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Dahl speaks about AIDS epidemic in Botswana

By Amanda Winn
On February 6, 2012

Last Thursday, Bianca Dahl, a postdoctoral fellow in anthropology, population studies and the international humanities at Brown University, spoke about how Botswana orphans are affected by the AIDS epidemic during an event titled "From AIDS to Aid: Botswana's Orphan ‘Crisis' and the Aftermath of an Epidemic" in the Mandel Reading Room. The event was hosted by the Anthropology department and the Health: Science, Society and Policy program.

Dahl's research centers on the social consequences that follow human intervention in reaction to Botswana's AIDS epidemic. Her work is aimed at orphans and HIV-positive children. Recently, Dahl received the 2012 Social Science Research Council Book Fellowship Award for the manuscript about her project.

In her lecture, Dahl discussed her manuscript and what she discovered while in Botswana. She started her talk by informing the audience about her observation in July 2006 in southeastern Botswana of a man marrying his deceased bride, who died from an AIDS-related illness a year prior. She learned that the groom and his bride had children together but never formally married. Due to no payment of "bride wealth," the children belonged by law to the mother's family. According to national definition, the children had become orphans. By marrying the mother post-mortem, though, the father could transfer lineage. As Dahl's friend put it: The man was marrying the children.

Dahl continued discussing the shifting pressures on kinship and ideas towards social reproduction resulting from Botswana's AIDS epidemic. She remarked how Botswanians of all backgrounds reacted differently, ranging from gratitude to resentment, to the presence of aid organizations that increased rapidly over the last decade. These organizations provide health aid but also reinforce the kinship problems associated with the epidemic.

Dahl explained that her manuscript focuses on "why orphans have risen as symbolically powerful imaginaries," a population group consisting of villagers, international donors and children themselves. As Dahl described, she looks at the epidemic sideways, as orphans are the second victims of HIV/AIDS. In her research, she asks herself what kind of crisis is present and how aid organizations influence distribution of material resources for village life. She explained to the audience that she analyzes how emotions are influenced by aid organizations in new and destabilizing ways.

Dahl remarked in an email after her talk that she knew she wanted to study children while in graduate school. "Unlike most epidemic diseases (which target the very young and the very old), HIV disproportionately hits adults in their prime reproductive years—meaning that it is a disease that by definition creates a lot of orphaned children." Dahl wanted to go conduct her own research to try to make better sense of the effects of the aid organizations.

Faculty and students who attended the talk had various responses. Avital DeSharone '13 commented in an email to the Justice, "She has done a lot of work for a single person which was really apparent in the more layered connections she spoke of between the people from the community she was doing her research in. Her analysis of the ‘emotional' song performances that the orphans put on was fascinating."

Casey Golomski, a doctoral student in anthropology whose research focuses on AIDS in Africa, stated through an email, "Dr. Dahl's talk was very illustrative of the social, cultural and political-economic processes at play in Southern Africa's time of HIV/AIDS. I was particularly struck by her argument that AIDS orphans are made to look sad and sing about parental loss because these emotions conform to what Western aid organizations understand as [an] appropriate affect." He noted that development and aid organizations too often missed what others had to say about themselves from an anthropological perspective.

Dahl is a candidate for the Kay Fellow in Medical Anthropology, according to Laurel Carpenter, the senior academic administrator for the department.

The committee for the fellowship is searching for a scholar with a Ph.D. who analyzes "health, illness, medicine and/or healing processes" with an anthropological outlook and will become a lecturer at Brandeis, according to the job posting on the department's website.  

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