‘Love, Money and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS’ reviewed by Dr Chisomo Kalinga

‘Love, Money and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS’ by Sanyu A. Mojola (University of California Press, 2014)

LMHIVIn Love, Money and HIV: Becoming A Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS, Sanyu Mojola presents a convincing and lucid argument about how young Kenyan women approach decisions regarding love, intimacy and relationships in a country burdened by the AIDS epidemic. She outlines how various factors, specifically education and economics, are crucial in determining how youths ‘navigate their romantic lives in a context of high HIV prevalence’ (p. 110). Although the Luo ethnic group in the Nyanza region of Kenya provide a substantial amount of the case studies and sources of analysis, Mojola’s argument is bolstered by extending her knowledge of comparable findings from other Bantu-speaking ethnic groups within Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa for instance. In this deliberate consideration of the socio-economic factors that determine a young African woman’s choices as she transitions into adulthood, she posits a thorough analysis of the life of Kenyan women within the context of Africanist studies without undermining the difficulty of providing statistical and critical analysis to the abstract subject of love.

The book is structured around the idea of specific environments that are crucial in young women’s development and the introductory chapters provide context to how these are chosen. In the first chapter, ‘A Stubborn Disparity’, Mojola introduces her reasons for exploring the experience of African women as opposed to men, which lie in the disparities and biophysiological explanations that result in higher rates of infection in women. She also establishes her research boundaries, outlines the demographics of Kenya and its social and ecological settings, and lastly provides to context to her methodology and approach.  In the second chapter, she expands upon the discourse of AIDS and gender dynamics to contextualize the relationship between ‘intimacy and money’ to demonstrate how it is not a uniquely African problem; but rather she maintains it is nonetheless important to consider in assessing the risk of HIV transmission in view of its cultural context (p.32). She transitions into the third chapter, titled ‘Historical and Cultural Context’ in order to redirect the focus back to the Luo community within Kenya; simultaneously, she provides a brief historiography and  introduces cultural norms and interactions within the country to dispel the idea of ‘one-Africa’ narrative of AIDS and to delves into the colonial past and the formation of educational systems to provide context to her own case study about contemporary young women’s options and choices as they navigate romantic choices. However, what is missing is an explanation, albeit brief, of the political agencies during the time of presidential administration of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, the second President of Kenya from 1978 to 2002, that might have influenced Kenya’s response to the epidemic. Such consideration does not appear until the book’s end where she contributes that in Uganda’s success in stemming the spread of AIDS was partly due to the president Yoweri Musevieni’s early ‘strategic and concerted action’ (p.201).  Mojola, in this chapter, directs focus to the nuances of Luo life such as labour migration, domesticity and the historical transition to adulthood within the culture to provide context to the community she is studying. For example, the cultural generalization within Kenya of the Luo having a raha (loosely interpreted as ‘hedonistic’ or ‘pleasure seeking’ in dhoLuo, the local ethnic group language) mentality is a perfect example of the nuances that are important in helping the reader to understand Luo perceptions of themselves (p.66). In her anthropological documentation of the rites and practices conducted by young Lou men and women, she strategically draws attention to ‘how AIDS became a major way of death among the Luo’, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya with the highest prevalence than any other, an argument raised in the preceding chapter (p.59).

Chapter 4, ‘Love, Money and HIV Prevention’, unveils the first comprehensive presentation of her fieldwork whereby the environment discourse is analysed in the context of how Luo women establish the various cultural constructions of relationships. Crucial to this dialogue is her presentation that deliberately avoids the binary of women as being represented as prostitutes, viral agents of disease or healthy child bearers. Paula Treichler, in her essay  AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification’  has argued that the dialogue of female representation is problematic within scientific discourse specifically as it has a tendency to present women, particularly African women, as ‘incompetent transmitters of HIV, passive receptacles’ and not much more (1999:45-46). These discourses which plagued earlier AIDS studies and its spread in sub-Saharan Africa are intrinsically acknowledged and avoided by Mojola’s analysis of women; instead her cautious prose steers away from that rhetoric of ‘hostile words’ that plague and demoralize discourse about African women (38). Her intentional abandonment of the word ‘prostitute’ for example—a term which within African English is loaded with severe moral condemnation of female sexuality—is replaced by a consistent and pragmatic discourse on’ transactional sex’ to indicate circumstances whereby sexual services are exchanged for money or gifts ( p.82). By understanding the forms of relationships understood by young Luo men and women, Mojola helps to the reader to understand how safe sex is negotiated in these scenarios and how education is critical in regards to HIV/AIDS prevention.

