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Cirion Foundation

the impact of infectious diseases

Rik Felderhof

AIDS is still a huge taboo in Africa

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We’re going to our father’s land, sang Bob Marley over 30 years ago, long before he first traveled from Jamaica to Africa. Living on a sun-drenched Caribbean island and yearning for Africa? It’s not as crazy as it might sound, assures Dutch TV celebrity Rik Felderhof. Alluding to his own lifestyle, he says that you can live like a god in France, record TV shows in fashionable places, interview fascinating people in the most glamorous places on Earth yet still yearn for simplicity, for the freedom of Africa. “Deep down we’re all Africans; Africa is the home continent of our prehistoric forefathers, it’s our mother continent.”

Clear distinction
Rik Felderhof feels that way too, because he really loves Africa, almost instinctively. It’s why he had a house built in Tanzania, where for a few months every year he lives and works, with the emphasis lying firmly on living. He speaks just a smattering of Swahili, but despite this he wouldn’t be Rik Felderhof if he didn’t nurture and maintain warm relations with the local population. “My builder and I get on like brothers and I make sure I talk to all the locals who can understand English,” he says. It didn’t take him long to notice that there’s a clear distinction there between people who have enjoyed a good education and those who haven’t, which also extends to their knowledge of infectious diseases. “For many Africans AIDS is still a huge taboo. This is not necessarily because it points to infidelity, which many African men see as one of life’s pleasures, but because people are largely ignorant about the way the HIV virus is transmitted.”

Life and death
Felderhof explains that many people in Tanzania live in tight-knit communities and maintain close ties with their immediate and distant family members and fellow villagers. Social aspects tend to play a very important role in Africa, where people rely on one another much more.  It’s why they are terrified of being socially shunned should the word “AIDS” be brought up. They prefer to avoid using it, referring instead to a serious illness. African people also deal with their own mortality differently. Not that they mourn their dead less intensively – on the contrary – it’s just that they rarely mention the cause of death. They accept death as being a part of life, which is perhaps not very conducive to educating people about HIV and AIDS. However, their mindset also has its advantages. The ubiquity of death means that life in Africa is totally focused on the present. As long as things are going well, they enough to eat and a reason to be cheerful, Africans will live for today. “They have the capacity to savor the value of every moment, which is an ability that we, for all our common sense, seem to have lost. It’s why I always love returning to Africa.”

But how exactly does one broach an emotionally charged subject like AIDS in these communities? You just do, offers Felderhof. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of AMREF Flying Doctors, he toured Kenya with Belgian TV personality Goedele Liekens, visiting villages, orphanages, schools and talking to women’s groups. “People are actually very open to receiving information,” assures Felderhof, “even about sensitive subjects. It’s just a question of facilitating and organizing it.” During the Seventies he made radio programs for Dutch broadcasting company, NCRV, in which listeners could call in with questions about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and other infectious diseases. “I took it upon myself to translate medical experts’ often intricately formulated answers into the kind of plain language that everyone could understand. Worried people can sometimes think up the craziest things. For their own peace of mind, what they need is concrete and practical advice. In this respect worried Dutch people are no different to worried Kenyans.” 

Social responsibility
In the context of his work Felderhof recognizes ways in which he can contribute towards the realization of the objectives of the Cirion Foundation. He considers himself primarily a traveling citizen of the world – he’s bought a plot of land in Tanzania and built himself a house on it, which officially makes him a resident of the African continent. It’s partly because of this that he feels a social responsibility for what goes on around his African home. “There’s an elementary school nearby. I don’t know whether advice is given there about hygiene, but I’ll certainly check whether this is the case. Malaria isn’t a big problem where I live as it’s at a relatively high altitude and there’s not much open water. But AIDS is a subject that people here have to be made more open about, perhaps by arranging an information evening. At the moment all the villagers shift the responsibility to the government or the regional hospital. Doing this does not address the current situation.” 

Useful contribution
Felderhof also makes frequent visits to the Caribbean, where dengue is evidently becoming an increasingly serious problem. “Cirion is also active in this region and thanks to my work I might be able to make a useful contribution there too. As an international traveler you cannot ignore infectious diseases like dengue and AIDS.  Viruses are also great travelers and before you know it you’ve become a walking Noah’s Ark for viruses and bacteria. This is why education is so important, not only in African countries but in the countries where travelers come from too. And it’s why I’m only too pleased to cooperate with the Cirion Foundation.”