International Writers Magazine: Review:
for Life: HIV/AIDS and Music in Uganda
By Gregory Barz
Paperback: 280 pages
Ronald Elly Wanda
question "where were you during the millennium revelry?"
has now become a historical. For me, save for the champagne I drunk
on that eve, I will always remember it as the time I lost a dear
aunt to the "plague". Whilst our London residence was
crowded of people celebrating the dawn of what the UN ambitiously
termed "Africas century", in Kakamega (west of Kenya)
my kinfolks mourned for having lost their daughter on
The DJs strident
selection of Robbie Williamss Millennium song, although
appropriately titled, did not at all obstruct Remmy Ongalas powerful
song Kifo (death) that was concerting in my mind as I reflected on my
aunts life and the folks shed left behind, thousands of
miles away in Western Kenya.
As such Gregory Barzs interesting new book that I came across
in the course of researching a forthcoming piece on African popular
music, offers a fascinating read and its accompanying CD a harmonious
In Singing for Life: HIV/AIDS and Music in Uganda,
professor Barz develops six themes in his toil. He stresses the necessity
of Africans to start going beyond western models of medicine, and strongly
suggests the need to approach the disease as a culturally defined and
socially determined phenomenon. He discusses how music is used as a
strategy and response to cultural conceptualisations of HIV and AIDS
Unlike other armchair academics that have visited the East African peninsular
in a haze and rushed back to their shores to publish inflated tales
of "how poor Africans are busy dying of Aids", which makes
"sensational" readings for western readers, Barzs book
instead offers a useful ethnographic account of how education about
HIV/AIDS is presented to Ugandan audiences through dance, drama and
Working with womens groups, Doctors, indigenous healers, since
1999, he investigates how song texts refers to HIV/AIDS, and how women
suffering from HIV/AIDS have become empowered through their music, dance
and drama presentations, as a result they are what he calls singing
A weighty ethnomusicologist, he wrote his PhD on East African Choral
Communities titled: "The Performance of Religious and Social Identity:
An ethnography of Post-Mission Kwaya Music in Tanzania", in the
course of and since then he has continued doing extensive field research
on musical matters within the East African Community with the support
of the Fulbright Foundations AIDS in Africa Research Program.
Thus his efforts qualitatively resonate throughout the books entire
250 pages, his remarkable account of East Africas public health
problems brings together science, history and personal experience to
argue that lives can be saved by trusting musical rather than medical
As a native Bantu, I found it relatively easy to listen to the nine
indigenous songs on CD that accompanies the text, although the book
contains extensive translations of song texts appear throughout for
the non native. Each chapter in the book contains a case study (or "interlude")
that includes an interview with a specific person or persons on the
subject in hand.
For example, in Chapter 2, "What you sing nourishes your body like
food", the case study Dr Alex Muganzi Muganga is labelled "our
problems are bigger than AIDS", referring to illiteracy and poverty.
And it is easy to see why; on the global scale, Uganda is classified
as a HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Country) with a majority of its population
living below the poverty line, or those with less than $2 a day to spend.
Dr Muganga further reflects on the changing roles religious leaders
have adopted, starting by making no reference to the disease, but subsequently
incorporating reference into summons at church services.
Chapter 5, "Singing in a language AIDS can hear", extends
the discussion on the role of religious officials in dealing with HIV/AIDS.
Chapter 3, "No one will listen to us unless we bring our drums",
discusses how women have attracted men to their performances. The womens
songs provide texts on the need for HIV AIDS testing, the need for single
sexual partners, and the physical indicators and consequences of the
presence of HIV/AIDS. Elsewhere, another recent research by Dr Kemi
Odu strengthens Barzs observations in chapter 3; "young men
in Sub-Saharan Africa find it difficult to confine themselves to one
woman for period of one year. One-third of men, believe that death is
inevitable, that change in sexual behaviour is unlikely to be of any
help in HIV prevention and that they have uncontrollable sexual urge
in spite of risky sexual behaviour"(see Research in Education Journal,
While in the past HIV/AIDS victims were afraid to be seen in the public,
the various grassroots organisations that formed have provided health
support to victims, and through the arts have provided them with medical
advice, support and encouragement. TASO is going forward with
positive living is a song performed by The AIDS Support Organisation
(TASO) at Mulago Drama School. The theme of "re-memorying"
includes charming the listener with cultural reminiscence within songs,
and the insertion of favourite songs in the HIV/AIDS patients
individual memory books, written for their children.
In conclusion, there is no African person whom I know today that can
claim not to have been affected (whether directly or indirectly) by
the "plague" that is marked by loss of resistance to infection.
Over the past two decades, there has been no single phenomenon that
has changed the face of sexuality as much as the appearance of the microscopic
virus known as HIV that if not treated develops into full blown AIDS.
AIDS, contrary to some western notions, is not an "African problem"
but instead a global one, it is usually more naked in Africa because
of what Dr Muganga has called poverty. Drawbacks of Barzs
book are that he fails to acknowledge the Ugandas NRM regimes
efforts in the countrys war against AIDS, (currently around 6%
of the population is infected as opposed to almost 30% in the late 1980s)
when it came to power. Also the book lacks map to show where the individual
communities with whom the research was conducted are located, lack of
discussion of the various ethnic groups who live in Uganda.
© Ronald Elly Wanda
ronald2wanda at yahoo.co.uk
About the author.
Ronald Elly Wanda MCIJ is a Political Scientist based in London.
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.