Sixteen-year-old Chanda’s African world slowly begins to unravel with the death of her baby stepsister. Her mother retreats into silence, then lingering illness, and her stepfather disappears into drunken oblivion. Chanda, who’s preparing for her exams to become a teacher, becomes acting head of the family, making funeral arrangements and taking care of her younger siblings. A nosy neighbour thinks witchcraft is at work, while rumours of AIDS are whispered, but Chanda can’t discover the truth because no one will talk about what’s happening. Slowly she begins to understand that the silence itself is harming her family and community just as insidiously as the disease, and that she must speak out against the stigma and shame that accompany AIDS.
Allan Stratton paints a devastatingly poignant portrait of a sub-Saharan teen’s world torn apart by AIDS. His focus on Chanda allows readers to see how AIDS directly affects the lives of people rather than getting caught up in the politics of how one part of Africa is dealing with AIDS. That balancing act of keeping the subject from overpowering Chanda, while at the same time making sure that AIDS doesn’t seem trivialized, makes this a particularly wrenching reading experience. Chanda has so much to deal with that, at times, it seems almost impossible that a contemporary teen is forced to bear such adult responsibilities, but that’s what is so powerful about this book.
Stratton’s skills as a writer make Chanda feel familiar to us even if her world isn’t. Like Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner trilogy, set in Afghanistan, Stratton has eloquently given a voice to the voiceless in this first YA novel about AIDS in Africa.
Stigma is shown throughout many subjects; obesity, mental illness and the most powerful and worse stigma; the stigma of AIDS. The stigma of AIDS is clearly shown through a powerful story set in the middle of the African HIV and AIDS pandemic. The novel Chanda’s secrets accurately demonstrates the stigma of AIDS by portraying characters blinded by fear, being ashamed, feeling sinful, and living in denial. The stigma is shown through a maturing young girl’s point of view, seeing others and as well as herself confronting the different ‘symptoms’ of the stigma and what steps both she and the other characters took to overcome them.
To begin with, being blinded by fear is associated with the Stigma of AIDS. Most people are blinded by fear when it comes to shaming the family. When people cannot see past the fear, immoral and illogical decisions are made. Fear of the family being shamed is a large problem throughout the novel. In the district of Bonang and other Sub Saharan villages, most people will go to high extents to protect the family name, therefore leading to irrational decisions.
In the novel Chanda’s Secrets, after Chanda’s Granny said they left Lilian at a cattle post in an old hut, she said “I’m sorry Chanda, this is a small village, we didn’t know what else to do” (Stratton, pg. 77). The last few words demonstrate that when blinded by fear people would take the unthinkable, unreasonable path. They hid mama where no one would see her. They abandoned her in her last dying hours because they did not want to be seen with her encase any passing villagers saw them. They would become a disgrace to the neighbourhood and to their ancestors.
Also, fear of what people will think ties in with being blinded by fear. In a judgemental society, one mistake and a person is marked for life. When it comes to a deadly virus such as AIDS, no one will forget who and which family carries it. Fear of what people will think of one when sought out to have the disease leads to specious decisions. For example, Emmanuel, Mrs. Tafa’s son was said to have died in a hunting accident. But near the end of the book the true story of his death was told. Mrs. Tafa tells Chanda , “As part of his physical the doctor gave him an AIDS test. The tests came back positive.
Emmanuel borrowed a rifle from a friend. He went into the bush, put the rifle in his mouth and blew his head off” (Stratton pg. 186). This quote proves that when blinded by fear, the person will take the worst path and make the worst decisions possible. Emmanuel feared that people would think differently of him once they found out he had AIDS. He thought his parents would not love him anymore. These above statements and explanations prove that shame is a large contributor to the stigma of AIDS. Furthermore, another factor of which the stigma of Aids is portrayed is through shame.
