Purely by accident, I came across an article entitled ‘I lied about eating cow dung’. I thought it may be about the Swazi cow dung media meme, and in a way I suppose it was. The article appeared in the South African Daily News about eight months after the Swaziland claim. Unlike the Swazi one, this did not go viral, the media did not seem quite so interested, and it certainly took a while to find.
Frankly, it’s a very sad and humiliating story of a HIV positive woman who had heard about such an incident occurring somewhere and thought it would be a way of making some money. Apparently it worked for a while, but then it was revealed that there were no cows in the area. I feel sympathy for the woman, and I think this demonstrates how degrading and dehumanizing the media’s treatment of the original story is.
The English Daily Mail carried the Swazi and the South African claims, but they don’t appear to carry the story of the poor woman admitting it was a lie. One noticeable difference is that the Swazi version says the dung is mixed with water, but the South African one says it’s eaten dry. I find it hard to believe it would be palatable enough to stay down even in a healthy person, let alone someone who is sick, wet or dry. But media coverage didn’t go into whether the story was plausible or not; the very implausibility is what makes it ‘news’. And it’s about Africans, so why wouldn’t it be true?
When I ask people about HIV transmission, they tell me with such certainty about things like widow inheritance (which occurs, but is not as common as some people think, and is not much practiced where HIV prevalence is high), wife swapping (which occurs everywhere, though HIV prevalence is not very high everywhere), concurrency (which occurs everywhere and is not clearly related to increased HIV transmission), lack of circumcision (which may be a complete red herring), etc.
The problem with concentrating on the sensational (or the sensationalized) is that we are missing the most important aspect of the HIV pandemic: in some parts of some countries, all of them in sub-Saharan Africa, huge numbers of ordinary people, doing ordinary things, are infected. In most countries in the world, the majority of people who are infected with HIV engage in risky behavior of some kind, generally receptive anal sex or intravenous drug use. But, ridiculous headlines notwithstanding, most Africans have ordinary sex lives, most don’t knowingly engage in risky practices, not without good reason, anyhow.
We have, I would argue, accepted a dehumanizing and stigmatizing explanation of HIV transmission among Africans, one we would never accept if it were about Westerners. It’s easy to accept these stories, about eating cow dung, bizarre levels of sexual activity, renting used condoms, etc, and not to see them as dehumanizing or stigmatizing, because they are just a few small parts of our picture of Africans. Worse still, much of the HIV related research being carried out tends to accept the sort of assumptions that lie behind these and other dehumanizing stories.
There is so much certainty in all these stories, but virtually no humanity. Why is it so hard to say ‘no, hundreds of Swazi people (as claimed in one version of the story) do not eat cow dung’ or ‘no, Tanzanians do not rent used condoms by the night’ or ‘no, I don’t believe that almost half of all HIV positive Kenyans has been infected as a result of wife-swapping’? Wouldn’t a healthy skepticism be enough to make one question these stupid stories and to see them for what they are, racist and dehumanizing myths?