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TV UK, 30 June

Living with AIDS: responsibility and nihilism in Africa.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Living with AIDS (Channel 4 on Monday) was trailered as a controversial investigation of how the fight against the disease is hampered by the cultural attitudes of young African men who refuse to practise safe sex.

As promised, filmmaker Sorios Samura did rail against the irresponsibility of the men he spoke to in the documentary, but the emphasis on ‘culture’ was undercut by the greater part of the film, which emphasised the more material problems facing AIDS sufferers and medical staff in Africa.

For a start, the Zambian hospital in which Samura worked as an orderly to get firsthand experience of the problem was chronically underfunded and consequently dirty and bereft of medical supplies. The patients Samura met were desperately poor. They had to walk miles to and from the hospital and they had no social security net to fall back on when they became too poor to work.

It soon became clear that the fight against AIDS in Africa cannot be separated from the more general and equally urgent need for development, and this was also apparent in the apparently cultural aspect of the problem identified by Samura. While he speaks with the moral authority of an African – living with one of the families affected reminded him of his own childhood in Sierra Leone – his worldview is very different from that of the people he spoke to.

When two prostitutes at a nightclub told him they offered sex without a condom for a higher fee, he asked them incredulously if they realised they were risking their lives. They couldn’t answer, but it seems possible that life as a prostitute in a dirt-poor country like Zambia just doesn’t seem that precious.

And when Samura spoke to drunken young men who insisted on having casual ‘skin-skin’ sex despite the obvious danger in their part of the world, there was an equally apparent gulf between his own socially responsible outlook, and the desperate hedonism of these men with little hope in life. One man said he already had AIDS, so why should he care? Samura asked him what he would feel if someone else with that attitude slept with his sister. ‘Nothing’, came the reply.

Of course this is demoralising, but the bitterness and nihilism of this young man have little to do with his culture, and surely everything to do with the hopelessness of his situation. Imploring men like this to take responsibility is unlikely to have much effect as long as the broader situation remains unchanged.

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