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Social Location as a Story-telling Method of Teaching in HIV/AIDS Contexts

Research indicates that HIV/AIDS is a complex issue involving the social, cultural, spiritual, physical, economic and political aspects of our lives.1 It is therefore more than just a health issue – it is also one of development. Other research expresses its complexity by saying HIV/AIDS is a social issue that highlights the consequences of social injustice, and calls us to work for justice in order to heal our world.2 We have therefore been urged to mainstream HIV/AIDS in all aspects of our lives: that is, we must find ways – in whatever work we do – of dealing with prevention, delivering quality care to the infected, and mitigating the impact of the disease.3

This has repercussions for our teaching vocation. We need methods which will help us to deal with this complexity. Our ways of reading the Bible, doing theology, counselling, preaching and project design must enable our students to make an analysis that takes into consideration the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of individuals as social beings. The methods of teaching must equip them to become champions of HIV/AIDS prevention and the provision of quality care. I would like to share with you one theoretical method that I have found helpful in cultivating deeper analysis, empathy and activism. This is social location as story-telling and self-examination.

Social location
Social location is a self-explanatory term, which refers to an individual’s place or location in his/her society. People are socially located and socially constructed into a number of relationships that empower or disempower them: within the family, church, work-place, government and international class. Social location includes gender, class, race, ethnicity, history, health status, weight, height, and how these categories are valued by a particular society.4

In biblical and theological studies, social location is a theoretical tool of analysis that arose primarily with the liberation movements. The liberation theology of Latin America was the first to challenge the accepted academic concept of studying the Bible from a neutral, scientific and objective stance. Instead, the followers of this theology insisted that they were doing theology from the perspective of the poor – that God takes sides with the poor and that their own context helps them better to understand the Bible. In other words, they acknowledged their context and economic class as important elements informing their theology.

In taking this stance, Latin American theology pinpointed the fact that neutral and scientific scholarship was exclusive and imperialistic. In the African continent, two streams of a theology of resistance emerged, enculturation and black theology. While the colonial introduction of the Bible relegated African culture and beliefs to irrelevance, paganism and barbarism, biblical hermeneutics of enculturation emerged as an affirmation of African difference in culture, religion and life-style.5 It sought to counteract the spread of a Christianity that used condemnation or attempted to dominate by imposing Eurocentricism and a colonizer’s understanding of Christianity.6 Enculturation thus often compared the incomparable – biblical religion and African cultures – and highlighted many similarities, sometimes indicating that in fact African cultures were much better.7 Black theology, which was largely confined to South Africa, developed a biblical hermeneutics inclusive of both race and class, given the apartheid context.8 In the Asian context, biblical hermeneutics were developed within the multicultural contexts of other religions.9 Other theologies coming out of a two-thirds world context include Dalit and women’s theologies.10 In all these we see the influence of race, ethnicity, class, international relations and work status.

Basically, what these theological perspectives have highlighted is that there is no one correct way of reading the Bible or doing theology without imposing the identity of one on the other. There is no one truth; rather, the kind of theology we do and how we read the Bible is influenced by our position in the society which informs our experiences. The question is, therefore, why this particular theology and what is its function in society?

Turning back to the Americas, Latin American liberation theology was followed by a number of theologies that arose in the late 1960s. Feminists said they were reading the Bible and doing theology from their experience of exclusion on the basis of their gender. Feminist theology revealed that general scholarship was not only exclusive, it was also male.11 It indicated that male scholars read from a male perspective and protected their interests, keeping women in subordinate positions. The third theology to come to the fore was black theology, propounded by African-Americans reading from their experience as a black minority people. They showed that the general scholarship was also racist.12

Post-modernism and the reader-response theories that we have come to use of late arose against this background of resisting the colonial universalization of Western concepts and institutions which denied differences. The theories of post-modernism are now critical of modernism, which fostered imperialism and colonialism. Post-modernism now insists not only on subverting “the concepts of totality, unity and determinate meaning”, but also on unmasking modernity’s contradictory impulses and results, for while it “promised freedom, equality and unlimited progress, what modernity produced instead was genocide, ecological disaster... extreme poverty and class inequality”.13 Post-modernity, therefore, critiques “the modernist attempt to fashion a unified, coherent world-view”.14 Modernism was a concept that sponsored and legitimated imperialism in the 19th-20th centuries. This was resisted by two-thirds world populations, leading to these ways of reading the Bible from a particular social location.

