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 My song against AIDS
 Commentary: Speaking out on AIDS
By Femi Anikulapo-Kuti *
Copyright© UNICEF Romania/ Paul

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 father’s death, he and his family hoped to lift the veil on the killer epidemic, and of Femi’s 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 father’s 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 continent’s 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. Africa’s hard-won gains in recent years – in health, education and industry – are evaporating.

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 have.

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 men’s 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 one’s 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.


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