Home Institution

Smith College

Publication Date

Spring 2019

Program Name

South Africa: Community Health and Social Policy


In my ISP, I explored language as it relates to the ways in which people living in Cato Manor make sense of HIV/AIDS in their community. With 7.1-7.2 million people living with HIV (PLWHIV) in South Africa, individuals across the country are either infected or affected by illness. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the province with the highest rate of HIV, is also the province that was surveyed with the disproportionately highest internal stigma rates for PLWHIV. High prevalence of HIV, particularly in KZN, calls for a constant contextualization of life in the presence of illness.

Throughout the world, metaphor and symbolism is used to help non-medical experts make sense of, and communicate about, illness. I sought to uncover the ways that HIV/AIDS is mediated and expressed through the language and symbols individuals use in their communities. In my research, I conducted interviews with eight Cato Manor residents. I spoke with each person about how they use language and symbols to talk about HIV/AIDS. I incorporated arts-based approaches to afford participants more ways of expressing themselves. Even given its relatively small sample size, and the fact that it may not be representative of Cato Manor, my study still offers a vast breadth of narratives that I believe provide a more nuanced communal understanding of illness. These lead me to conclude that illness is culturally configured, and that Cato Manor residents’ understandings do not derive solely from a biomedical paradigm.

Because my research was conducted in the form of an autoethnography, I reflected on my own understandings of the power of language and symbolism as a writer and detailed record-keeper throughout my life thus far. Where my initial question sought an answer about “meaning,” I discovered that questions of meaning were better responded to through abstract and indirect inquiries as my broad question of meaning yielded mainly biomedical responses. Some of these alternative questions included color association questions and questions where the participant was asked to create comparisons between HIV and something of their choosing. Other helpful questions were those that shed light on the ways in which individuals’ friends and family members discussed the topic of HIV/AIDS. These complementary inquiries informed and continue to inform me about the importance of signs and symbology, the body, the role of stigma via code, and the ways in which language is employed and deployed in the particular community of Cato Manor.


African Languages and Societies | African Studies | Art and Design | Art Practice | Community Health and Preventive Medicine | Health Policy | Health Psychology | Immunology and Infectious Disease | International Public Health | Medicine and Health | Public Health Education and Promotion | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology of Culture


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