In Africa, AIDS
is a pandemic that has already destroyed millions of lives directly
and indirectly. In remote villages the problem is worsened by the
lack of information and modern medical care. While researching indigenous
tradition's in Uganda that combine music, dance and drama, Vanderbilt
ethnomusicologist Gregory Barz found local women's support groups
Barz returned to the Lake Victoria region of Uganda last summer
to demonstrate and document the link between a recent decline in
Uganda's HIV infection rate and the grassroots efforts of these
rural women's groups. In the area where many think the HIV virus
first emerged, he found that efforts based on traditional Western
medical models have proven largely unsuccessful, inaccessible and
expensive. "Only when supported and encouraged by performances
that draw on local musical traditions have medical initiatives taken
root in local health care systems," he said.
drums beat out an invitation to the locals returning from the day's
labor in the fields. With no other promotion or advance work, such
calls often are answered by more than 100 men, women and children
from the network of small villages surrounding a particular venue.
In a culture where the word for music, ngoma, includes singing,
drumming, dance and drama, such traditional performances are as
much about education as entertainment.
tenets of many faiths have long been made
easier to remember through psalms, hymns and chant. From the "Alphabet
Song" to "Schoolhouse Rock," the value of music as
an educational tool is familiar to most Americans. Halfway around
the world, Barz sees these women's groups literally "singing
Aida Namulinda is a farmer and the leader of one of the 45 women's
groups that the ethnomusicologist studied. While her group prepared
for the performance, she explained to Barz, "No one will listen
to us unless we bring our drums. No one will listen to us talk about
Slim (AIDS) unless we dance."
As the evening
of music-making began, several men brought out kisoga xylophones,
panpipes, tube fiddles and drums from one of the grass-roofed huts
to accompany the ensemble. Wearing brightly colored dresses, the
women encouraged everyone gathered to dance, sing but most importantly
to listen for the very direct messages concerning proper condom
use, zero grazing (faithfulness to partners), sexual abstinence
and the virulence of HIV/AIDS.
During a break, Aida explained that music is now embraced by village-based
groups such as hers as the most effective and immediate means available
to educate the people of remote villages about medical and health
care concerns. When the music started up again, she demonstrated
her point through a series of songs dramatizing the ways that women
can fight back against the spread of HIV and how they must reclaim
their health and rebuild their lives even though they may have tested
positive for the virus.
a lot to learn from the Ugandan example," said Barz. "Too
often Western cultures deem catastrophic illness as rendering the
victims helpless." Many of the HIV-positive women report that
dancing energizes and singing gives them back more than it takes.
"Rather than just being positive, the women we spoke
to are choosing to live positively, helping others,"
"A lot of money flows into that part of the world because of
the AIDS pandemic, but not a lot trickles all the way down to the
local villages," Barz said. With little or no support from
government or charitable agencies, these women now often turn to
demonstratively more effective means of communicating information
through traditional Ugandan culture using ngoma performances
for the healing, counseling, care and education of their neighbors.
"The women are proving that one person can make a difference,
without money, without outside support," said Barz.
In many ways Uganda is at the center of the HIV/AIDs pandemic in
Africa. The nation has become a leader in the funding of research
on the control and monitoring of fluctuations of infection rates.
Testing, education, awareness and treatment have become national
issues, with Uganda's President Museveni taking the lead in de-stigmatizing
the disease by pronouncing AIDS an "open secret."
have separated the disease from sex and taken away the shame so
people are willing to take care of others. This is a model for a
more compassionate response," Barz said.
"In this regard, the country has dealt aggressively with HIV/AIDS
to a much greater extent than other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa,"
said Barz. According to the latest figures from the U. S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 400,000 people have
died from the disease since it was first diagnosed in the country
in 1984. It is estimated that another two million people are now
infected with the virus. At one time the figures represented approximately
30 percent of Uganda's total population.
infection rates are reported by the Ugandan government to be below
8 percent, in many of the eastern villages it is estimated that
one in four people is already infected. "The women in this
region face a phenomenal risk of HIV infection and ultimately death
from AIDS," said Barz.
"On many occasions we asked the women living positively with
HIV why they persist in their efforts, why they continue to dance
when they have so little energy," said Barz. "The answers
given remain profound for me. They do not want other women and children
to experience what has been forced upon them, and they will use
whatever power they can access to educate others, no matter how
small the rewards," he said.
Barz found that
women are often raising multiple generations of orphaned children
at the same time they are faced with the reality that they must
also plan the inevitable need for similar care and education for
their own offspring.
As AIDS has devastated entire villages, women have joined other
survivors to form what Barz describes as "indemnity groups"
that take the place of extended families to provide financial, educational,
spiritual and support networks. "Most rely on subsistence farming
for food in the region naturally rich with bananas and cassava,"
said Barz. Fishing and cultivation of a diminishing coffee crop
round out the majority of goods available for trade.
trips to record and document the indigenous music of the region,
Barz had found that women's music was considered to be more private
than men's and was little studied. "It was unusual even to
see a woman with a musical instrument," he explained.
"Ethnomusicology is concerned with understanding how things
change: how music can be used in social action, even with no money
in a small Ugandan village," said Barz. "The goal is to
understand how others live in the world and to learn about ourselves
in the process."
"There is a very fine line between studying something and changing
it," warned Barz.
Traditionally it has been the men who were sought out and recorded
by visiting scientists. "So the act of recording these performances
provides validation and attracts more attention for the messages
the women are trying to convey," he explained. "I inadvertently
effect change when my recording efforts forefront women's voices."
There is value
to the medical community too. Doctors involved with HIV/AIDS medical
research in the Ugandan capitol accompanied the Barz team to some
of the villages.
Because of the social climate in these areas, men often reject or
pay only lip service to prevention efforts. "In this region
alone there are over 50 different terms for HIV/AIDS," said
Barz. "Music is a primary form of communication and education.
Research that ignores these performances may miss key factors in
the way the most vulnerable people make sense of this disease."
Imbedded in the texts of many songs are both direct and veiled references
to issues and commonly held beliefs surrounding the HIV virus. "Many
believe that the disease selects the body it wants to infect, deliberately
choosing its victims," said Barz. "Another myth is that
if an HIV positive man sleeps with six women, only the sixth will
become infected; the other five are thought to be safe."
and the practice of "zero grazing" or faithfulness to
one's partner or partners are radical ideas in a society where polygamy
is widely accepted and practiced. "You know, these men that
we live with, they cannot do without sex," said Aida. "For
men, sex is a natural biological act; they feel it is something
By singing about issues like the need for blood tests, Aida and
other women feel they gain strength and fight the spread of the
to field research Barz teaches courses on jazz, world music, and
African music and religion at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.
He plans to return to Uganda in the summer of 2002 to follow up
and confirm the link between the recent decline in Uganda's infection
rate and the grassroots efforts of local groups like Aida's.