Keep the Culture

The man is peeing on the side of the road; in the gutter, in the daylight.  We are walking by three donkeys and an old woman wrapped in a white shawl holding a purple umbrella to protect her from the sun. We come to a bridge that crosses a river surrounded by tall arcadia trees with a few small tin and wooden shacks in the distance. An old woman with no teeth gives us a big wave as we climb over a rail on the bridge and make our way down a steep windy hill struggling to keep ourselves balanced.

 

 

My girlfriend and I sit on a rock and feel the warm sun and gentle breeze on our skin. Thinking we are alone, we kiss during a perfect moment until we feel what seems like a bee sting. Both of us look up and see a teenage boy, wearing an Arsenal Football T-shirt, dirty jeans and sandals, throwing rocks at us.  We wave thinking he is joking but he is not and then a flash mob develops and  the stones become rocks and huge clumps of mud and I narrowly miss severe brain damage when a large stone just misses my skull.

“You’re killing our culture,” they yell.

Last week Ethiopia hosted a conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted diseases. Much was made about the economic benefits and the positive global exposure.  But perhaps the most striking statement came from Canadian AIDS activist Steven Levis who argued that Africa could not meet the millennium development goals until the disease is eradicated from the continent.

During the same time period I was looking at renting a house when the potential landlord asked “You’re not into any of that gay stuff that’s going on here are you,”

I was amazed. Yet, the topic came up again and again this week.  On Amharic radio stations and on the street I kept hearing about people who had invaded Addis trying to ruin Ethiopia by bringing homosexuality here. Some even got the entire ICASA conference confused with a few meetings involving people who were gay during the conference.  I saw one person pointing to a picture of ICASA delegates exclaiming, “I hate those people.”

Had they gone to what is being termed the “gay conference,” or had they read some of the numerous abstracts presented at the ICASA what they would have heard or read was that when people are forced to hide their behavior out of fear they are more likely to practice unsafe sex and less likely to seek treatment.  Research presented at the conference indicates that a large amount of men who have sex with men also have it with women. This would seem to indicate that because of the stigma these men are probably not telling their female partners about whom they really have sex with and that the spread of HIV probably cannot be contained unless all at risk populations are adequately reached.

And to reach them people need to be able to have honest communication about sex.

Think of all the men who visit prostitutes and keep it a secret from their families. Or people who cheat in general. Everyone involved in a sexual relationship needs to know what is really going on with a person they are intimate with and that can only happen if people are not afraid to talk about what they really do.

This doesn’t mean that people need to change their cultural moorings.

It may surprise you that the US, despite its more “loose,” attitudes, faces similar issues. There, heroin is illegal and almost no one condones its use. Yet, it is a major way the virus is spread and a population must be reached regardless of the legality of what they are doing.  The US has programs where clean needles are distributed in places drug use is known to occur. Drug use has not gone up since programs like this have been implemented while HIV rates have gone down.

Or, for a more local example, go around Piazza after sundown and you cannot go two feet without bumping into a street girl many of whom look like puberty is not a distant memory for them.

Certainly this is an issue that needs to be addressed but I don’t think anyone would argue that screaming insults or throwing stones would be an effective way to change their behavior.

Everywhere you go, all around the world people are having sex. It gives us life and pleasure. It also brings about a lot of emotionally charged attitudes. Another example of this came this week when the Saudi leadership justified the continued ban on female drivers by arguing that if women were allowed to drive they would be more likely to have sex.

This of course seemed a curious statement since almost all of us have sex, which is why it is so important to win the war against STDs and HIV/AIDS. It is a war that can only be won if we are honest about sex.

Ethiopia has one of the strongest cultures in the world, strong enough for an honest conversation, or a kiss.