Nigerian star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti had the gift of music and a
personal courage that made him a larger-than-life figure. He had millions of fans around
the world and was a political activist who spoke up for the rights of his people and never
hesitated to criticize corrupt leaders. Many powerful people in politics and the military
wanted him silenced, but nothing, not even jail and torture, could break his spirit or
quiet his voice. What silenced him where nothing else could was AIDS. Fela died from the
disease in 1997, at the age of 58.
The day after he died, his family decided to announce
the cause of his death to the world. The news shocked and affected the lives of many
millions. His son, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, tells the story of how, in revealing the cause of
his fathers death, he and his family hoped to lift the veil on the killer epidemic,
and of Femis own personal crusade to break the silence surrounding AIDS, the
greatest catastrophe facing Africa.
In Nigeria and many other countries in the developing world, an unacceptable silence
continues to hamper efforts to check the fast and deadly spread of AIDS. Governments,
families and individuals have all played into the hands of the disease by remaining silent
or not speaking out loudly and repeatedly enough for the message to sink in.
After my fathers death, his brother Olikoye Ransome-Kuti and I spoke up because we felt a
personal need to break the silence about AIDS. We felt it would be criminal to continue in
the conspiracy of silence, which only encourages ignorance, stokes denial and perpetuates
misinformation during this monumental catastrophe.
The moment we went public was also the start of my personal commitment to give a voice
to the shocking reality of AIDS.
In my concerts, I speak about AIDS, and I often have banners on stage promoting AIDS
awareness. I also try to build this awareness through other forums and I challenge others
lucky enough to be in my position to do the same.
AIDS is real and it is here, indiscriminately cutting down those we know and love brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers.
Africa and its friends need to confront AIDS with the same determination and unity as
they would any enemy seeking to annihilate them. Although battle hardened, Africa has
never confronted such a ruthless foe: Of the 2.8 million people who died of AIDS last
year, 79 per cent were Africans. By the end of this year, 10.4 million children under the
age of 15, the majority in Africa, will have lost their mother or both parents to AIDS.
AIDS is our continents greatest social and human catastrophe in history and its
profoundly grave implications on economic and political stability are already evident:
Families are devastated, communities are decimated, hospitals are overwhelmed. Schools
have lost teachers to the disease and pupils are being forced to drop out for lack of
funds. Businesses have suffered personnel and productivity losses that are difficult to
absorb. Africas hard-won gains in recent years in health, education and industry are
We are grateful that the United Nations Security Council this year discussed for the
first time ever a health issue and put AIDS in Africa on its agenda, asking donor nations
to commit more resources to fighting it.
With such help, however, must come national obligations as well. One of the most
important actions for governments and all those in positions of influence, knowledge and
power is to raise the alarm loudly and clearly. Information is a powerful tool in the
struggle to tame the rampant spread of AIDS. In Africa, it is one of the few tools we
We have not used it very well. In some parts of Nigeria, only about 1 person in 10 even
knows what AIDS is, much less how to avoid it. And we are paying dearly for this
ignorance: There are 2.7 million people now infected with HIV in our country.
This lack of information exists not only here in Nigeria. Such levels of misinformation
are to be found all over the continent.
Failing to educate people about the disease is like signing their death sentence.
Political leaders, artists, performers and teachers, therefore, need to seize every
opportunity to educate people about how to protect themselves from HIV infection. There is
so much that needs to be said.
We must speak about the high risks our mothers and sisters face of contracting this
disease; their risks are higher than mens and boys. Girls and women are
extremely vulnerable. Physiologically, they become infected more easily than men, and
social pressures, cultural practices, violence, repression and prevailing values and
behaviours make it difficult or even impossible for them to protect themselves. We cannot,
with clear consciences, keep quiet about this. We must help women understand their rights
and risks, and we need to support them when they exercise their right to take control of
their sexuality and their bodies.
As individuals, we must speak of the need to change behaviour. It is suicidal to have
numerous sexual partners. The message must be repeated again and again in as many ways as
necessary that the surest protection against HIV infection is either abstinence or
practising safe sex and limiting ones sexual exposure. All those who are sexually
active must take full responsibility for their actions and health and use condoms to
protect themselves and others.
Equally, we must dispel the negative myths surrounding life with AIDS. As with many
HIV-positive people, Fela was ill for several years, and he was lucky to have a family
that loved and cared for him through the difficult times of his sickness. But many people
who are HIV positive are ostracized and treated as outcasts, or worse, by their own
communities. Far more often than we would like to admit, children and other sick people
are abandoned in hospitals or other institutions. Such ignorance and intolerance must be
stamped out. Those living with AIDS can be helped to live full and secure lives and in
turn help others avoid the disease.
In families where AIDS has struck, truth must be spoken about the cause of death. Using
popular euphemisms such as after a brief illness or attributing death to
supernatural causes or other substitutes makes it easy to ignore the real cause and thus
incur the further loss of life.
Let all of us who are losing loved ones to AIDS make it known that the disease is here
and it is indiscriminate in its attack. By accepting this, it will be easier for more
people to participate in information campaigns to enable those who have so far escaped
AIDS to avoid contracting it.
But behavioural change is only part of the solution. When people are poor and
unemployed, they feel hopeless. Many area boys and girls the street children of
Lagos have told me that they engage in risky sexual behaviour out of the boredom and the
lack of security and direction that comes with living on the streets.
The message is clear: To fight AIDS, we must fight poverty, with greater energy and more
resources than ever before.
Until there is a cure, let us raise our voices against HIV/AIDS in a song heard around
the world. It is a song of defiance and struggle.
But most of all, it is a song of hope the hope that
when we sing forcefully together, the silence and stigma that nourish this epidemic can be
broken, and life can triumph over death.
* Femi Anikulapu-Kuti
is a world-renowned ambassador of Afro-Beat music and a celebrity
advocate in the fight against AIDS. He gas developed television
spots and messages in Nigeria that reach millions of his young
fans and call for urgent action against practices that lead
to death of young and old alike. See profile.