July 19, 2007

HIV/AIDS and the media

Personal opinion BY KONDWANI MKANDAWIRE published in The Daily Times, Malawi;s web site

It is now almost 22 years since the first person was diagnosed with HIV in Malawi. Over these 22 years, the number of HIV positive people has risen to frightening levels.

Those that spearhead the fight against HIV/Aids have done research in a lot of areas with the intention of finding ways that can help slow down the spread of the disease. The results of the research have shown than the battle front is wider than anticipated. The skills and techniques to be used need to be up to date. One area that the HIV/Aids combatants have recently engaged is culture.

Malawi is a country with diverse beliefs and cultures. Unfortunately, some of the cultural practices that we have been proud of for centuries, have come under serious scrutiny for contributing towards the rising numbers of HIV infected people. It is not surprising that even the custodians of our culture, the chiefs have come out to confess that something has to be done to stop culture from contributing to the death of the nation through HIV/Aids.

All these HIV/Aids discussions need to reach out to the masses. One technological factor that has made this possible is the mass media, radio, television and more. The mass media makes mass communication easy. Mass communication, according to media theorist James W. Carey (1975), is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed. Mass media and mass communication in this 21st century are crucial aspects of many cultures. Through this cultural perspective on mass media, we learn that mass communication is only effective when the audience, producers and technologies are all part and parcel of the communication process.

Culture is the learned behaviour of members of a given social group. Others have expanded on this meaning. Writer M. Harris gives this meaning; culture is the learned, socially acquired traditions and lifestyles of the members of the society, including their patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling and acting. Why am I bringing up this integration of mass communication and culture in the HIV/Aids context? As a producer of mass communication programmes, I have come across some cultural barriers that are so embedded in some Malawians so much that they don’t understand how mass communication can assist in the fight against HIV. The biggest problem with these cultural sycophants is the belief that there are some things that cannot be discussed on the radio or Television because doing so would be profane or obscene.

But what is the main channel of HIV transmission? According to the experts, it is sexual intercourse. The teachings of HIV prevention therefore emphasise on sexual intercourse. The ABC of HIV prevention is all about sex.

It is therefore heart breaking when you are told by some mass media ‘experts’ or individuals that when you are communicating with the masses on issues of HIV, one needs to censure ones language. There is a saying in Chichewa that says; moto umapita kwatsala tchire (fire goes where there is still bush.) there are a lot of youths in Malawi that are not yet infected with HIV and some are not yet sexually active. If Malawians continue believing that discussing sexual issues openly with this group is obscene, we will not win the battle against Aids. These people need to wake up and start understanding that the culture of euphemism in HIV/Aids communication has led to many youths trying things that they don’t understand because everybody was afraid of using obscene language. ‘Does a fish know that it’s wet?’ influential cultural and media critic Marshall McLuhan would ask. The answer he would say is “No”. The fish’s existence is so dominated by water that only when water is absent is the fish aware of its condition. Do we want our youths to continue believing that sex is natural that is why everybody is having sex? Is it obscene when you use the radio or television to tell the youths about the dangers of sex? Should we wait until one is infected for us to realise that sex can be dangerous? I believe this is an era in which we all have to fight the euphemism culture and start calling a spade a spade. If we are to save the future generation from HIV, the mass media ‘experts’ that think discussing explicitly on radio or TV sexual issues in the context of HIV is obscene should find another job.

These people should understand that culture provides information that helps us make meaningful distinctions about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, good and bad and so on. How does culture do this? It is obviously through communication including mass communication. Cultures limiting effects can be negative when we entrust our communication to media gurus whose interests are narrow, unwilling and unable to move past patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling and acting. A culture’s values and beliefs reside in the stories it tells. Our stories help define our realities, shaping the way we think, feel and act. The stories that people tell about their sexual experiences on radio or TV can help a lot of people change their sexual behaviours.

The good thing is that the youths find these so-called ‘obscene’ programmes very helpful. It must be mentioned here that this communication must be professionally and ethically transmitted but the media ‘experts’ should not hide behind ethics when it is apparent that they don’t understand media ethics. They don’t even know the difference between explicit and obscene material.

Mass communication is not just transmission of messages in space but it is central to the maintenance of society in time. In other words, the ritual perspective is necessary to understand the cultural importance of mass communication. The mass media has a crucial role in informing the next generation about the dangers of HIV and everything that goes with it explicitly so that the youths know and understand. HIV/Aids is compelling us to change the way we live, think and act on issues of sex. It calls us to change our sexual life style. We are forced to change the way we communicate on issues of sex and sexuality. We are persuaded to abandon the ‘culture of silence’ and start talking explicitly about the very issues that we all culturally thought were a taboo to prevent accelerated rates of HIV infections and unnecessary deaths.

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