Hence chapter 5, ‘School and the Production of Consuming Women’ presents the new realities facing African women as they navigate relationships in the age of AIDS and modernity. In the introduction to the chapter, she provides a fascinating paradox on how young South African high school dropouts have significantly higher HIV infection rates than their peers who completed school, whilst with Kenyan women, those with no formal education had the lowest rates of HIV (p.113).  Despite this contradiction, the author persuasively advocates the importance of education to place women in an authoritative position which will essentially equip them to navigate love and relationships with HIV prevention—as opposed to ending up with ‘a child or a disease’— as the overall long-term strategy of her study (p.148).

Neatly following the discussion on youth education, chapter 6, ‘Gendered Economies and the Role of Ecology in HIV Risk’ presents a discourse crucial to African women who are approaching the time of their lives when they enter the workforce. In this important area of her research, she scrutinises several ‘environments’ — their local communities,  their schools, the labour markets they entered and their ecological environment (p.185)—and their levels of intervention to ensure the reduced transmission of HIV to young men and women.  This section is particularly rich in anthropological and social analysis; placement, in both the physical and metaphorical sense, is given considerable attention in navigating interactions between citizens and their ecology.  In chapter 7, ‘To Stem HIV in Africa, Prevent Transmission to Young Women’, Mojola concludes a critical aforementioned argument that for young men ‘educating them while they are a captive audience in school will be critical in enabling them to stay HIV free as they age’ (p.187). This conclusion arrives after an equally careful deliberation presented first in chapter 5 whereby she outlines the various factors from household responsibilities, poor financial investment, and the historical failures of mass education programs in postcolonial Kenya, all of which are prohibitive factors in the ability for girls to remain in secondary school programs. These, of course, lead into the factors presented in this chapter that she argues influence transitional sex decisions that are predominantly based in economic household factors and lead to riskier decision making for girls.

In her conclusion, she correctly deduces that waiting for a biomedical cure has proven not to be the only salvation for young African women. She takes an approach mirrored by Helen Epstein in her book, The Invisible Cure (2007), who noted that reducing HIV transmission in Africa, specifically Uganda, was the result of a well-coordinated grassroots effort to remove the stigma of HIV as the ‘disease of prostitutes, truck drivers and other high-risk groups’. Epstein argues specifically that confronting the ‘concurrency’ of sexual relationships in villages in Africa, health workers and villagers were able ‘to create a new narrative on rural sexual politics that effectively reduced the spread of Aids in the region ’ (2007: 159-161). Mojola makes a similarly conclusion by advocating that within sub-Saharan Africa, the declines in their HIV epidemic [was not achieved] with biomedicine, but with socio-structurally engineered, supported, and enabled individual changes in behaviour that eventually had population-wide impact (p.201).

This book presents a highly intellectual inquiry and an intelligent fresh angle on the subject of love, which is often left only for the humanities to consider.  It otherwise effectively encourages its readers to look beyond Western contemporary beliefs about AIDS in Africa through its convincing and robust insights on Kenyan communities. Mojola’s sociologically-based research will appeal to a wide-range academics, researchers, scholars, and students from multidisciplinary backgrounds with a primary interest sub-Saharan African culture and health. Her work adds to a still deficient but growing cannon of 21st century research on sub-Saharan African societies and their understanding of illness. Thus she joins an impressive contribution of perspectives of contemporary African life through socio-anthropological research from publications such as Anika Wilson’s Folklore, Gender, and AIDS in Malawi (2013), Harry G. West’s  Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique(2005) and Isak Niehaus’s Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa (2012). This field specifically is in need of sustained academic consideration given the postcolonial governments that often supressed and distorted facts on HIV/AIDS prevalence in Africa as the disease first began to emerged in the 1980s. Overall, this book presents a bold and fresh approach which will inscribe greater understanding of the factors that influence young Kenyan women’s experiences as the enter adulthood and relationships.


Reviewed by Dr Chisomo Kalinga, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests are illness and medical narratives, particularly representations of HIV/AIDS produced by Malawian and American writers. She is currently working on project titled, “Narratives of Magic and Medicine in British Central Africa Protectorate/Nyasaland: Journals of the Medical Missionaries from the Church of Scotland (1875-1915)

 Correspondence to Dr Chisomo Kalinga.


Works referenced

Epstein, Helen. The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Mojola, Sanyu A. Love, Money and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014)

Niehaus, Isak . Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Treichler, Paula. ‘AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification’, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, 43 (1999), 31-70

West, Harry G. Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Wilson, Anika. Folklore, Gender, and AIDS in Malawi: No Secret Under the Sun (New York: Palgrave, 2013)



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