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Kuru, AIDS, and Witchcraft

Reconfiguring Culpability in Melanesia and Africa

Isak Niehaus

Keywords: AIDS; culpability; epidemics; kuru; networks; Papua New Guinea; South Africa; witchcraft

This article examines the significance of witchcraft accusations during the South African AIDS epidemic. In search of broader intercontextual understanding, I compare experiences of AIDS in Bushbuck ridge, where I have done fieldwork, with anthropological studies of kuru, a transmissible degenerative disease, in Papua New Guinea. Whereas scientists blamed the spread of kuru on the practice of cannibalism, those who were affected attributed it to sorcery. These dynamics resonate with the encounters between health workers and host populations during the AIDS epidemic in Bushbuckridge. Health propaganda attributed the rapid transmission of HIV to sexual promiscuity. In response, sufferers and their kin invoked witchcraft, shifting blame onto outsiders and reinforcing the relations that medical labeling threatened to disrupt. The comparison enables us to see witchcraft accusations as a means of reconfiguring culpability, cutting certain networks, and strengthening other existing configurations.

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