoms,” shouted the priest. “Because that has been made by man. Man cannot protect this — it is only God.”

While he said that he believed in abstinence for teenagers, Samura said it was worrying to hear the priest’s words, “when you know what I know”.

But he was not just condemning the culture. “Quite a good number of people don’t have recreational facilities,” he said. “They don’t have jobs and they are very poor and you tend to embrace sex as one of the ways you relax.”

However, this all had to be put in context: “When Africa was being run by tribal leaders and chiefs the understanding was the more powerful you became the more women you should have and the more children. It was a system for elderly people. As time went by young Africans started seeing it as a mark of achievement — the tribal structure had broken down but all the younger ones started thinking it was cool.”

While few debate the role of culture in the epidemic, some say there has been a lot of progress. “I know that people say things like, ‘Using condoms is like taking a shower in a raincoat,’ but in the last few years there has been huge change,” said Gill Fonteyn, a project co-ordinator in Dula Sentle, Botswana, working with Aids orphans.

Samura acknowledged this, adding that there had been great steps in terms of the empowerment of women, which could change the men’s ways. “So they can start imposing on men’s behaviour and say, ‘You have to use a condom.’ Now people are going for testing where they would not four years ago. There is a long way to go but there is a lot of hope.”

The documentary maker said he hoped his message, however controversial, would start to make a difference. “The question I ask myself is: When are Africans going to stand up and take responsibility?” he said.

“If it means we going to offend some people when we look to ourselves for answers then so be it. We have got to contribute to saving lives, especially those of children.”