The Influence of Religion on HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa


Traditional Religion


Religious Pluralism

The term “traditional religion” or “indigenous religion” in an African context refers to any belief system that originated and continues to thrive within the continent. Ironically, a challenge one faces when researching traditional religions in Africa is, in fact, related to the impact other faiths have had on indigenous belief systems. For example, Africans were subjected to evangelization beginning in the colonization period. While a majority of Africans adopted the faiths of their oppressors, many clung to the customs and beliefs of their ancestors. Gradually, Christian and Muslim practices intertwined with traditional ones, fusing two religions into a collective whole . Today, traditional faiths remain an important element of African spirituality, though they also complicate and blur the lines between religious groups. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that traditional customs and beliefs can and often do appear in religiously ambiguous and pluralist groups.


Curing Methods

In Sub-Saharan Africa, HIV is often associated with a transgression from social norms or an abandonment of cultural rites practices. To become healthy, one must reaffirm their social standing by completing a variety of curing procedures. These customs can and often do encourage multiple sex partners, thus aiding the process of HIV transmission. One exemplary example is the practice of sexual cleansing. According to traditional understandings of spousal death and widowhood, it is essential that a woman sleep with the brother of her deceased husband, an act that allegedly releases his ghost and rids the woman of his haunting presence. Of course, the more sexual partners one obtains, the more likely HIV will be contracted, making this practice particularly dangerous. Moreover, given the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, women frequently loose partners, thus propelling the number of widows. Failure to participate in sexual cleansing and other traditional practices fuels stigma and shunning from the community. Therefore, sexual cleansing is a religious requirement that negatively influences HIV rates by extinguishing female choice.


Traditional Healers

Traditional healers, or sangomas, add another element to the discussion on indigenous belief systems. Due to numerous controversial events, such as the barbaric slaying of albinos, growing skepticism surrounds the issue of sangomas in Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite such negative press, sources indicate that HIV patients continue to seek the advice of sangomas, usually before approaching a Western health professional. Unfortunately, misdiagnosis and insufficient treatment from sangomas can exaggerate rather than solve physical ailments. For example, sangomas commonly attribute HIV to spirit possession and perform body purges to eradicate the evil ghost within or concoct herbal remedies that actually pollute and weaken the already frail patient.


Biomedical Misunderstandings

Sexual intercourse with a virgin is also identified as a cure to HIV in traditional belief systems. Like sexual cleansing, HIV is frequently associated with spirit possession and “cured” with the very act that spreads the virus. This cultural misconception of HIV transmission further demonstrates the need for communication between indigenous and Western healing methods. Considering that “more than 200,000 traditional healers are active in South Africa,” and that “80 percent of black South Africans” visit traditional healers – often before Western doctors – it is clear that education must begin with indigenous health advisors (Kane). In their position as trusted health and spiritual resources, sangomas have the opportunity to positively impact HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa by offering prevention techniques and treatment measures. As showcased by a partnership between traditional healers and government churches in South Africa, some sangomas have in fact embraced their position as health and spiritual advisors by joining classes on HIV awareness and religion.

Created by: Ruya Norton

World Politics, Spring 2009