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COTE D'IVOIRE: Tackling the 'Illness of Unknown Origin' with 'pockets of rubber'

HIV/AIDS is a serious subject, and is not usually much fun. But this time it was. In this remote spot of southern Cote d'Ivoire, it was as if the circus had come to town.

Music boomed through the loudspeakers as local chiefs took their seats under awnings which offered shade from the relentless tropical sun. Village women performed a traditional dance. And a swish lady announced guest speakers with a microphone.

The Côte d’Ivoire Network of Media Professionals against AIDS, known by its French acronym REPMASCI, was kicking off its promotion campaign for an AIDS lexicon in 16 local languages.
Obodroupa, a village dominated by the Bete ethnic group of President Laurent Gbagbo, had the honour of staging the first ceremony.

The AIDS lexicon project was launched by first lady Simone Gbagbo four months ago. Since then, a team of specialists have come up with local language equivalents for words like 'AIDS' and 'contraceptives' to promote a better understanding of the virus and its implications among Cote d'Ivoire's rural population.

Hundreds of villagers attended the ceremony, which consisted of speeches, comic sketches and traditional dance. A feast was laid on too.

The Minister of National Reconciliation, Dano Djedje, and the prefect (government administrator) from the nearby town of Gagnoa drove in as guests of honour.


In villages like Obodroupa, weddings and funerals are the only events that punctuate the routine of rural life. Every opportunity to dress up, dance and celebrate is welcome - no matter what the occasion is.

Village promotion campaigns are therefore a festive affair, whether they are about washing powder, toothpaste, or AIDS.

REPMASCI did not present the audience with anything tangible, such as a booklet or a printed vocabulary. The ceremony was really to announce that the promised lexicon would soon be ready for publication.

But if that message was lost on most villagers, the comedians made the basics of AIDS-awareness abundantly clear.

A dwarf-sized actor waving a condom-covered wooden penis took centre stage.

"That disease you're talking about, does it kill second and third wives?" an actress asked, seemingly excited about the prospect. "Sure, but before you get rid of your rivals, you should know that it kills first wives, too," joked the dwarf.

REPMASCI chairman Youssouf Bamba told PlusNews that his organization worked closely with the government's agricultural extension services institute ANADER. Its agents would use the lexicon to discuss AIDS whenever they visited villages to discuss crops and livestock, he said.

Bamba said local radios in Côte d’Ivoire, who mainly broadcast in local languages, would also receive the soon-to-be-published booklet.


"A lot of villagers are illiterate, so handing out booklets to them would not do any good," Bamba said. "What we are celebrating today is the fact that we have created a way of communicating about AIDS with villagers and farmers in their own language."

The project still has a long way to go. Confronting village chiefs and elders with sex-related topics is very much taboo, said Yeboua Kouassi Ban, a linguist who helped develop the Bete vocabulary on HIV/AIDS.

"You have to be very delicate and you can never broach the subject directly," he told PlusNews.

In the Bete language, AIDS has been translated as 'ayeblenegou', meaning 'an illness of unknown origin', he explained. Contraceptive sheaths were called 'pockets of rubber'. The Bete term for someone who is HIV-positive is 'the person who has been infected'.

"It is important to have this vocabulary, because uneducated people often don’t grasp the meaning of the French words," Ban said.

The US-sponsored RetroCI project, based in the commercial capital Abidjan, donated US $25,000 to finance the linguistic research.

However, not everybody in Obodroupa participated in the festivities.


The campaign was ignored by two young men sitting in what appeared to be the village bar, a small seating area covered with corrugated iron. Asked if AIDS was a topic of relevance to them, one of the men let out an embarrassed giggle and turned his head away.

His friend simply said: "It should be cured, so we don't have to worry about it anymore."

After some prodding, the young man said he suspected that several villagers from Obodroupa had died of AIDS, but that nobody knew for sure as they had all died in hospital in a town nearby.

Cote d'Ivoire, which has been split in two by civil war for the past two and a half years, has the highest infection rate of HIV/AIDS in West Africa.

According to government figures, 9.5 percent of the country's 16 million population carry the HI virus, but many health workers believe the real infection rate is much higher.

The owner of the bar in Obodroupa said AIDS was often mistaken for an illness inflicted by witchcraft. "Also, there are many people who believe that AIDS does not exist. They just won't listen," he said.

Traditional beliefs and the reluctance of families to discuss the disease often stand in the way of AIDS awareness in villages, said Serges Kuyo, a businessman from Abidjan who was born in Obodroupa.

"I have been to university, I have travelled abroad and I have a successful business. So you would think that I'm relatively well-informed on matters like sex and AIDS," he told PlusNews.

"But as one of the youngest men in the family, I don't have the right to speak up when I return to our village. That is the way things are," Kuyo said.

"When my eldest brother was about to marry his third wife, I told him he should stop making babies and start wearing a condom. He was scandalised and would not listen to me. It's impossible to discuss sex with family elders. It's considered a sign of disrespect."

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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