- Witches, Westerners, and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa
Alexander Rödlach provides a substantive analysis of processes of meaning-making surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zimbabwe. Focusing on "sorcery" beliefs and theories of "conspiracy," his book queries "how these two types of belief became attached to the disease, attributing the epidemic with meaning and behavior" (p. 4). It consistently and effectively argues that in present-day Zimbabwe conspiracy theories and sorcery beliefs operate in tandem to offer everyday understandings of the medical causalities of the epidemic and ready explanations of why particular individuals become stricken with HIV/AIDS.
Rödlach's study centers on Nkulumane Township, one of Bulawayo's poorer suburbs. Close to a decade spent working in Zimbabwe first as a Catholic priest and then as an anthropological researcher has afforded him the opportunity to do the sort of deeply immersive fieldwork advocated most notably by the anthropologist Paul Stoller, whom he cites (p. 19). The duration and depth of Rödlach's experiences in Zimbabwe is reflected in the [End Page 101] scope of his evidence and by the subtlety with which he generally reads his sources.
Incorporating interviews, archival research, mass media, newspaper cartoons, video clips, photographs, and material culture, the book contains ten chapters of varying length distributed among four broad thematic sections: The Cultural Life of HIV/AIDS (Part I), HIV/AIDS and Sorcery (Part II), HIV/AIDS and Conspiracy (Part III), and the Implications of Culture (Part IV). The book's first chapter, "Investigating Sorcery and Conspiracy," is particularly strong. Laying out Ro¨dlach's (fairly standard) ethnographic theory and methodology, it also ably attends to the politicocultural exigencies of working in Zimbabwe and the ways in which Rödlach successfully negotiated his multiple positions as white, European, "junior," researcher, and priest. Of special interest to other researchers working on supernatural and/ or other "unseen" situations is the chapter's discussion of the particular challenges of investigating and developing data sets about phenomena that are often invisible and necessarily elusive. Rödlach writes, "the issue is not how we can find factual evidence of these secretive beliefs and practices, but how we can break through the veils of secrecy to gain access to the meanings and functions of sorcery beliefs and conspiracy suspicions" (p. 24).
The remaining chapters do just that, offering multiple strategies for the ethnographer to apprehend why many Zimbabweans consider HIV/AIDS in the ways that they do, and why they express their ideas about the epidemic in the ways that they do. Chapter 2, "HIV/AIDS as a Personal Experience," examines how the idiom of crisis underpinning Zimbabwean history during the last century has contributed to the construction of particular meanings, and ways of meaning-making, in regard to HIV/AIDS (p. 46). Chapter 3, "HIV/AIDS and Sorcery" drives home the point that beliefs in sorcery are as much an issue of affect as they are one of rationality versus irrationality (p. 58), while Chapter 4, "A Sorcerer's Servant-Being," makes sharp use of mass-media sources to examine the figure of the ondofa, the sorcerer's familiar, and to trace broad discourses of "eating" and "consumption" surrounding the activities of the ondofa and their relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Noting how for Zimbabwean women "marriage has become the single biggest risk factor in HIV-infection" because of widespread male infidelity, Chapter 5, "Infidelity and Sorcery," explains how sorcery has emerged as a female tactic for combating men's adultery, and by extension HIV-infection, and draws parallels between the sorts of "wasting" symptoms experienced by HIV/AIDS sufferers and by those men preemptively ensorcelled by their wives (pp. 93, 101). Chapter 6, "Conspiracy Paradigms," aims to define the category of "conspiracy theory" more precisely, a move that would have [End Page 102] been welcomed a bit earlier in the book, and suggests that conspiracy theories and sorcery beliefs should be read together because they each seek to answer the question "Where did HIV...