Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Linking HIV/AIDS disease infection with superstition

When Josephat Ouma died of AIDS disease in June this year (2014), there were some mixed feelings among some mourners most of whom his own kinsmen who turned up during his burial in Buganjo village, Rorya district in Mara region. The mourners had a belief that his death was not natural and that it might have been caused by something else and not AIDS disease from which most people knew. Such feelings also dominated the minds of his closer friends who associated his death with a curse believed to have overcome him as a result of breaching tribal laws and or other traditional customs. According to their beliefs, once the elders of the clan are angered as a result of the breach of any traditional laws and customs, normally are compelled to retaliate with such a severe punishment. The curse popularly known as ‘Chiraa’ is a name derived from Luo vernacular language used by ancient tribal elders to describe a situation under which a person suffers and his body becomes emaciated with all signs more or less like a person who suffers from a deadly AIDS disease before he dies. The tale about Ouma’s death and others who have ever suffered the same wrath like him and later died unexpectedly remains a subject of debate up to now, despite most people keeps on maintaining such  barbaric beliefs as true facts though none of them has yet proved beyond any reasonable doubts. This is a superstitious belief that is being portrayed by some people in Buganjo village, Rorya district in Mara region whose residents most of whom belongs to Luo ethnic community that forms the largest population group of the people in the district’. The tale about ‘Chiraa’ as it is believed among the ancient Luo community members is used to describe the situation which overcome people as a punishment administered by the elders of clans to offenders after having violated rules and traditional customs required to be observed in a community. Such people are condemned by elders of the clan after having chosen their own ways which were forbidden and considered abominable while performing rituals which later on angered traditional elders of the land whose role was to impose such rules and ensure are strictly observed. The elders of the clan once annoyed with any action or deeds performed against their wishes intentionally, they become annoyed and impose a severe punishment to offenders by administering local herbs which have magical powers in it that harm the offenders who become emaciated and ultimately they die. There are so many traditional customs and rituals which were already initiated by ancestors in Luo community to be adhered by the incoming generations correctly without going astray.  Among them includes failure to perform the rites of the deceased forefathers. Others includes disrespect shown to elders of families, failure to pay sacrifices to the Goddess of the land especially when planting seasons approaches and many others which are related with traditional rituals and beliefs as a key factor to maintain the tradition.   Recent investigations gathered by this writer who happened to be present at the ceremonial burial of Josephat Ouma, who suffered HIV pandemic disease in Buganjo village, Rorya district in Mara region  can reveal that, most elderly people in the area still embraces such ancient tribal beliefs. The tales of such beliefs which ironically do not bear truth in it, have no sufficient evidences to prove beyond any reasonable doubts compared to scientific research knowledge activities currently being undertaken whose results are proved by facts.  Zedekia Atito, who is among the oldest men in the village said that, in the past his forefathers used to precaution him when he was still young not to go against any traditional customs otherwise he would be punished by the elders accordingly.  The punishment he described in this case was to overcome ‘Chiraa’. Kamlus Opiyo another old man in the village insisted the same and further narrated that, in the past it was quite impossible to hear someone breaking the traditional customs and other rituals for fear of being punished and added that offenders were even isolated from the rest of community members. He told this reporter in an exclusive interview when contacted that, whoever was found not to strictly adhere to traditional customs had to face such calamities and when they die no one dared to attend their burials except few selected relatives. Opiyo whose age is estimated to be in his early nineties recalled such tales which were being told by his grandfather when he was still very young. However he clarified that those cursed and later died were buried far a distance from their homes just like people who were suffering from leprosy disease. Confirming the existence of such a belief Benedict Ogola the oldest surviving old man in the village estimated to be aged between 90 and 95 years, castigated the existence and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS pandemic disease among the community members. Ogola who the present younger generation calls him Jaduo’ng, a word of respect for elderly men as expressed in Luo vernacular language in honor of his old age, said that Chiraa is a curse which overcome members of Luo community who tend to breach traditional customs. He further noted that, those believed to have been cursed their bodies became so emaciated and eventually were left to die unattended without any help, and when they die only few people were selected by elders of the clan to accomplish their burials. He added such people were not given proper burial according to tradition because of the curse which fell upon them due to mistakes they had committed deliberately against the traditional customs that had angered elders of a concerned clan,  