While liberation theologies came from people of the two-thirds world, post-modernism was largely a Western response to the failure and oppression of modernism. While post-modernists barely acknowledged that modernism was a colonizing concept, the two brought the biblical and theological bodies to take seriously the complexity of our identities and the fact that there is no one meaning, truth, reality, civilization or culture – rather, there are numerous contradictory constructions that must co-exist and dialogue in our world. Theories of reader-response thus came to be propounded and used, for it was acknowledged that our interpretations and theology are as diverse as we are. Even among the historical critical scholars, it was evident that, although they said they were neutral, objective and scientific, there were still Catholic, Lutheran and other scholars whose readings were informed by their church backgrounds. Moreover, most of them were male and their readings were shaped by their gender.

Social location and teaching
The social location theory, therefore, assumes that we are all located in society in relationships, institutions and values that are characterized by power. Our ways of seeing and hearing are informed by our particular experiences in our society. In my teaching, I use the method of social location. I begin by describing the various aspects of my social location, using Mary Ann Tolbert’s categories15 of “issues of bread” (economic issues) and “issues of blood” (biological issues that are socially constructed). Under the issues of blood, I outline my gender, race, ethnicity, weight, height, health, physical challenges, and so on. Under the issues of bread, I outline family status, church affiliation, education, national class, educational level, religion, world class, etc.

I tell my students that all of us are socially located, and that the factors of our social location empower us differently. We may be powerful or powerless, depending on where we are and the people with us, the institutions we occupy and the values that society attaches to all these areas. The importance of social location is that it determines our experience in the society and the world – what happens or does not happen to us; what we see and hear and how we see and hear it, or, conversely, what we do not see or hear. I also tell my students that the way we read and interpret the Bible is determined by our social location. I then demonstrate this practically by choosing a passage and highlighting how different students see and emphasize the various issues in that passage.

Often readers underline different aspects of the text according to the factors of their social location, which sometimes empower them and at other times make them powerless, and which influence what they see and how they see it. I then give students their first assignment, which is autobiographical and which I call “My Social Location”. They write about themselves and their lives. They analyze where they are powerful and where there are powerless and give reasons for this. They conclude by demonstrating how they interpret a particular passage, and showing how such an interpretation is informed by their social location.

Those trained in the historical methods of reading – which emphasized neutrality and objectivity – would dismiss this encouragement of the presence of the real reader as “eisegesis”. But biblical studies have come a long way, to an age of post-colonialism, post-modernism and reader-response theories which acknowledge that the call for neutral and objective reading is a colonizing theory that suppresses differences.16 The reader is fully alive, an active participant and socially located.

I will demonstrate the tool of social location by outlining the factors of my own situation.

My social location
First, I am a daughter to my father and mother – one of the seven girl-children born to my parents. Together with my mother and sisters, I am not really important in major family decisions. Nonetheless, I remain an asset in so far as I can bring dowry.

I am a mother, MmaAluta, to a fifteen-year-old boy, Aluta, with the role of caring for and guiding my child successfully to grow up as a responsible member of the society. I must make sure that he eats, his clothes are washed, his homework is done and he has enough sleep, he wakes up on time, and is in school clean and rested. Here I hold the power of age, but I have no power to give my child my name. I raise the child, therefore, not so much for myself but rather for his father (who must be proud if he is successful, but who holds me responsible if the child does not progress well). This child I raise will soon have more power than I on the basis of his gender.

As a member of my village, I am under the kgosi or village leader, and by virtue of my gender I am traditionally not allowed to speak in the village public gathering, nor can I be a candidate for such leadership.

Ethnically in my country I do not belong to what has been named the “eight principle tribes”. This means that every time Batswana hear my name, they start saying that “I am a green Californian (one who comes from the north); a raw barbarian”. They say I am not a Motswana. I am “a mokwerekwere or barbaric foreigner”. I belong with many ethnic groups whose languages are not taught, read or heard in the public media and who have no country within their own country.

I am black – a colour that has historically been constructed negatively and without power. Thus whenever I read books I am often confronted by negative images of blackness and Africanness. History books, novels and travel narratives invite me to hate my identity. And when I travel and cross borders, I am subjected to much searching, and suspicion and interrogation. My passport and visa are hardly ever enough to let me pass freely. I must also produce a letter of invitation. And the sign “nothing to declare” is often null and void for me.

