When Words Hurt – Kenyan University Students Get Lessons in Sensitivity
Photo: Anthony Kaminju/IRIN
|Insensitive language creates stigma|
MASENO – Young people have always been adept at creating witty ways to describe everyday life, but the language they use can be hurtful to people living with HIV; western Kenya’s Maseno University is now helping its students to stop using insensitive, stigmatizing language.
“When you hear people make jokes about HIV, without caring about anybody in the group who might be living with it, it makes you feel out of place and withdraw yourself to isolation. Somebody is killing you without knowing it,” said William Kisia*, 22, an HIV-positive student.
“These young people might be using these words – not necessarily to create stigma amongst their colleagues, but to ease communication amongst themselves – but then stigma is created in the process, without the originators of these kinds of words knowing it,” said Dr Maurine Olel, coordinator of the AIDS Control Unit at Maseno University.
“We are working with student clubs, student leaders and other partners to ensure that students are … sensitive to their colleagues who might be living with HIV,” he added. “When you create stigma, other efforts geared towards fighting HIV become hard to implement.”
Some of the slang terms in the Kiswahili language, commonly used by university students to refer to HIV, include: “mdudu”, a word for a small creepy-crawly; “huyu jamaa anatuacha”, which says, “this guy is leaving us”; “ogopa”, meaning fear, a word used by young men to describe HIV-positive women; “huyo jamaa amekanyaga live wire”, or “that guy stepped on a live wire”, a euphemism for someone who had unprotected sex and contracted HIV.
“The person you are telling about another person living with HIV, using that kind of language, might also be positive, and you could be hurting them without knowing it. We need to desist from using such demeaning language to describe others,” said Evelyn Wanderi, who participated in a recent workshop on stigmatizing language.
“Imagine being positive, and you hear somebody make a joke that somebody with HIV is a walking corpse; it kills you emotionally and physically – it kills your spirit,” she said. “Those who know their status and are willing to speak out will never do so, and those who do not know their status will keep away from finding out their status – this is the surest way to lose the battle against HIV.”
|Mind your language – a short guide to HIV/AIDS slang|
|Mind your language – a guide to HIV/AIDS slang|
|Scrutinize! An in-your-face HIV prevention campaign|
Rosemary Wambui, a psychologist and counsellor at the university’s AIDS Control Unit, noted that “Students are generally aware of HIV, but it is important to fight stigma … and what it is that causes it, including the language, because it leads to silence and denial, which are big hindrances to the fight against HIV.”
The Ministry of Health and the Commission for Higher Education have partnered with I Choose Life Africa, an NGO working in HIV management and control among university students, in a programme that has trained around 4,000 HIV peer educators. Several universities, including Maseno, now also have compulsory HIV courses that all students must take as a prerequisite to graduation.