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Reviewed by:
  • Witches, Westerners, and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa
  • J. Gary Linn, PhD (bio)
Witches, Westerners, and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa. Alexander Rodlach. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2006. 247pp.

With over 40 million cases of HIV/AIDS worldwide, people who are infected, particularly the poor and underserved, seek to understand their illness better. In Witches, Westerners and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa, Alexander Rodlach gives us a uniquely comprehensive perspective on how many people in Southern Africa and other developing areas explain the origin and spread of HIV/AIDS. While this work would stand alone as a significant contribution to anthropological theory and method, it is equally important for health (AIDS) education and treatment because illness beliefs influence prevention programs and help-seeking behavior, including anti-retroviral treatment. Further, through his richly detailed ethnography from Zimbabwe, Rodlach shows how the social and historical context fosters the development of sorcery beliefs and conspiracy theories that compete with scientifically-based information on the etiology of HIV/AIDS.

Rodlach’s book is organized into four interrelated sections. The first addresses the cultural life of HIV/AIDS. The first chapter is devoted to a discussion of research methods. Rodlach explains the difficulty of gathering valid information through conventional quantitative social surveys on sorcery and conspiracy beliefs and practices. He outlines the participant observation case study method that he followed in Bulawayo and other communities in Zimbabwe. With local assistants, he conducted a series of in-depth qualitative interviews over time (approximately one year) detailing peoples’ personal and family experience with HIV/AIDS and how it related to themes of sorcery and conspiracy. Complementing the interviews with historical data, newspaper stories, film clips, and native art, Rodlach created a rich work of ethnography.

Chapter 2 describes recent social, political, and economic events in Zimbabwe and how this situation of general decline and crisis was conducive to the emergence of sorcery and conspiracy beliefs about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Using Social Representations Theory, 1the author explains how sorcery and conspiracy explanations become anchored and objectified in the minds of people struggling to understand their disease.

For many Zimbabweans, the government is perceived as corrupt and exploitative, using the AIDS crisis to enrich itself. This is illustrated by a cartoon from the Harare Daily News, which suggests that officials have misappropriated a special AIDS levy earmarked for health services. International corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also perceived as working against, not for, the common good. Drug companies aere criticized for profiteering on anti-retroviral therapies and NGOs for squandering on luxurious offices and generous administrative salaries donations meant to support victims of the epidemic. [End Page 1008]

Part Two of the monograph includes several chapters on sorcery beliefs and practices. Although this section includes detailed discussion of seemingly fantastic perceptions of the origin and spread of HIV and many difficult-to-pronounce ethnographic terms in Ndebele language, it is extremely important for scholars, policy makers, and health care providers from the West, because it opens a window on a significant dimension of the African reality that influences help-seeking behavior. In Chapter 3, with the presentation of the sorcery paradigm, we are given a conceptual framework for interpreting this traditional worldview.

Sorcery is defined as learned malicious behavior meant to harm another, as opposed to witchcraft, which refers to malicious behavior that is innate to a person. Three sorcery techniques or practices are described: (1) isidliso—use of poisons that become operational when the victim touches them; (2) ulunyoka—use of poisons that operate magically on a victim; and (3) undofas—familiars (spiritual attendants) that are sent to harm a person. Belief in sorcery serves as an HIV/AIDS coping mechanism for Zimbabweans and others in Africa and elsewhere because an evil-doer can be identified, and their evil force (which makes people sick) can be neutralized.

In Chapter 4 we learn that undofasare believed to take on a physical form, small hairy beings that are visible and can be hunted and killed. When dispatched by a sorcerer to harm someone, they suck the victim’s blood and/or...


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