Holy water or Wholly AIDS? by Guest Blogger Tania Khojasteh

jetheriotWhile conducting an HIV/AIDS and gender workshop for a group of women in a rural and predominantly Christian Orthodox community in Ethiopia, I encountered what I call a classic clash between traditionalism and modernism within development work.

After a two day workshop on preventative measures to transmitting HIV, I asked the ladies in the workshop what they thought was the best method to preventing HIV, and whether there was a cure. A response from a young woman sitting in the corner of the room was holy water.

A bit flustered, I collected myself and inquired more. I was very curious about what she meant by holy water. She explained that the best way to prevent and cure any disease was through drinking holy water, and that she did not see HIV as a threat because if god has put an obstacle in our way, he has also provided a solution in this case, holy water.

After probing a bit as to whether or not aside from holy water there were any other ways to prevent HIV, I ended that days workshop with a lot of confliction and confusion. How do I, a modern young woman, convince a proud young woman who believes so firmly in her faith that there is NO cure for a disease that could kill her and her loved ones? How can I explain to someone who believes so affectionately in the benevolence of a superior being, that according to modern science he is not responsible for preventing or curing this disease? Why should she have to believe in modern science when it emphasizes the role of the individual in self-care and self-protection, something so contrary to her philosophy of life: worship of a superior being, and obligations to communal living, where everyone, including god, and all members of the community are responsible for the well-being of others.

My logic versus her logic.

But in the end, how do we compromise these two rationales? Is there a safe middle line?

Is it holy water or wholly AIDS?

(photo: Jetheriot)

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7 Responses to “Holy water or Wholly AIDS? by Guest Blogger Tania Khojasteh”

  1. Pedja at 4:27 am #

    Im not sure if there really is a safe middle line. In order to even come close to some sort of middle ground youd need not only to completely re-educate them but, more importantly, to radically change their understanding of God. The question is whether all our efforts will ever successfully change or, at least, have any impact on their philosophy of life. The fatal mixture of pagan superstition and Christianity is deeply embedded in their religious culture and it would take generations to significantly change this particular outlook which, as in your example, is responsible for the rejection of any preventive methods that could combat the spread of the disease.

  2. Amin at 4:34 pm #

    Its a good question…I hope someone has an answer for this…
    I like the holy water analogy…I would like to know what happened after…did you carry on the discussion?

  3. Tania at 4:46 am #

    Amin, the workshop finished and I walked away with “confliction and confusion” about the work/workshop I was doing and how effective out HIV/AIDS education was. It’s hard to probe discussion on these delicate subjects because people’s belief or what I call their “life logic” is at stake. Ultimately that woman’s comment was just an example of the kind of responses that I sometimes had in my workshops which led me to thinking about what I said at the bottom of the article about “two logics” clashing – with neither one being better, but just a different approach to life. The question I ask myself is how can one stop an endemic when there is a different “life logic” at work in areas where the disease has so widely spread. How do I, as a well-meaning development worker, effectively work towards stopping the spread of the disease when people’s logic that god and family can get you through anything is at work!? How do I do this without emphasizing the role of individualism (in self-protection, standing up for your rights etc), which is contradictory to their life style, and criticized/rejected for being “western” and “modern” concepts?

    Pedja, you are right that there may never be a “safe middle line”, and perhaps there will always be a bias reflected in the change that comes about. The only thing I would add is that as development practitioners, we have to come up with programs that suit the life logic of people (not impose our “beter/educated ways”. After all, the way to make effective change is to respect the rationale the local people use to govern their lives – we are no imposing missionaries (albeit receiving similar criticism from “arm chair scholars”). But how does one stop rampant diseases, abuse, oppression while not to a certain degree impose our “scientific/educated/western/modern” ways for which we are harshly and sometimes unfairly judged for by academics (after all there are some good benefits from modern science and the things it can teach us about HIV/AIDS – and it’s only fair that everyone has access to this knowldege)? It’s certainly not an easy job!

    I guess in a way I am not just asking a rhetorical question (which I subtly answered in the article), but I am more so pushing for some food for thought on this subject, as I will be writing a bigger article on this topic.

  4. Tarini at 8:11 am #

    At first, my instinct is to scoff at her “holy water” but faith works in mysterious ways. Even doctors have studied the placebo effect – how one’s own belief can cause your body to heal without chemical effects of medication.

    The problem for me, is that as western, modern individuals we have knowledge. About HIV and prevention, survival, treatment. But we are groping in the dark for a cure. We rely on the dribs and drabs of news that come from the medical world with its talks of a HIV vaccine in the works..

    That is hardly enough when faced with the implacable belief in god’s will. Who are we with our knowledge but no real answer to the question of cure when faced with unswerving belief?

  5. katej at 8:38 am #

    Great article! I recently read this book called Sizwe’s Test by Jonny Steinberg. The author follows a young man in South Africa over the course of one year to find out why he won’t test for HIV, despite his high risk. Of course, South Africa and Ethiopia are completely different, but the author tries his best to unpack the two different world views experienced by himself and his subject. Its really interesting!

    The thing I found interesting in Ethiopia as well was how pervasive these beliefs about HIV were – it was certainly not a fanatically religious few. For example, as I was researching my thesis at the University of Addis Ababa, I came across several graduate-level studies conducted around the role of holy water in curing AIDS (inconclusive). As well, one of my co-workers at a non-profit in Addis herself “knew” that AIDS could be cured through sufficient and meaningful prayer…this is someone who is paid by Canadian donors to fight against the disease!

  6. Amin at 4:24 pm #

    Is it feasible to use their own logic to explain how to deal with such endemics?

    By bringing in policies regarding disease containment and preventative measures that are communicated through Christian dogma, local knowledge, and local traditions, i.e. using “traditional” means to justify the “modern” means of dealing with endemics.

  7. Solo at 11:44 pm #

    You guys don’t even know the half of it. It remains shocking that the majority of the Ethiopian population firmly believes that “holy” water cures HIV/AIDS. What blew my mind while growing up there is that people believe that this regular clear fluid that flows out of the government tap as good ol’ H2O turns int a magical elixir once a priest has dipped a cross into it. Oh, and it can cure EVERYTHING! Everything? EVA-RY-THANG! Hell, people FAST when they’re sick in the hopes that depriving themselves of vital nutrition will cure them cos big G will give out gold stars for piety. It is so widespread, it is endemic.

    At this stage though, if Zenawi’s administration wanted to truly get to the core of this issue and put a brake on the accelerating infection rates that are hurtling us right into the obliteration of our young workforce, they would have involved the clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church a long time ago. The way millions of people believe in the church system (mind you, not the word of the Bible as it was written, but the mechanism that creates the industry of the Church) could be utilized to respect the tradition, while solving a crisis that doesn’t give us the time to even think about attempting to deconstruct faith systems that have been embedded 3 thousand years ago.

    I remember when I was a kid and the churches, after their services, would blare from megaphones as a way of community outreach for new mothers to vaccinate their kids against the polio virus. The number of infections the following year plummeted due to the church’s involvement in the campaign. The church needs to get involved in public outreach similarly. And the Zenawi’s administration prevention and education campaign MUST act swiftly to incorporate youth leaders in Churches to get out there and educate the community on the physical realities of HIV. In the specific case of Ethiopia, we cannot separate the church’s role in public opinion. We are the country that is the evolutionary and technological seat of humankind yes, but we need to get off our asses on this HIV thing!

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