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  • 'I told them not to love one another!' Gender, Christianity and the role of adult education in the Ugandan response to HIV/AIDS
  • Marc Fiedrich1 (bio)

Introduction: Acknowledging The Boundaries Of Adult Education

The only vaccine to combat HIV/AIDS is education. (…) Unlike other contagious diseases, AIDS is easy to prevent and preventive education works. (proceedings of workshop, UNESCO 2001)

The image of education as an injection drug is a popular and compelling one, particularly in the context of HIV/AIDS. But while it provides a welcome boost to health education activities, it also carries substantial risks. The most pertinent is perhaps that education here appears as an external force that penetrates societies and individuals and reforms them in a predefined way. Such an overestimation of the powers of education is not only bound to create disappointment, it also skews our interpretation of failure once it does occur. When education fails to produce the 'rational' behaviour changes it is believed to harness (condom use, abstinence, faithfulness), inflated expectations are rarely blamed, instead education's unfulfilled promise is explained by pointing to 'barriers' that allegedly stood in its way: tradition, ignorance or, simply, 'culture'.

In this paper I argue that it is more useful to think of the moral boundaries within which education takes place than of the barriers to it. Crucially, the idea that education may push boundaries while at the same time proceeding within boundaries allows us to consider the educational process as an expression of the historical and political contexts within which it takes place. By contrast, a focus on barriers to education easily dehistoricises and depoliticises the endeavour, forgetting that education reproduces rather than invents societies. [End Page 17]

I start out by looking at why facilitators in one adult education programme in Madudu, central Uganda either evaded the issue of HIV/AIDS or limited themselves to hastily disseminated, moralising reminders about the value of faithfulness and abstinence. This tendency is all the more surprising when considering that the same group of facilitators eagerly discussed questions about HIV/AIDS and sex during their own training to become adult educators. Why did they regard such a discussion as inappropriate or difficult in the context of an adult education class? A first line of explanation considers the long-standing link between adult education and Christian organisations and practices. Learning rituals in the classes resonated with those of Christian worship and this I argue has consequences for the moral boundaries of debate. In short, facilitators and participants were not comfortable for class discussions to contemplate without immediate condemnation those practices and beliefs they took to be 'un-Christian'. Some adult educators may consider this a barrier to 'open debate' and one that in this case may carry serious health risks. It is argued here that recognition of such boundaries is a helpful first step for exploring means of working within them as well as expanding them. This is not to say that adult education should avoid challenging the sometimes undoubtedly bigoted views of learners but it is to say that, for better or worse, the control programmes can exercise over actual debates in classes is far more limited than widely imagined. To recognise this puts into perspective some of the contradictions that have plagued adult education practitioners ever since Freirean conscientisation efforts were first criticised.

The perception of gender relations is a second important aspect explaining why debates in the classes were more likely to stick with solemn pledges to marital faithfulness than to address safer sex practices. Far from being self-assured patriarchs, I argue that many Ugandan men, rightly or wrongly, perceive their male authority to be on the wane. HIV/AIDS may well be a contributing factor, since public debate on the issue tends to condemn what was previously widely considered a virtue - men's sexual prowess. Being the wife of a man with largely unfulfilled patriarchal aspirations can be a delicate role to assume and this may prove all the more true for women learners. That is so because schools in Uganda have long been regarded not only as a place of opportunity for women but also as a risk to their feminine integrity. Thus...


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pp. 17-41
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