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“WENNA! I heard you can get it from toilets!” Debunking HIV/AIDS myths in Botswana » Women's Courage

“WENNA! I heard you can get it from toilets!” Debunking HIV/AIDS myths in Botswana

February 24th, 2011 by sbyron Leave a reply »

In 2005 there was much media attention over the rapes of virgin girls in South Africa because sangomas (witchdoctors) were telling HIV-positive men that sleeping with virgins cured HIV. There were also reports that Tanzanian albinos were being abducted and killed in order for sangomas to extract their blood for “HIV cures.” Although there have been tremendous efforts to provide correct information to the public, misinformation is still a significant problem in the fights against HIV/AIDS.  

Botswana is no different. In a country where the government is putting millions of dollars into HIV/AIDS prevention material, Batswana still accept myths that jeopardize the efforts of prevention programs. What types of myths are present in Botswana? This question was the subject of Edward Murandu and Mkabi Chamme’s research on condom use in Botswana. Murandu and Chamme handed out 1349 questionnaires to a randomly selected group of Batswana (ranging from the age of 15 o 60). The questionnaires posed questions regarding attitudes towards condom use and unexpectedly the questionnaires indicated a high level of misinformation about HIV/AIDS. In their research Marandu and Chamme found that only 44% of the population over 15 utilized condoms.

Here is a collection of the myths that still exist in Botswana:

1)      The air from a previous toilet user can infect he next immediate user of the toilet.

2)      AIDS is caused by witchcraft and condoms cannot help to reduce the spread.

3)      “Makwerekwere” brought HIV/AIDS to Botswana. The word Makwerekwere is a derogatory term used to refer to indigenous Africans other than Tswana speakers.

4)      HIV infects only promiscuous people and prostitutes.

5)      Some traditional doctors can cure AIDS.

6)      AIDS is punishment from God, nobody can stop it.

7)      A mosquito can transmit HIV in the same way it does malaria.

In breaking down these myths, addressing witchcraft and religious beliefs are particularly important because these actors/beliefs render condom usage useless. However it is clear that these assertions are false and that condoms have proven to the one of the most effective methods of curbing the spread of AIDS (5). The Botswana government is going to have to partner with churches in order to disseminate correct information and react if these churches maintain or reinforce these myths. In addressing sangomas, this will be more difficult because Botswana has long valued traditional healers and many Batswana turn to these healers for advice and guidance.

In addition, a “substantial number of the respondents believe[d] that condoms are not effective in preventing a person from getting the virus that causes AIDS” (6). More needs to be done to educate people on the efficacy of condom use. But it’s also really important that in the education process, programs/initiatives need to stress that although condom use will lower the likelihood of HIV transmission, condom use is not 100% effective against contracting HIV. Abstinence is the only way to stay free of HIV.  It’s not about promoting one idea over another; rather it should be about presenting various perspectives so that people can make informed decisions and find methods that are the best for their circumstance.       

The misinformation about HIV/AIDS in Botswana is what led me to work with TeachAIDS. Over the summer I was the project lead on the Botswana animations and I’m happy to report that the animations are almost complete (the launch will be on March 18th!!!). What I am most proud of is the section in which we debunk the myths that exist. We’ve partnered with Botswana’s Ministry of Education and our animations will be seen by every single student (from primary to tertiary level). My hope is that our animations will correct the misinformation that’s out there and provide youth and adults to make more informed choices in the future.





  1. ktwebb says:


    Before I lose sight of it, I want to start with how awesome it is that you helped with TeachAIDS! Although I’ve learned much from our speakers, by far the project that has gotten me most excited about its immediate potential was what your organization has been doing, and I’m thrilled that you’re getting to share your insights here. Good luck with the project launch–if it goes anything like some of TeachAIDS’ past launches, I’m sure it’ll be a wild success.

    I’ve always found misinformation to be an interesting area–what causes misinformation to originate, and how does it spread? I don’t know how much you know about memetics, but it essentially treats ideas as “memes,” the social equivalent of genes. Like genes, they can spread and reproduce, and some are positive, some harmless, and some are dangerous to the “organism” (society). With these misconceptions in Botswana, it seems likely that some have been the deliberate confabulation (I never get to use that word!) of organizations that oppose safer sex practices, such as certain churches. Others likely originate from a series of misconceptions and half-truths, which other people equally uninformed can help to reinforce.

    Again, great post, and even greater work. I can’t wait to hear how it all turns out!

