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Islands of Love, Islands of Risk

Culture and HIV in the Trobriands

Katherine Lepani

Publication Year: 2012

The Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea have been depicted as a place of sexual freedom ever since these small atolls in the southwest Pacific were made famous by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the early twentieth century. Today in the era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, how do Trobrianders respond to public health interventions that link their cultural practices to the risk of HIV? How do they weigh HIV prevention messages of abstinence, fidelity, and condom use against traditional sexual practices that strengthen interclan relationships in a gift economy?
Written by an anthropologist who has direct ties to the Trobriands through marriage and who has been involved in Papua New Guinea's national response to the HIV epidemic since the mid-1990s, Islands of Love, Islands of Risk is an unusual insider ethnography. Katherine Lepani describes in vivid detail the cultural practices of regeneration, from the traditional dance called Wosimwaya to the elaborate exchanges that are part of the mortuary feasts called sagali. Focusing on the sexual freedom of young people, the author reveals the social value of sexual practice. By bringing cultural context and lived experience to the fore, the book addresses the failure of standardized public health programs to bridge the persistent gap between HIV awareness and prevention. The book offers insights on the interplay between global and local understandings of gender, sexuality, and disease and suggests the possibility of viewing sexuality in terms other than risk.
Islands of Love, Islands of Risk illustrates the contribution of ethnographic research methodology in facilitating dialogue between different ways of knowing. As a contemporary perspective on Malinowski's classic accounts of Trobriand sexuality, the book reaffirms the Trobriands' central place in the study of anthropology.
This book is the recipient of the annual Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Prize for the best project in the area of medicine.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication Page

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pp. i-v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

My heartfelt gratitude goes to the people of the Trobriand Islands, whose contribution to this research is beyond measure. I hold deep appreciation and respect for all the men, women, and young people who were willing to sit down with me and talk openly about their culture and their lives in a spirit of trust and collective concern. Agutoki saina kwaiveka. Sincere appreciation is extended to the Trobriand Paramount Chief, Guyau Pulayasi Daniel, for his endorsement of...

Author’s Notes

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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-14

On the Losuia Primary School oval, the children solemnly make their entrance, one behind the other in close succession, from tallest to shortest, oldest to youngest—twenty young bodies resplendent in traditional finery. They position themselves in an open-ended circle that spirals outward, surrounding a cluster of adult men and women—teachers, fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles—who are the singers, drummers, and sponsors, or kepou, for the performance event. ...

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1. Models of Meaning and Ways of Knowing

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pp. 15-30

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, is a pathogen with multiple magnifications. In microscopic imagery, HIV is a patterned geometry of interlacing circles and diamonds. Carried in the cells of semen, vaginal mucosa, blood, and milk, the virus attaches to DNA helixes and assails T-cells. HIV colonizes the most basic dimensions of human experience, exploiting our fertility and sexuality while gaining velocity through social structures and processes that map multiple routes...

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2. “In the Process of Knowing”

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pp. 31-41

These three statements by Trobriand women of differing generations distill the central question of how HIV and models of prevention are understood in relation to cultural knowledge, sexual values, and practices. Generalized assumptions and moralities about sexual behavior and the risk of disease, which permeate global HIV prevention orthodoxy, are both contested and incorporated into local models of meaning as Trobrianders contemplate the presence of HIV in their lives. ...

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3. Connections to Place

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pp. 42-64

My connections to the Trobriands have been woven into the lineage of place since 1978, through marriage, childbearing, and my position as vevai, or in-law. In the early years of marriage, my learning about Trobriand culture was through attentive watching and doing, not questioning. To question felt like second-guessing, an intrusive and objective interrogation of what I thought should become apparent through passive absorption and mimesis. Increasingly, I became interested in turning...

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4. “Because We Can!”: Gendered Agency and Social Reproduction

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pp. 65-100

I was visiting my good friend Buna in her village shortly after the birth of her third child. We sat together on the raised veranda of her one-room family dwelling, and I cradled her newborn while she and another young mother chewed betel nut. Two playful toddlers and a crawling baby animated the small space, moving between our laps and outstretched legs. Our casual talk turned to questions I posed about pregnancy and childbirth when an older woman, a mother of five whose...

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5. Youth Sexuality: Making Desires Known

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pp. 101-134

The sexual exuberance that infuses the “Islands of Love” trope with such potency in the popular imagination is most powerfully evoked by the freedom that unmarried Trobriand youth enjoy in exploring and expressing their sexuality, unencumbered by repressive cultural ideology. The anticipated activation of sexual desire and agency during early pubescence locates Trobriand sexual culture in a unique place in relation to other parts of Papua New Guinea, and indeed many...

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6. Converging Meanings

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pp. 135-155

The Trobriand phenomenon of sovasova, or chronic illness that manifests from the breach of clan exogamy when members of the same matrilineal clan have sexual relations, exemplifies how disease etiologies and effects are socially constructed and constituted. As a form of cultural knowledge that links sexuality and disease, sovasova directly influences comprehension of HIV and AIDS in persuasive yet problematic ways. The topic of sovasova emerged unprompted in nearly...

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7. Fitting Condoms on Culture

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pp. 156-176

One day in June 2003, I noticed a familiar image on the exterior wall of a newly constructed bukumatula, built by a young unmarried man next to his parent’s house, just across from the church in Orabesi village. The image that caught my attention was the “Show You Care” HIV awareness poster produced by the PNG National AIDS Council Secretariat in 2002 (see Figure 7.1). Aimed at sexually active young people, the poster represents youthful modernity and consensual...

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pp. 177-183

The timber walls and doors of Trobriand houses are ledgers of daily life, displaying idle doodling, random musings, creative drawings, and images cut out from newspapers and magazines. Upon my return to the Trobriands for a twoweek family visit in January 2007, I was taken by surprise when I noticed a scrawl of chalk on the wall next to the entrance of my mother-in-law’s house. The hastily written message in English was simply “AIDS is preventable.” I asked household...


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pp. 185-189


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pp. 191-206


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pp. 207-232


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pp. 233-241

E-ISBN-13: 9780826518767
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826518743

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2012