Yet I am from Botswana, a country which has been rated among the most prosperous in Africa. Comparatively, I am much more empowered than Africans from other countries. At the same time, Botswana has the highest HIV/AIDS infection in the world. Some who write about us say we are promiscuous, they say sex happens everywhere and easily in Botswana. Some people are afraid of us, thinking “she might be HIV-positive”. Whatever people think, it is no longer possible for anyone from the country not to be deeply affected by the epidemic.

I am a member of the global set-up, subject to international marginalization and economic exploitation by the powerful and strong nations. Globalization, the latest form of colonization, affects us. We are not globalizing the world; we are being globalized by the powers that be.17

I am a layperson in my church, a church which ordains both men and women and allows women to preach. However, this does not mean that the church leadership is gender-inclusive. It is still largely male and the language of its liturgy is largely exclusive.

As a Christian, I belong to a worldwide network of institutions that empower me – including enabling me to write this article. Compared to people who are adherents of African religions in my country or even on the continent, I have a host of opportunities for scholarship, with numerous departments of theology, publishing houses, journals, magazines, newsletters and ecumenical bodies as forums for articulating my faith. My Christian empowerment often means I am unavoidably involved in the suppression of other religions/cultures which are less dominant or less structured.

I am also an academic doctor – holding degrees from some of the finest universities in the world: Durham, Botswana and Vanderbilt. This allows me to teach at the highest institution of learning in my country, the university of Botswana. When I stand before my class they listen attentively even when I am not prepared. I am empowered by my education and by the institution where I work. This also means that I earn a reasonably good salary and I have the privilege of speaking to international audiences. The academic institution I belong to also gives me the voice and space to speak: it allows me to write and publish. This educational power is a great advantage that often allows me to escape some areas of gender oppression – for example, I am a daughter and a wife, but I am certainly more empowered than women who are economically dependent upon their husbands and fathers. On my marriage, I was able to negotiate a separation of property, for if I had taken community of property my status would have been legally reduced from that of an adult to that of a minor. Such a choice was enabled not only by my understanding of the meaning of the community-of-property contract, but also by my ability to earn my own salary. My educational empowerment also means that whenever I confront gender oppression, or any form of oppression, I can name it and analyze it, and weigh up my chances of resistance. This is by no means to suggest that I escape gender discrimination. For example, once I was teaching a class of three older male pastors. One of them used to sit with hands folded, wearing a face that said, “You are a woman. You can’t teach me anything!” He refused to accept my academic status and asserted his male power. Silent gender war raged. He sat like that for a whole year – he could not learn from a woman.

Clearly, my social location is complex. It involves my gender, ethnicity, race, national and international class, educational and health status. It also involves a number of institutions such as family, church and university. Each of these social factors and institutions define me – they empower or disempower me; they allow me to speak or silence me, they allow me to be heard or not heard, depending on where I am and who I am with. Sometimes I can silence others. Further, my social location defines my experience and how I name Jesus or read the Bible. In the HIV/AIDS era, social location determines who will be more vulnerable to infection, who will have the power to minimize its impact, who will have access to quality care, who will respond and who can afford to ignore its presence.

The method of social location and HIV/AIDS
First, social location allows us to talk about ourselves. It is therefore a story-telling and analytical method: we tell stories of our lives in the society. Second, it allows us to listen to each other’s stories of social location. This helps us realize that, while we are indeed individuals with intellect and choices to make, these are determined by our position in society. We can thus analyze how we are social beings, whose experiences, thoughts and feelings are not simply individual but are also affected considerably by the social institutions and relationships we occupy. Third, it allows each of us to face the fact that sometimes our social positions involve us in the oppression of other members of the society. This approach of self-analysis creates a space for repentance and challenges students to opt for empowering those who are under their power and to confront the social institutions that distribute power unequally.

Fourth, a critical self-awareness is in itself empowerment. Even those who find that they are socially marginalized can begin to realize that they should and can resist their own oppression and seek empowerment. They come to understand that their oppression is social rather than natural or divine. If it is a social construct, then it can be deconstructed and reconstructed to affirm all members of the society. Social location as a story-telling method, therefore, should empower us to transform our society and ourselves.

In this age of HIV/AIDS, this means that some factors of my social location make me vulnerable to infection, such as being a woman who can be raped at work, at home or on the street. Being a wife and mother means that I am much more likely to bear the heavy burden of care should some of my family members fall sick. It also means I may not have the freedom to insist on safer sex and that “being faithful” may not work for me as a strategy of preventing HIV/AIDS, since I live in a culture that more or less allows husbands to be unfaithful as long as they are discreet. On the other hand, my education and position as a university lecturer means that I have access to correct information. My middle-class status means that I can, perhaps – unlike many economically powerless women – negotiate for condom use.

