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Searching for Pathways in a Landscape of Death: Religion and AIDS in East Africa

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The commonalities of eastern Africa's history from colonial occupation to the formation of nation states and their post-postcolonial decay, the region's shared experiences with the religions of the book—fist Islam and later Christianity—and its shared struggle with the physical, social, political and epistemological predicament of HIV/AIDS, make East Africa, with its cultural and historical diversity, a suitably coherent field to study the relationship between religion and the experience of AIDS-related suffering. The papers in this issue explore how AIDS is understood and confronted through religious ideas and practices, and how these, in turn, are reinterpreted and changed by the experience of AIDS. They reveal the creativity and innovations that continuously emerge in the everyday life of East Africans, between bodily and spiritual experiences, and between religious, medical, political and economic discourses. Countering simplified notions of causal effects of AIDS on religion (or vice versa), the diversity of interpretations and practices inserts the epidemic into wider, and more open, frames of reference. It reveals East Africans' will and resourcefulness in their struggle to move ahead in spite of adversity, and goes against the generalised vision of doom widely associated with the African AIDS epidemic. Finally, it shows that East Africans understand AIDS not as a singular event in their history, but as the culmination of a century-long process of changing spiritual imaginaries, bodily well-being and livelihoods. Intimately connected to political history and economic fortunes, it presents itself at present as an experience of loss and decay, yet it remains open-ended.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, Simon Fraser University, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London


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