‘Kids! Now that we have your attention, have a safe flight and remember, play safe.” This quote from a poster at Lagos airport in Nigeria appears close to the end of Uzodinma Iweala’s book, but it might well have introduced his fierce, book-length discussion of HIV, AIDS and Africa.

Instead, he opens, deliberately, with the word ”You”. For this is not really a hand-wringing lament for the tragedy of disease in Africa, nor a dissertation on its treatment in Nigeria, nor a narrative of black-pride triumph. Our Kind of People: Thoughts on the HIV/AIDS Epidemic puts ”you” and ”us” firmly in the audience of what is a penetrating and passionately argued lecture on survival, stigma, African (read: human) dignity and misconceived Western attitudes.

The first book by Iweala was a much-praised novel about child soldiering, Beasts of No Nation. Having trained as a doctor and worked on HIV/AIDS wards in the US, he now writes of various activists, sufferers and survivors in the 3 million-strong community of HIV/AIDS sufferers in Nigeria. He has visited and travelled the country in recent years, interviewing people at all strata of experience: sex workers at a truck stop, community activists, educators, the bereaved, the loving, those soon to die and those persistently living. He quotes a young student who comments on how most imagine ”people that die of AIDS or have HIV are dirty people, people that sleep around or do rubbish and stuff, not our kind of people”. This book is a corrective to any prejudiced or outdated concept of the disease, and a story of ”our kind” of people.

<em>Our Kind of People</em> by Uzodinma Iweala. John Murray, $29.99.

In themed chapters, Iweala explores what he sees as the real tragedies of the disease: stigma, discrimination and what he identifies as a Western inclination to ideas of Africa as needy, degenerate, immoral, external and irredeemable. ”Disease is African-ness and African-ness is a disease. So powerful is this association that a condition attributable to approximately 4 per cent of the African continent’s population becomes the narrative for the other 96 per cent,” he writes.

He spends much energy on dissecting the ways in which prejudice against Africa works to deny people treatment, blame them for incurring their own suffering, justify neglect and melodramatically appropriate the glamour of the exotic, as in a poster he scathingly describes of American celebrities painted with evocations of tribal markings, the slogan ”I am African” and below, ”Help us stop the dying”.

This, Iweala notes with undisguised contempt, exemplifies do-gooding racism in ”the subtle, unintentional suggestion that to be African is to be HIV positive and thus close to the brink of death”.

He writes defensively of how Africans are often represented as sexually voracious, promiscuous, negligent or ignorant; with sorrow of how epidemics such as HIV/AIDS devastate societies through a concatenation of mortality, smaller workforces, economic instability, increased poverty, orphaning and neglect of children and generational damage; with a perceptive exegesis of the toxic effects of stigmatisation and isolation: ”The lives and voices of real people, who like everyone else in this world find ways to cope with adversity, are often lost amid the drumbeat of deprivation and demise. This confuses me. At times, this angers me.”

Iweala’s rebuttals of some assumptions about behaviour are not unfailingly persuasive: simply calling something patronising does not refute it, and though he includes many quotes of determination and dignity, he also mentions that, in 2009, 1.3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa died due to HIV/AIDS.

Yet above all, his message is that the disease has ceased necessarily to be a death sentence, and for many HIV-positive people, it is manageable, even epiphanic. To be considered no different to anyone else, and to enjoy access to treatment like anyone else, are the ambitions of those he interviews.

”I don’t want to minimise the scope and impact of the epidemic,” he writes, ”just to say that it’s not all we are.”

His portraits of the people he meets on dusty porches, in community halls and derelict clinics are beautifully drawn, reminiscent of Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a book Our Kind of People resembles in its restrained passion, delicate probings of painful issues and portmanteau of experiences. HIV/AIDS is an ”ordinary sickness”; ”a new normal to which one must adjust”.

As a reader in Australia, I was challenged by the book’s sometimes cranky tone and unable to answer its appeals to improve Nigerian attitudes; but as parables of stigma and consequent dignity, these stories are curative lessons for us wherever we are.

Uzodinma Iweala
Available in all good book stores


The Sydney Morning Herald,  August 25, 2012 – review by Kate Holden.

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