Because of my two-thirds-world status and my black race, on the other hand, I and all other Africans often have no access to HIV/AIDS drugs or cannot afford them. Indeed, because of both our class and our race, the issue of allowing two-thirds-world countries to produce cheaper drugs for their HIV/AIDS-infected people has taken longer than necessary (while people are dying in millions, and while it took hardly any time at all for North Americans to start producing the drug against anthrax). This means that an HIV/AIDS-positive black African in Africa is likely to die of HIV/AIDS after much suffering, while an HIV/AIDS-positive American/European is likely to live a long, comfortable and productive life.

Lastly, when we use the method of social location, we are in a better position to understand why some people who abstain from sexual relations, who are faithful and who use condoms still become infected. It becomes clear why some people get infected and live productively for decades, while others die right away. For example, a non-working married woman, who may know that her husband is unfaithful and who risks being infected, is aware of the following:
– her husband is culturally allowed to be unfaithful;
– she has no right to insist on safer sex, for he paid lobola (bride price);
– she is afraid to ask him to discuss HIV/AIDS for he is the head of the family;
– she is afraid to insist on a condom or abstain, for he will leave her for another woman, and what will she and her children eat and where will they live?
– if she tests HIV-positive at the health clinic, she would not tell her partner lest she is blamed for bringing the virus home or for witchcraft;
– if the partner insists on having a child, even if the symptoms of HIV/AIDS are clear, she should oblige;
– if her husband dies, the relatives may ask her to choose another relative as husband.

In this analysis, we are able to assess the social factors that make this woman more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. We can identify culture, lack of economic and leadership power and gender as factors that expose her to infection. Having identified these, it enables the students to continue to encourage ABC (Abstain, Be faithful and Condomize), but above all, to focus also on those social structures and social injustices that make certain groups and individuals of the society more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. It also challenges students to realize that fighting HIV/AIDS is not as easy as ABC.18 Rather, it requires that we also focus on social structures that render certain groups vulnerable. Above all, social location enables both students and lecturers to realize that one cannot reduce HIV/AIDS to a disease of people who are immoral, or “those who deserve what they got”, or “those who are punished by God”. If this was so, why is God punishing the least privileged members of the world with HIV/AIDS?

You and your social location
Depending on your social location you can either be given a great deal of power – in terms of voice, access to resources and capacity to make and implement your own decisions – or you may have less of it, but most of the time you are in a mixed situation, depending on where you are. My son once said to me, “Mama, when I am in Botswana, I am a rich kid, but here in North America I am poor and despised.” As a consequence of his experience, while we were living in the US he did not want to be identified as an African but as an African-American.19 In short, all of us experience life within our social locations and this largely shapes the choices we take.

A very central part of our group discussions and practical work, therefore, will include being able to read ourselves, to plot our social location and show how it empowers or disempowers us. Plotting our social locations will confront us with how we use our power, if we have any, and possibly how we can use power positively. It will show us where we lack power and why. It will enable us to see where we need to give power and who needs to be given power. It will also enable us to be sensitive to the needs of others. But above all, social location will enable us to be more alert to social structures and how they distribute power to the different members of society, and hence to challenge these structures to be just to everyone. In the HIV/AIDS era it will allow us to break the silence and see this epidemic as one within a wider range of other social epidemics of poverty, gender inequality, ageism, racism, international injustice, ethnicity, sexual orientation, violence, violation of human rights and population mobility.20

Social location and reading of the Bible
Because social location shapes our experiences and our understanding of life, it also shapes how and what we read in the Bible and the kind of theology we do. When we relate our social locations and listen to other people’s social location, we have entered a realm of story-telling and self-examination. We listen to each other’s stories and we create a space of breaking silences, of understanding, of empathy, of being prophetic to one another and, hopefully, of giving justice a better deal. Within HIV/AIDS contexts it provides a space for breaking the silence, stigma and discrimination, as well as embarking on better informed prevention and care strategies.

I usually combine social location analysis with narrative theory. Namely, in a story there are characters, events, places and times. When we read any story we are invited to enter its story world. But the story was written to persuade us we are not neutral. This lack of neutrality is added to by our social location. So the reading process becomes the meeting point of a written story and our stories. When we read the story we identify and sympathize with those characters who best represent our own social location.

