Powerful speaker and theologian Mercy Oduyoye addressed AIDS cultural concerns in her lecture last week to a small crowd of people in the University of La Verne community concerned with this growing pandemic.
Although the lecture covered many different aspects of the AIDS virus, cultural concerns seemed to be a central theme.
“You can’t understand what a person is saying if you don’t know where they come from,” Oduyoye said.
Oduyoye has devoted her life to the study of cultural issues and post-colonial Africa, to name a few.
Many of her studies focus on religion and culture as it affects women and women’s health.
Silence over sexuality is the main issue affecting women and their health.
Silence is the root of bigger problems like the lack of women in leadership positions, Oduyoye said.
Examples of problems within women’s sexuality are cultural customs such as marriage ceremonies and initiation rites into womanhood.
Female circumcision, or “genital mutilation” as Oduyoye called it, is a cultural tradition in many African communities.
The problem, at the very least, is the fact that most circumcisions are performed in unsanitary conditions with unsterilized equipment. It’s completely unsafe, Oduyoye said.
The major question looming above all these problems falls on the daunting task of controlling AIDS in a land that is so rooted in cultural traditions that welcome the virus.
“We’re welcoming AIDS by having a culture where young people can’t say no to older people, where poverty exists and where women are taught that they can’t say no,” Oduyoye said.
“But there are two viruses more lethal than AIDS,” she added. “They are poverty and the status of women as subjects.
In America, AIDS has become a chronic disease, but it’s manageable” Oduyoye said. “In Africa, AIDS is a death sentence. There is no money for medicine that even lets people die comfortably.”
Oduyoye has worked with the World Council of Churches for many years.
Her initiative also helped start the Circle of Concerned African American Theologians.
The group meets at conferences every other year in Geneva to address issues such as AIDS.
The women of her conference agreed that they needed religion to help facilitate a change.
In reaction to the conference Oduyoye joined a team of women who visited different churches with the theme “The Church is HIV Positive.” Together, they rationalized that if one member of the church is HIV positive, and the church is the body of Christ, then Jesus is also HIV positive. AIDS is everyone’s problem.
Even Christian marriage ceremonies can be dangerous.
“Women sell their sexuality to men, and they have no right to say no,” Oduyoye said. “But Ephesians 5 says, ‘Be mutually submissive to each other.’”
As Christians, people have to be more responsible to live in God’s image.
People must learn to be truly human in this pan?demic that affects all people, Oduyoye said.
Women at the conference also admitted to being victims of looking at cultural generally, instead of within their own lives.
“No one likes to talk about condoms,” Oduyoye said.
Denial is a huge obstacle preventing people from creating solutions to the virus. However, denial does not change the fact that many are dying.
“Women’s health is an important issue because no one understands it,” Oduyoye said.
She spoke of an example of a woman going through menopause. Because no one is educated on this change, people believe that these women are witches. They are separated from the rest of their community, she said.
The lecture was sponsored by the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and ULV’s Coalition for Diversity.
“The Coalition for Diversity is committed to making sure issues in diversity are highlighted on campus” said Trish Long, professor of psychology. “It brings faculty and staff together by presenting speakers and conferences to the ULV community.”
Although the presentation was open to the entire ULV community, only two students attended.
“I wish there would have been more people,” said Morkoah Blay, ULV graduate student and niece of Oduyoye. “But it was still a good group.”
The powerful lecture led to a heartfelt debate among faculty and staff.
“It seems that culture is self destructing,” said Fred Yaffe, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Some practices lead to disease. Do we need to destroy culture in order to save the people?”
Oduyoye responded by saying that culture is dynamic and ever-changing.
“We must always ask ourselves if the culture is life-giving and empowering,” Oduyoye said.
Stephanie Duarte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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