The question of how to frame messages about HIV/Aids was back in the news last week, as a row raged between the Uganda Aids Commission (UAC) and the NGO, Aids Healthcare Foundation.
AHF has put up billboards advising cheating lovers to use condoms. But officials are worried that the messages all but promote the bad practice of married people or otherwise committed partners sleeping around. Our view is that both sides of the argument are both right and wrong, which means that the way forward can only come from a concerted effort of soul-searching
From the point of view of AHF, all the NGO is telling randy lovers is that if you must cheat, at least use a condom so that you do not bring disease and death to your innocent partner. This is barely different from Uganda's well-rehearsed ABC approach (Abstain, Be faithful or use a Condom). Moreover, AHF is backed by statistics that have shown Aids spreading particularly fast among married couples, which means that many people are already cheating on their partners.
As the old Luganda saying goes, pointing out something does not cause its occurrence. On the other hand, AHF may want to think about creating culturally-sensitive messages just in case the billboards yield unintended consequences. Only honest, open-minded conversations between UAC and AHF, for instance, would help define what is culturally acceptable.
At the same time, UAC needs to critically examine the parameters for determining what is unacceptable. We may not want to use the word "cheating" because this might be mistaken for a licence to cheat and give our visitors the impression that we are a nation of cheats; but what if indeed, as the figures suggest, we are an unfaithful lot?
Will people cheat less when they do not see the word "cheat"? Should we refuse to call a spade a spade because this might offend our sensibilities? What if calling it a spade might shock us out of the euphemisms in which we hide - and get us to act? We need to confront these questions.