Related News

Home » Feature

Fighting AIDS with ethnic folk figures

Jihuoheigare has expanded his authority as a degu, an ancient role of folk mediator in his ethnic Yi community in southwest China, to a new role in the local combat against the modern demon of AIDS: admonishing drug users to shed the addiction.

Building on a traditional post revered for representing wisdom and honesty, the man in his 60s uses clan dispute mediation as a platform to alert people to the threat of HIV.

The virus is taking its toll in Liangshan, Sichuan Province, at the border with Yunnan Province adjacent to the Golden Triangle source of drugs in Southeast Asia.

The mountainous home of more than 2 million ethnic Yi people faces the problem of heroin addiction linked to HIV infection because of popular needle sharing among drug users.

Since finding its first identified HIV carrier in 1995, Liangshan, with a population of 4.3 million, has reported over 6,000 infection cases, over 90 percent of them Yi people.

About 90 percent of the carriers are drug addicts, according to Bai Shige, a researcher at the ethnic studies institute in Liangshan. The Yi woman also leads a grassroots AIDS prevention non-governmental organization named Liangshan Research Society for Gender and Prevention/Cure of AIDS, which takes Jihuoheigare into the fight against the plague.

When Bai visited the old man at his home in Temuli Township, Butuo County, in 2003, he was distraught over his son's and daughter's drug addiction. Bai showed him a ray of hope to help save his children and the larger Yi community.

"If only you were here to do good earlier!" Jihuoheigare said. He undertook his new role as preacher of AIDS prevention, calling clan meetings and using opportunities in dispute mediation to raise prevention awareness.

In addition to folk mediators like Jihuoheigare, wizards and clan chiefs are also mobilized as Yi people still are respectful or in awe of traditional authority figures.

They are deeply attached to their families and clans, according to Bai, who says people tend to seek protection from wizards when they feel threatened. They also fear being kicked out of the clan if they disobey teachings of chiefs and other revered persons.

"In this way, we're utilizing our traditional culture to help keep people alert to the threat of the modern disease," Bai says.

As some 70 percent of the Yi population in Liangshan are illiterate and most of them understand no Putonghua, or standard Chinese, Bai's NGO translates pamphlets and videos on AIDS prevention into the local language.

As the ethnic group loves singing, the campaigners take the laments of drug addicts and HIV carriers and compose them into poignant folk lyrics. This is more moving than dry education.

They encourage talented drug users and those in recovery to help raise AIDS awareness by telling their own stories and singing out their remorse. Their songs are recorded and made into CDs.

Since participating in their first international cooperation program, Bai's indigenous NGO has been searching for a local therapy to help cure the once tranquil land.

Each time they bid for international HIV-AIDS funding, the NGO went all out "to present its strengths as an indigenous organization in offering a possible therapy that fits the situation of an ethnic group with different culture and social, economic backgrounds," says Bai.

"AIDS prevention campaigns must be adapted to local conditions, especially so when it comes to ethnic minorities."

Yan Zhengmin, a professor with the medical school of Sichuan University, agrees that global fight against AIDS requires local expertise. As a public health expert, however, she is concerned that some habitual or customary behaviors of an ethnic group may increase the risk of HIV infection.

A major problem in this respect for Yi people in Liangshan, Yan says, is that many have no settled residence, making it hard to trace drug users and HIV carriers.

"Though the region reports a large number of drug addicts and HIV carriers, fewer of them can be reached for methadone therapy as a drug substitute and for timely anti-virus treatment," she says.

Multiple pre-marital sex partners might also be a factor contributing to the spread of HIV. Yan wants to remain non-judgmental; she is studying the impact of sexual behavior on HIV transmission among Yi people.

"Even people belonging to the same ethnic group may have different behaviors, as they live in quite different social and economic circumstances. We cannot generalize the findings in a county or even in a clan to the ethnic group as a whole, as, for example, people live near cities might have different behaviors from those in remote rural areas. So we need localized or tailor-made solutions for people in different areas," she says.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend