Seeing things through the eyes of others can be a very steep learning curve; assumptions and attitudes that for years seemed reasonable suddenly appear much less enlightened than they did.
Attending occasion after occasion where Africans thanked their European benefactors, it all seemed very paternalistic. The great white man sweeps in loaded with cash and resources and the Africans offer their humble thanks. On a couple of occasions there was an attempt to point out that it was not a matter of generosity, but partnership.
At the end of the visit, reservations were expressed about the constant public expressions of thanks. Our African host looked perturbed, “but thanks is what the people have to offer”. The expressions of thanks, the lengthy speeches about what had been made possible, were their expressions of a sense of partnership. Take away the opportunity of ceremonies and preparing and serving food and taking hours over saying things, and the people are disempowered completely.
It is easy to unwittingly disempower people, to assume that one’s own attitudes are correct. It is easy to be arrogant and paternalistic while assuming one is being sensitive and affirming.
One morning, we all piled into a minibus and were driven to a village. We were to meet with a group of people who were living with HIV and AIDS. They had organized themselves into a community association and had started various income generating activities, including basket weaving.
We arrived and the group were all sat in neat rows on a grass bank. We were warmly welcomed and various people stood to make speeches; wishes for photographs were expressed. It seemed odd to take a photograph of a group whose common bond was HIV/AIDS. Eventually, catching sight of a woman weaving, it seemed reasonable to take a picture of someone engaged in a traditional craft.
But what if it had been a farmers’ co-operative or a teachers’ meeting? There would have been no compunction about taking a photograph of those groups. What was wrong with taking a picture of a group of people who met together for mutual support and encouragement? Were the scruples less to do with a genuine sensitivity to the people and more to with an inability to see beyond their condition to the people behind?
The main World AIDS Day focus on RTE has been the headline, ‘Record number of new HIV cases’ reporting the sharp increase in numbers of people testing positive in a Dublin hospital. The report only confirms stereotypes, saying, “There has been a 100% increase in HIV diagnoses among homosexual and bisexual men”. Reporting on moves in South Africa to provide babies with treatment, it says, “Calls for an end to discrimination against sufferers rang out”.
Isn’t the term ‘sufferer’ also part of the stereotype? Wasn’t the problem in meeting the group the perception that they were ‘sufferers’ rather than just people?
A colleague is careful in his words, never talking about sufferers or victims but always talking about people living with HIV/AIDS. Being able to see people as people would be to see the world differently.