Malawian song fuels HIV stigma

A recently released Malawian song mocking people living with HIV shows the extent to which some people can go to achieve fame, money and power.

A recently released Malawian song mocking people living with HIV shows the extent to which some people can go to achieve fame, money and power.

Composed by Jakuda Maxwell, popularly known as Serious Man, the song titled Mpumulo, which means peace or rest in Malawian dialect, presents humiliating descriptions of people living with HIV. The fact it is being played in radio stations and at public functions such as wedding and events, is a depressing indication that there is still a long way to go to end the stigma that fuels the HIV epidemic in Malawi.

The lyrics – which include, “Rest, rest; with this diseaseyou will never find rest. There are so many infections in the body…They are crying, they have taken all kind of drugs; searching for some rest, they will never find rest” – give the notion that people living with HIV are torn down by the virus and cannot go on living a normal life.

In my career as a journalist covering HIV and AIDS stories, I have met various people who are living with the virus but, by maintaining a healthy living, are living a normal life. However, it’s not only food that one requires to be healthy, but also support from society. Yet the emotional strain that messages in this song cause is more likely to make people with HIV segregate themselves from society.

Stigma and discrimination

In a recent interview, Serious Man defended his lyrics, saying: “They talk much about HIV and AIDS… nothing can change. So Mpumulo – it’s just like expanding or telling people…that after messing around this is the result.”

The song’s lyrics, which state that people who are “greedy for raw meat” will become “a nuisance to people who never did anything wrong” make the assumption that people who have HIV have led a promiscuous life. But people can get the virus through sharing needles or through mother-to-child-transmission. And even if they contract the disease through sex that absolutely is not proof they have been promiscuous.

UNAIDS clearly states that stigma and discrimination must end against people seeking HIV services if the pandemic is to be eradicated. In its 90–90–90 treatment strategy, it has set ambitious targets to reduce stigma and discrimination. But songs such as this continue to stigmatise people living with HIV.

Song causes harm

“This song is doing more harm than good,” says Davison Mkandawire, Blantyre district chairman for the National Association of People Living with HIV.

“Imagine you are on a hospital bed listening to the radio and suddenly, pop, comes this song. One will feel hopeless and won’t think he can make it through. If you think this song mocks only people with HIV, think twice. In fact, think of how many people will go for testing after listening to this song.”

Patrick Kasaka, a 26 year-old resident of Mulanje district, also describes the song as “mockery”. He says it could change people’s perception of relatives living with HIV, adding: “I will feel very bad if I happened to be living with the virus and it’s being played on the radio.”

In 2013, UNAIDS reported that 19 million of the 35 million people living with HIV globally do not know their HIV-positive status. It makes you wonder how many people in Malawi who like this song could actually have the virus without knowing it.

HIV testing in Malawi

Annie Kanjanga Moffart, HIV diagnostic assistant at Zingwangwa Health Centre in Blantyre, said over the past few years she’s seen an increase in the number of people coming for HIV testing. Moffart added that though they have not seen a remarkable drop in people coming for HIV services at the centre following its release, the song has the potential to hamper progress.

“I personally don’t like the song,” she explained. “Some people who want to get tested express fear when they come here because they think if they are found positive, that’s the end of everything. The message in songs like this is fuelling stigma and discrimination against those living with HIV.”

Chiyembekezo Duster, 25, from Mwanza district, said: “There are some people who ridicule those living with HIV simply because the latter came out in public to declare their status. For that reason, I am scared to know my status though I am well aware how important it is to do so. I think we need more [positive] role models in society otherwise just telling people that being found positive is not the end of life does not convince me.”

Radio station responds to song request

Enock Thokole, station manager at Mzati Community Radio Station in Mulanje District, says staff at the station thought carefully before they started playing the song.

“We are a community radio station and we normally broadcast what is relevant to our audience. Of course, the materials like songs are checked by our music department to rule out any possibility of hatred or discriminatory messages,” says Thokole. “This particular song was heavily requested by our audience and in fact I can say we agreed there was nothing wrong with it. What is said in the song it’s probably what’s going on in society.”

Around five years ago, another local artist produced a song criticising people who discriminate against others because of HIV and AIDS. Sung by Wizzie Kaunda, the song describes the stigma experienced by someone living with HIV and includes the lines: “Thanks to the organisations encouraging people with HIV, you are the ones building this nation. I request you go to my home with the same message. I am person like them; I can work and live just like them as long as they show love.”

It seems that, after close to a decade, people still need this artist to remind them of the terrible effects of stigma. As it is, it seems popular culture in Malawi is not making much progress.

Of course, nobody expects songs to be all good and comforting but listening to this song,and the airtime it is being given by radio stations, I worry about the message the media is sending to people living with HIV, and everybody out there.

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