At times, we may hate our own condition so much that we respond by distancing ourselves from those characters that are much closer to our lives. Reading then is more like looking into a mirror and seeing a different face – we see ourselves through the lives of those who are in the story. Basically, what I am saying here is best illustrated by the existence of different biblical and theological perspectives – liberation, Dalit, African women’s, feminist, black, Catholic, Lutheran: all these names denote that different readers propound different interpretations and theology, informed by their different backgrounds. We need to hear our stories and how they interact with the stories of others. Similarly, we need to articulate an HIV/AIDS theology – one that is informed by living in social, national and global contexts shaped by this disease, and by other social epidemics that cultivate it.

Group practical exercises
In practical exercises, we begin by:
– telling our stories;
– examining where they place us in regard to HIV/AIDS infection, care and treatment;
– reading the biblical text through the windows of our own social location.
The exercises enable us to assess the power we have and how we can use it, as well as seek ways of liberating interdependence within our institutions and relations.
Social location and the widow’s story in Luke 18:1-8
For group discussion, begin individually by:
– plotting your social location as honestly as possible in the graph provided;
– showing where you have power;
– showing how you use your power to empower yourself and others, or to oppress others;
– showing where you need to give power and who needs to give you power.

Together read and enter the story of the widow with your social location:
• Are you the widow? What is your story? Are you a real nuisance?
• Are you the judge?
• Do you use your position of responsibility to liberate or oppress?
• Are you delaying with liberation of the oppressed or are you acting on it today?
• What is the relationship of women and men in your church/family/college? Do you have begging widows and reluctant judges, or does such a situation not even arise?
• If you read the story within the context of HIV/AIDS, how do the characters appear and how does the interpretation change?
Liberation from oppression
What models of empowerment are offered by the story?
• Does it insist on liberation?
• Does it postpone liberation?
• How can the models help in HIV/AIDS prevention and the provision of quality care?

1 UNDP, Botswana Human Development Report 2000: Towards an AIDS-Free Generation, Gaborone, UNDP and Botswana government, 2000, pp.9-22.
2 Facing AIDS: The Challenge, the Churches’ Response, WCC Publications, 1997, p.14.
3 Botswana Human Development Report, pp.42-43.
4 Mary Ann Tolbert, “The Politics and Poetics of Location”, pp.305-17, in F.F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert eds, Reading from This Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States, vol 1, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1995.
5 Musa W. Dube, “Villagizing, Globalizing, and Biblical Studies”, in Justin S. Ukpong et al., Reading the Bible in the Global Village: Capetown, Atlanta, SBL, 2002, pp.49-63.
6 Emmanuel Martey, African Theology: Enculturation and Liberation, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1993.
7 Gabriel Setiloane, The Image of God among the Sotho Tswana, Rotterdam, Balkema, 1976.
8 I. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa, Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1989.
9 R.S. Sugirtharajah ed., Asian Faces of Jesus, Maryknoll NY, Orbis 1993; and R.S. Sugirtharajah and Cecil Hargreaves eds, Readings from Indian Christian Theology, vol.1, London, SPCK, 1993.
10 Virginia Fabella and R.S. Sugirtharajah eds, Dictionary of Third World Theologies, New York, Orbis, 2000.
11 Sharon Ringe and Carol Newsom eds, The Women’s Bible Commentary, Knoxville, Westminster, 1992.
12 Hope Cain Felder, Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1992.
13 Susan Henderson Dolan, Letty M. Russell and Shannon Clarkson eds, “Postmodernism”, in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, Louisville, John Knox, 1996, p.218.
14 J. Childers and Gary Hentzi eds, Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary Cultural Criticism, New York, Columbia UP, 1995, p.235.
15 Tolbert, “The Politics and Poetics of Location”, p.311.
16 F.F. Segovia, “And They Began to Speak in Other Tongues: Competing Modes of Discourse in Biblical Criticism”, in Segovia and Tolbert, Reading from This Place, pp.1-32.
17 Musa W. Dube, “Villagizing”, pp.46-48.
18 Musa W. Dube, “Preaching to the Converted: Unsettling the Christian Council”, in Ministerial Formation, WCC, 2001, pp.38-50.
19 Musa W. Dube, “Saviour of the World, but Not of This World”, in R.S. Sugirtharajah ed., The Postcolonial Bible, Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1998, p.121.
20 Botswana Human Development Report, pp.26-37

Next chapter:
Pastoral care and counselling, by Larry R. Colvin

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