Hearing about AIDS through the grapevine

Watkins in her office with field memorabilia

Photo by Candace diCarlo

In Kenya and Malawi, the prevalence of HIV in the adult population is often at 30 percent and higher, usually fairly equally distributed between men and women. Sociology Professor Susan Watkins has traveled to small villages in these countries to research the effects of gossip on the dissemination of information about AIDS.

“We’re trying to figure out what people are doing to protect themselves and how they’re sorting that out in these conversations with other people,” Watkins said.

“In Kenya, we’ve gone back to the same households now three times and you go back to interview somebody you interviewed two years ago and they’re dead,” Watkins said of the prevalence of AIDS. “In one of our villages that had 24 households, eight of them had somebody die of something that sounded like AIDS. And some of those households had more than one.”

Watkins and her team randomly selected villages from western Kenya and three areas of Malawi. They interviewed all the women of reproductive age and their husbands. Villages generally have between 25 and 70 extended households. In Kenya, she has a sample of about 900 women and 900 men, and in Malawi, about 1,600 women and 1,200 men.

Watkins started the project in 1994, interviewing subjects about family planning and AIDS for about an hour from a questionnaire. She hopes to complete the study next year.

She has found that people generally know how AIDS is transmitted and how to prevent it. And contrary to some other researchers, Watkins downplays “cultural barriers” to AIDS prevention. She believes that people are changing their behavior.

But the AIDS prevention advice generally given by international agencies — don’t have sex outside of marriage and if you do, use a condom — is “too severe, it’s too Calvinist,” Watkins said.

Instead, people are trying to find a middle ground. “So we found, for example, they’re really trying to select their partners better,” Watkins said. Men might distinguish between a “bar girl,” with whom you might use a condom, and a village girl, with whom you might not. And they use gossip networks to find out how promiscuous a potential partner might be.

Gossip can also become important for disseminating models of how to behave regarding AIDS. Watkins tells the story of a man in a polygamous area whose first wife died of what was probably AIDS. So the second wife refused to sleep with the husband and the third wife did as well because ritual dictated that he had to sleep with the senior wife before the junior wife.

“The husband got so angry he took the case to the chief and the local elders, so there was this big discussion,” Watkins said. “Ultimately, the chief and the elders decided she didn’t have to sleep with the husband. So this is the sort of story that everybody in the village knows. So it becomes part of a model in the arsenal of trying to avoid AIDS.”

In areas where HIV prevalence is as high as it is in Kenya and Malawi, the greatest danger of getting infected is probably from your spouse. Therefore there is no easy answer for the spread of HIV, but Watkins believes people are trying to do what they ought.

“I think what they’re doing may turn out to be useful, which is going through the process of trying to figure out how they can live with it and where they can modify [health-agency advice] a little bit to make it more congenial,” she said.

Originally published on May 4, 2000