'Illness of unknown origin' and 'pockets of rubber'
February 9, 2005 www.mg.co.za
HIV/Aids is a serious subject, and is not usually much fun. But this time it
was. In this remote spot of southern Côte d'Ivoire, it was as if the circus had
come to town.
Music boomed through the loudspeakers as local chiefs took their seats under
awnings which offered shade from the relentless tropical sun. Village women
performed a traditional dance. And a swish lady announced guest speakers with a
The Côte d’Ivoire Network of Media Professionals against Aids, known by its
French acronym Repmasci, was kicking off its promotion campaign for an Aids
lexicon in 16 local languages. Obodroupa, a village dominated by the Bete
ethnic group of President Laurent Gbagbo, had the honour of staging the first
The Aids lexicon project was launched by first lady Simone Gbagbo four months
ago. Since then, a team of specialists have come up with local language
equivalents for words like "Aids" and "contraceptives" to promote a better
understanding of the virus and its implications among Côte d'Ivoire's rural
Hundreds of villagers attended the ceremony, which consisted of speeches, comic
sketches and traditional dance. A feast was laid on too.
The Minister of National Reconciliation, Dano Djedje, and the prefect
(government administrator) from the nearby town of Gagnoa drove in as guests of
The condom dwarf warns the first wife
In villages like Obodroupa, weddings and funerals are the only events that
punctuate the routine of rural life. Every opportunity to dress up, dance and
celebrate is welcome -- no matter what the occasion is.
Village promotion campaigns are therefore a festive affair, whether they are
about washing powder, toothpaste, or Aids.
Ironically, some people had no idea what the excitement was all about, except
that it had something to with Aids.
The organisation did not present the audience with anything tangible, such as a
booklet or a printed vocabulary. The ceremony was really to announce that the
promised lexicon would soon be ready for publication.
But if that message was lost on most villagers, the comedians made the basics of
Aids-awareness abundantly clear.
A dwarf-sized actor waving a condom-covered wooden penis took centre stage.
"That disease you're talking about, does it kill second and third wives?" an
actress asked, seemingly excited about the prospect. "Sure, but before you get
rid of your rivals, you should know that it kills first wives, too," joked the
Repmasci chairman Youssouf Bamba said that his organisation worked closely with
the government's agricultural extension services institute Anader. Its agents
would use the lexicon to discuss Aids whenever they visited villages to discuss
crops and livestock, he said.
Bamba said local radios in Côte d’Ivoire, who mainly broadcast in local
languages, would also receive the soon-to-be-published booklet.
Reaching an illiterate audience
"A lot of villagers are illiterate, so handing out booklets to them would not do
any good," Bamba said. "What we are celebrating today is the fact that we have
created a way of communicating about Aids with villagers and farmers in their
The project still has a long way to go. Confronting village chiefs and elders
with sex-related topics is very much taboo, said Yeboua Kouassi Ban, a linguist
who helped develop the Bete vocabulary on HIV/Aids.
"You have to be very delicate and you can never broach the subject directly," he
In the Bete language, Aids has been translated as "ayeblenegou", meaning "an
illness of unknown origin", he explained. Contraceptive sheaths were called
"pockets of rubber". The Bete term for someone who is HIV-positive is "the
person who has been infected".
"It is important to have this vocabulary, because uneducated people often don’t
grasp the meaning of the French words," Ban said.
The United States-sponsored RetroCI project, based in the commercial capital
Abidjan, donated $25 000 to finance the linguistic research.
However, not everybody in Obodroupa participated in the festivities.
Ignorance and taboo
The campaign was ignored by two young men sitting in what appeared to be the
village bar, a small seating area covered with corrugated iron. Asked if Aids
was a topic of relevance to them, one of the men let out an embarrassed giggle
and turned his head away.
His friend simply said: "It should be cured, so we don't have to worry about it
After some prodding, the young man said he suspected that several villagers from
Obodroupa had died of Aids, but that nobody knew for sure as they had all died
in hospital in a town nearby.
Côte d'Ivoire, which has been split in two by civil war for the past two and a
half years, has the highest infection rate of HIV/Aids in West Africa.
According to government figures, 9,5% of the country's 16-million population
carry the HI virus, but many health workers believe the real infection rate is
The owner of the bar in Obodroupa said Aids was often mistaken for an illness
inflicted by witchcraft. "Also, there are many people who believe that Aids
does not exist. They just won't listen," he said.
Traditional beliefs and the reluctance of families to discuss the disease often
stand in the way of Aids awareness in villages, said Serges Kuyo, a businessman
from Abidjan who was born in Obodroupa.
"I have been to university, I have travelled abroad and I have a successful
business. So you would think that I'm relatively well-informed on matters like
sex and Aids," he said.
"But as one of the youngest men in the family, I don't have the right to speak
up when I return to our village. That is the way things are," Kuyo said.
"When my eldest brother was about to marry his third wife, I told him he should
stop making babies and start wearing a condom. He was scandalised and would not
listen to me. It's impossible to discuss sex with family elders. It's considered
a sign of disrespect." -- Irin