The Three old men met with this writer during a ceremonial occasion organized by Ouma’s relatives that targeted the performance of the second burial rites in remembrance of their deceased brother as part of the traditional customs of the Luo tribe. It is in these occasions when members of the families gathers to perform various rituals under strict observation according to the tribal rules bearing in mind the fact that, the dead ones had left behind children and wives who as per Luo’s traditional customs have to be engaged as part of tradituion. The real significance of such performance to honour the deceased is to cleanse bad misfortunes that might follow the deceased children, and for that matter rituals have to be performed as part of traditional rule. Other diseases which caught the attention of the community members and regarded as a curse to whoever was affected in a community included the tuberculosis disease as well as leprosy. From many ancient African traditional tales, leprosy disease was regarded as a curse to people who committed great mistakes that had angered the elders of the clan for the disease had neither cure nor treatment.  In view of this, the affected people when they die were not given proper burial as deserved like others who died of normal diseases, and sometimes their bodies were thrown in forests and left there only to be devoured by wild animals. Since the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS disease in the country over 30 years ago, such beliefs have become predominant in various entire community ethnic groups and have made people to strongly believe that, there is little existence of the disease which has become a threat in the global community. The belief in Chiraa as related to people who are infected with HIV/AIDS disease has a positive distortion to the actual meaning of the situation under which an AIDS sufferer might show in a normal circumstances although the basic signs known for the victims are the same. In this case, Ouma’s death just like others whose deaths were caused due to HIV/AIDS infections should not have been related with a belief in Chiraa situation because after all he had all medical documentations and prescriptions that indicated he was a HIV positive, said a close relative. Clarifying over the matter Dr. Michael Samson of a private hospital in Tarime district said in an exclusive interview that, a mere speculation about such  death that is related to superstitious beliefs should not be taken as true thing  to make people believe for whatever has not been proved scientifically by doctors or researchers. What makes people believe that Ouma was cursed and that his death is not natural death caused by HIV viruses, is when his two wives Elizabeth Akinyi and Monica Adhiambo are still alive and their bodies looks very healthy.  But according to Dr. Samson when one couple becomes thin and later on dies, it is not necessarily that the other should follow immediately. It depends on the strength of one’s CD4 cells in the body. Commenting over the issue, the chairperson of the National Council for People Living with HIV/AIDS pandemic disease (NACOPHA), Vitalis Makayula, said that, among the challenges faced by his council in their daily operation is where there are some people whom relates the disease with superstition. He said in an exclusive interview in his office last week in Dar es Salaam that, there is a misconception among members of the tribal community who distorts the prevalence of the HIV pandemic saying that those infected have been bewitched. Such beliefs are still inciting the real battle Instead, the persistent stigma and discrimination attitudes shown to the sufferers in these areas increase the impact of the epidemic in families and communities at large. He also noted that, there are even some religious leaders in some parts in the country who undertake the scourge as part of business activities by believing the affected persons to have been bewitched an aspect which he says is wrong. In view of this, however, he is appealing to members of the communities in Tanzania that, they should develop a habit of going for voluntary test in order to establish their status instead of being deceived and lose their monies to witch doctors who have commercialized the disease pandemic for their benefits. In Tanzania here he said, one important observation is that most of these reported cases involve people living in urban areas who can at least afford to access hospital treatment. People in rural areas have a disadvantage for this for reasons ranging from ignorance where there is still a belief that those suffering from HIV related cases have been bewitched. But on the other way round, people fear to go for a voluntary testing because once they knew that they were infected they would be stigmatized. However, he has raised a concern for the law to penalize those who are fond of stigmatizing the infected individuals in the country noting that a state of affair has instilled fear to undergo tests to determine their health status. Beyond legal redress, there are many other ways of tackling HIV/AIDS related stigma and discrimination in Tanzania and Africa as a whole. Public information campaigns for example have an important key role to pay in helping people understand the unfairness and injustice of stigmatization and discrimination. The community engagement campaigns can change individual and social attitudes, participatory education can help individuals place themselves to respect those who suffer discrimination and thereby appreciate the injustices of discriminatory actions. Through grassroots activism, advocacy and involvement in development and implementation policy actions of people living with HIV virus can be a radical force for change, breaking down the barriers to the full realization of human rights, Makayula noted.

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