  2. Elise says:

    Bravo, Shelley! Thank you for sharing. I think it’s so important in the fields of health, especially sexual and reproductive health where we see the intersections of politics, culture, and family, to “myth bust.” It’s particularly crucial to help young children understand the risks and realities of HIV/AIDS (as well as the treatments/lack of cure) BEFORE they become sexually active. The myth that is most amazing to me is that “having sex with virgins will cure a man of HIV/AIDS.” I encountered this in my research about the sexual enslavement of young girls in Cambodia (we used to consider “13″ young for a prostitute – now, we see girls as young as 6 months being sold into the sex trade). It is one thing to get HIV/AIDS from your partner, if neither one of you knows the other has it. It is another to expose a young, vulnerable, confused, or clueless human being to the deadly virus. I truly hope that through educational interventions and preventions such as TeachAids (WHAT AN INCREDIBLE PROGRAM!), we can un-do the misconceptions and use education to empower individuals to get healthy and look out for the health of their community.

  3. anna says:

    Very interesting post! I was especially interested in this discussion because of my time in Cape Town last winter. While there, I learned about many similar misconceptions about HIV/AIDS that are prevalent in South Africa. A great book by South African journalist Jonny Steinberg called “Three Letter Plague” eloquently portrayed some of these incorrect beliefs, many of which you’ve mentioned exist in Botswana as well, such as the idea that AIDS is caused by witchcraft. I agree that the these beliefs aren’t just incorrect but dangerous – they undermine efforts to encourage people to increase their safe behavior and in some cases actually increase violent and risky behaviors (for example men raping young girls, as you mentioned here).

    In South Africa, the problem of HIV/AIDS myths was drastically intensified when the country’s then president, Thabo Mbeki, publicly endorsed many of these false beliefs. For example, he argued that HIV does not cause AIDS, that traditional African remedies such as beet root and lemons could cure AIDS as well as ARVs, and that AIDS and ARVs were Western inventions to exploit/dominate Africans. Steinberg’s book (mentioned above) describes how these views still permeate South Africa, especially in rural areas, even after Mbeki left office and the SA government changed their HIV/AIDS policies. Think how much more difficult tackling the issue of correcting mis-beliefs would be if the country’s government was very publicly not “on your side” and in fact disagreed with scientific consensus. Botswana is lucky to have a government that is making use of such a great tool as TeachAIDS (props to you for being involved!) and I can only hope the same will soon be true in SA, where the education is so desperately needed.

  4. abui says:

    Love the post. The issue of misinformation about HIV/AIDS has been something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. I think it is so important that we evaluate our interventions to determine whether the message we intend to deliver is being received correctly. Last summer I worked in Papua New Guinea, and we were also doing some HIV/AIDS education workshops. At first, some of the boys from the schools were resisting because they felt like HIV/AIDS is something that people keep banging over their heads and they were tired of listening and they thought that they knew everything that they could know about HIV. However, a lot of the education about HIV was very impersonal, usually just from guest speakers who were passing through. However, when we gave them a chance to ask us any questions they wanted to about HIV, it turns out that there were a ton of things they didn’t know, and also a ton of things that were misunderstood. One main thing that came up was that they believed condoms were only 95% safe, which meant that there was a 5% chance that condoms were unsafe, which in those 5 out of 100 people, condoms would actually increase the risks of HIV, and that was a risk they were not willing to take. However, they were confusing the term safe with effective. The message that was being circulated was that condoms were 95% effective, and 5% ineffective. So i definitely think that designing interventions that are culturally appropriate and sensitive to the differences in languages is very important when addressing issues through education.

  5. mollymt says:

    I’m impressed that you’re working with TeachAIDS. Correcting the misconceptions of AIDS in Botswana will save many lives.

    I had never considered this before, but reading this, I’m realizing that the link between low education and high AIDS rates in Africa is probably causal, not just correlative. Living in Botswana while thinking that only prostitutes can get AIDS is like playing Russian roulette. If, back when the AIDS virus was new to the human population, every Botswanan citizen had had a high school understanding of biology and infectious diseases, I am sure that the current epidemic would not be so severe.

  6. kjewett says:

    Very interesting topic. It is incredible to compare the uninformed with the misinformed. It’s not that people aren’t talking about HIV/AIDS…it’s that what is being circulated is not a reflection of the truth! It’s wonderful that you are targeting youth in order to circulate the best advice and guidance as possible. I really appreciated the lecture we had at the beginning of the quarter about teaching materials for AIDS. They focused on prominent figures–celebrities, political leaders, etc.–in their animations because they were able to use that figure’s success as a platform for dispensing accurate information. We must work to clean up the channels through which information is flowing. The information revolution is well on its way with the amount of social networking changes we are witnessing. Thus, we need to make sure that the information we dispense is accurate so that no one is subjected to a deadly disease based on one simple misconception. Great post!

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