Lost in translation: H. I. V.

From Heather, at A Minha Vida, I learned of an interesting compilation of HIV-related slang (originally from PlusNews). As they observe, the euphemisms we choose to say the unsayable often tell us quite a bit about our own cultures. In Angola, for example, getting HIV is like “pisar na min” –stepping on a landmine. But they also tell us about what is going on in the epidemic. It’s an astonishing sign of progress that antiretrovirals are already common enough to have their own slang. In Zimbabwe, for example, people with AIDS are said to be “drinking mangai” — boiled corn seeds that look like antiretroviral pills.

One of my favourites on this list is Nigeria’s Ato nai ise – “Five and three” (5 + 3 = 8, and “eight” sounds like “AIDS”). I like this for a completely off-topic reason: young Chinese often sign off text messages and e-mails with “88”. In Mandarin, 8 is “ba”, so 88 is “ba ba”, enough like English “bye bye” to make it a quick and cheery farewell.

Back on topic of not being able to talk directly about HIV and the things that spread it, I was at first disappointed by the mealy-mouthed HIV policy trotted out by Zimbabwean opposition party Movement for Democratic Change. If you were playing AIDS bingo, you’d have a full house in no time; it’s chock full of all the usual jargon: empowerment, expanded multi-sectoral responses, gender equity, mobilising stakeholders etc etc. Precious little about sex, nothing at all about the tut-tut issues of intergenerational or same sex relations.

Having said that, the fluffy language does hide some sensible policies: Better services for sex workers, including STI care services. Stronger action on sexual abuse, including for children. More efforts to promote condoms. Compulsory licensing. Spousal housing for public sector workers. And they are at least brave enough to put on the table the things that would be sensible to do but are still political hot potatoes:

Some policy areas have not been fully resolved, and the MDC will continue to ensure informed public debate and dialogue on issues such as partner notification, shared confidentiality, reproductive health education for adolescents, commercial sex workers and prisoners, and the promotion of gender equality in a manner that respects social norms, but that also confronts those that are leading to the spread of the disease impeding its management.

I think that last sentence means: stop men behaving like pigs without turning women into harridans, but I can’t be sure. I think we may need better euphemisms.

This post was published on 25/08/08 in Uncategorized.

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  1. Comment by Ian Hodgson, 26/08/08, 10:54:

    This is fascinating – the power of language (and by implication metaphor) to shape our world is often underestimated. I’ve always been intrigued by the following phrase, heard in health care and civil society alike: “He’s HIV” or “She’s HIV”. Seems almost as if HIV infection has become a way of categorising a person – an attribute like any other marker of character or personality.

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