Almost the entire community of Bonang does not want others to find out if they have a friend or relative that is infected by the disease. They can possibly be disowned by their family, kicked out of the house, shunned by their friends and neighbours, and left to die alone. The communities such as Bonang and Tiro know that when someone says a death was caused by tuberculosis or perhaps colitis, it most likely means their death was caused by AIDS. For example, Chanda’s little sister died of AIDS, but the real cause of death was never told; only few knew the real reason of the infants’ tragic death.
In addition, the people of the villages prefer not to be known as living close to someone infected by the disease. They do not want to be in contact with that certain person or be seen around them. In an African society such as Bonang, if a person is seen with someone that it known to be infected, they can be assumed to bear the virus as well. A major factor in small villages such as Tiro and Bonang, reputation is the number one priority. An excellent example of this explanation would be when Mrs. Tafa warned Chanda not to be involved with Esther.
Mrs. Tafa said “May her parents rest in peace, but I hope she burned their sheets and buried their dishes” (Stratton, pg. 34). Mrs. Tafa did not want Chanda being around Esther because she knew what would be said behind Chanda’s back. She knew what rumours would be spread, what gossip would be exaggerated. She also said this because she did not what the neighbourhood to know she was living next to children who associated with AIDS infected people. This is a method on how the author chose to show that being ashamed is part of the stigma of AIDS.
Likewise, sin/feeling sinful is also part of the stigma of AIDS. In small, sub Saharan African villages such as the ones previously mentioned, having such a well known, yet feared disease could begin questions, and judgemental opinions to be made. If a person has the virus, it could send a message that the person has been ‘sleeping around’. To further explain how sin is part of the stigma of AIDS, Mama was thought of as somewhat of a whore/slut by her family, because she had four husbands, when she was originally supposed to marry the man her parents picked out for her.
Lilian’s family believes that because she refused to marry Tuelo, a curse was brought upon her. They concluded that her loved ones were dead because she dishonoured the family and ancestors. They believe her children and husbands died as a form of punishment. An example of Mama feeling sinful would be when just as Auntie Lizbet is just about to leave for Tiro and she says to Mama “as you sow, so you reap sister. The sins are visited upon your children. Hear the spirits of your ancestors. Repent.
Beg for forgiveness of those you wronged and dishonoured” (Stratton, pg. 60). Mama just stood there without speaking while the truck drove away. This event and quote show that Mama did feel guilty about everyone she loved dying, and that she possibly believed she was a sin to the family. This explanation proves that sin or feeling sinful is a part of the stigma, therefore, sin or feeling sinful is another contributing factor to the stigma of AIDS. Lastly, the characters portray the stigma of AIDS by living in denial.
Most of the characters in the book believe that by ignoring the problem, never mentioning it and keeping it out of conversations will make the deadly disease go away. But of course, ignoring a problem never makes anything better; it only makes things worse. For example, Chanda’s Mama knew she had caught the disease from Jonah, but made no action to try and find an immediate cure for it. She waited until near the end of the book to go visit the doctor, who did not even manage to help her. She tried hiding her headaches by wearing a (tensor bandage under her kerchief.
But she was still not able to ignore the disease that was slowly killing her. Also, when Mrs. Tafa was talking about the traditional doctor and said “Cancer, Colotis, TB- there’s nothing he can’t fix. He’s even cured folks of that other thing” (Stratton, pg. 105). Mrs. Tafa chose not to say the name of the disease like many others; she thinks not speaking of the disease will make it less of a problem, which it will disappear when fewer people mention it. This explanation emphasizes the fact that living in denial is part of the stigma of AIDS.
To summarize, the novel Chanda’s Secrets demonstrates the Stigma of AIDS by portraying the characters blinded by fear, feeling sinful, being ashamed and living in denial. Allan Stratton has shown stigma of AIDS through one girl’s point of view, deepening the reader’s picture of the life most African people live, and the stigma they must push past every day. The novel shows when one is surrounded by fear, shame and many lies one must find the courage and dignity to come out with the truth. It demonstrates how one must confront the ‘undercurrents’ of the stigma associated with AIDS.
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