Project: The African AIDS Pandemic

Polygamy may play role in infection rate

by John Carr

Many scholars question why HIV/AIDS erupted in southern and western Africa but has not done so in other places. Originally, scientists expected Asia to have soaring numbers, followed by Europe and the United States. That did not happen. Furthermore, in most other areas of the world, the HIV/AIDS rate has remained constant or has even declined. This phenomenon has puzzled researchers.

The root cause appears to be in the underlying roots of western African culture. Originally, most eastern and southern African tribes were polygamist and many continue to be polygamist. Swaziland, located west of South Africa, has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world at nearly 40 percent of the adult population. The king of Swaziland has 13 wives and marries another each spring.

While polygamy is not accepted in Western society, it is in African society. While most Africans do not have multiple spouses, the underlying roots of polygamy still control the culture.

There are two main types of relationships associated with polygamy: transactional relationships and concurrent relationships.

A transactional relationship is when a woman enters a relationship for food, money, or gifts. African society is very chauvinistic and male dominated. It is difficult for women to get jobs. Nevertheless, women need food for themselves and children and money to buy necessities. By having a relationship with a man, the woman will occasionally receive these items. Furthermore, the more transactional relationships the women has, the more items she will receive. These relationships are common and are the legacy of our ancient culture where women stayed home and the man went out and hunted to provide for the households.

Concurrent relationships are really the main transmitter of the virus. Women will develop these relationships with multiple men at the same time. For example, at any given time, a woman may have five long-term male partners with whom she regularly sleeps. This practice enables the virus to spread in a tree form, and, with multiple concurrent relationships, the virus is spread rapidly, forming a thick spider web through a village. This is not to say Africans have more sexual partners than others around the world. Actually, Africans have the same or even fewer sexual partners in a lifetime as Westerners.

Yet in African culture, these relationships are the norm. Africans think the West monogamist culture is strange as well. While the West continues to preach monogamy, imagine Africans coming to Western cultures and preaching polygamy. It would seem absurd.

A receptionist in a clinic in Botswana explained the cultures of the West. "The West has many diseases that come from their wealth, like strokes and heart attacks. We do not have those here often." She continued, "They [i.e., America] are a much different culture than here." She said she had heard of Texas from reading novels, "I have heard of Texas," she laughed, "and Chuck Norris, Texas Ranger!"