Stefan Hippler

Bartholomäus Grill / Stefan Hippler:
Gott Aids Afrika. Eine Streitschrift
(God AIDS Africa. A Polemical Treatise)

Review

God Aids Africa is an emphatic report by two experts on African affairs who document their personal experiences of the last 10 years in 29 separate accounts which they call a polemical treatise. A polemical treatise serves to present different points of view, it provokes, it exaggerates, it accuses and it even slanders. In this sense the book fulfils its function from the first to the last page. It is shocking, it enlightens and it discusses the development of sexual ethics of the church. But at the same time it is also an indictment and a plea. First and foremost South Africa president Thabo Mbeki stands accused together with former vice-president Jacob Zuma and health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and other politicians. Yet not only Africans are criticised. On the European side Pope Benedict XVI and the pharmaceutical industry is indicted. All of them have to share the blame and are co-responsible for the situation in Africa including those who plead ignorance in the face of the AIDS pandemic. Simultaneously the authors appeal to the Pope to acknowledge the catastrophic dimensions of AIDS and to take an unequivocal active and engaged stand against AIDS thereby helping to contain the pandemic.

Hippler whose battle for the poorest in society, for AIDS-orphans and for children infected by AIDS, for people who are dying and deserted has to be highly commended believes that the most effective solution to the problems posed by the AIDS pandemic lie in supporting the use of condoms thus doing away with taboos and enlightening people about AIDS who are threatened by the disease. Nevertheless Hippler's fixation on condomisation and the resulting conflict with the Catholic Church seems to evolve into a personal vendetta against strict catholic sexual ethics with further reading of the book. "Condoms? Terrible stuff! The pandemic? God's punishment. Stay abstinent. Remain faithful. Do not sin!" The difficult, necessary and probably long overdue criticism of the moral teachings of the Catholic Church in the face of the AIDS pandemic unfortunately looses some of its impact through the endlessly repetitive demands by the authors.

On its own the appeal for the responsible use of condoms probably contributes as little to solving South Africa's problems in dealing with the AIDS pandemic as the appeal to uphold the strict sexual ethics prescribed by the Vatican. The book is a relentless indictment that aims to shock. "The HI-virus is the biggest weapon of mass destruction in our time. Every six seconds someone is infected by the deathly virus. Every day 8000 people die. Last year saw five million new infections. Globally almost 40 million people are HIV positive." Statistical data such as these are publicly effective. However, not only in Germany they are often also received with some scepticism or ignored altogether. The number of people infected by HIV in Germany is minute in comparison with 56 000 and considering the fact that everyone has access to antiretroviral treatment, AIDS seems to have lost its status as a dread disease in Germany.

Nevertheless, in order to sensitise the German reader for the problem, Grill and Hippler tell gripping stories, such as the one of 1-year-old Fareed, whose moving birthday celebration takes place before the actual date in order to give him the feeling of happiness one last time during his struggle with death. "It is a creepy-joyous occasion, but Fareed is happy." The reader is moved by empathetic descriptions which make up the strength of the book, since they manage to convey the admirable work and the commitment of the HOPE organisation. Despite providing much information and numerous statistical data, Grill and Hippler regrettably did no provide a list of their sources nor did they indicate clearly who authored which chapter. Although they claim to engage critically with catholic ethics and their moral teachings, the book remains on the level of the anecdotal and personal lament.

Despite many polemical and sometimes long winded passages the book is well worth reading, it stimulates, it is challenging, it causes objections and also dismay, but most of all it draws attention to the difficult and urgent need to fight the AIDS pandemic in South Africa. In his introductory remarks to the polemical treatise God AIDS Africa Henning Mankell probably expresses the biggest truth of the book, namely that making mistakes is all too human. His conclusion and the thrust of the book are thus the same: "It is not too late yet. Despite everything."

Carlotta von Maltzan / Roland Schmiedel, 2008
Translated by Carlotta von Maltzan