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Dropping Like Flies: How We Talk About AIDS in Africa

Doctor-turned-journalist Uzodinma Iweala puts a human face on one of the most talked about epidemics in history.

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Doctor and journalist Uzodinma Iweala

Over the last decade Africa has become a global synonym for HIV/AIDS, a continent of orphaned children and lantern-eyed women. American PSAs and fundraising collateral flog the same devastating statistics: 23 million infected, 1.2 million deaths per year. In the cultural imagination, HIV/AIDS has arguably morphed from the "gay cancer" into the "black scourge."

In his new book Our Kind of People: A Continet's Challenge, A Country's Hope, doctor-turned-journalist Uzodinma Iweala explores how seemingly innocuous rhetoric scrambles any clear understanding of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Crisscrossing Nigeria, his family's native country, Iweala interviews truck drivers, sex workers, doctors, patients, and activists, asking each what it means to live alongisde the epidemic. In the process, he captures the fragile human stories behind all the catastrophic numbers.

Iweala, whose previous work includes a novel, Beasts of No Nation, is also a graduate of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 2007 he was selected as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. I recently spoke with him about how clinical experience informs his journalism, the metaphors we use to talk about AIDS, and the virus' guerilla humor.

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Mother Jones: How did you come to write this book?

Uzodinma Iweala: Right after undergrad I started doing low-level work on health issues in sub-Saharan Africa, and what struck me was the disconnect between how people in New York would speak about some of the issues people were facing. At the time, 2006-ish, there were a number of big media campaigns to raise awareness about HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Their language just didn't seem right to me. Everybody was very interested in making a difference and trying to get people treatment, but the language was dehumanizing those very people everyone was trying to help.

MJ: You mention the phrase "dropping like flies" as an example of dehumanizing language.

UI: It's a very common phrase, but when you think about the long history of comparing Africans to animals or of Africans being closer to nature, it begins to seem a little less benign. For me it was a jumping off point in noticing all these other things, like the comparisons to monkeys and whatnot.

MJ: In the book you lament the often sensationalistic representation of HIV/AIDS in Western media. Can there be a compromise between that imagery and the urgent need to raise money?

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