Last week, I read Witches, Westerners, and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa by Alexander RÃ¶dlach (Left Coast Press, 2006). Rodlach argues that societies undergoing rapid destruction–such as cultures in Africa ravaged by AIDS–search for explanations that make sense, that help them to get out of bed in the morning. “Understandings of disease produced by this search for meaning do not necessarily match biomedical explanations,” he claims. “This is reflected in the classic distinction between disease, which refers to abnormalities in the structure and function of body organs and symptoms, and illness, which refers to the human experience of sickness that is shaped by cultural factors governing perception, labeling, explanation, and valuation of the discomforting experience” (p. 4). Is this just another way of saying that one culture labels a particular sickness demon possession, while another labels it psychological madness, while yet another labels it prophetic or something else? Maybe, but I think it also helps to explain how people could have two very different explanations for the same phenomenon co-existing within their mind. Example: how a South African might variously explain HIV as sexually transmitted but argue that AIDS is a witchcraft-related affliction. (At the moment, I’m ignoring Thabu Mbeki’s infamous declaration that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and the impact that must have had on South African society as a whole.)
Had an interesting conversation with my little brother about this topic of witchcraft-as-explanation-for-AIDSÂ over the weekend. He often thinks about why we, as humans, seem to need these kinds of supernatural explanations, rational or not, testable or not. He suggested that the ability to imagine the things we haven’t experienced allows our societies to grow. Somebody who was cold but had never seen a house had to realize thatÂ binding sticks or rocksÂ together would provide shelter from the wind and the rain. People had to imagine democracy before it existed. Mathmatically, we know the 6th dimension exists but we can’t experience it–we have to imagine it. In this case, witchcraft explanations for HIV are part of that necessary imagination. Is it possible to suggest a particular belief may be harmful without damaging the ability to believe?