‘There is no secret under the sun’: Rumors, AIDS beliefs, and prevention strategies of wives in rural Malawi

Anika Wilson, University of Pennsylvania


Life in Malawi has been profoundly affected by the advent of AIDS as reflected in myriad forms of informal expression, communication, and improvised practices. This dissertation explores fear of the hidden in the AIDS era through an examination of conversations, rumors, and interviews in which rural Malawians try to make sense of the gaps in information that may endanger them; through their discourse Malawians seek to bring to light what is hidden in darkness in a way that allows them to generate improvised solutions. The first half of the dissertation presents the traditions of suspicion and accusation in Malawi and culminates in an analysis of conspiracy theories about the government's provision or lack of provision of adequate medicines to combat AIDS, particularly antiretroviral drugs. Conspiracy rumors about imported medicines, their properties and effects on black, African bodies reveal fears about hidden agendas of both transnational organizations and the Malawian government. Prominently featured themes of AIDS drug conspiracy theories included notions of a global hierarchy in which Malawi ranked low, multilateral population control plots, a profitable domestic “AIDS Industry,” and government transparency and accountability. Thereafter, I transition from examining the fear of organizational secrets to fears of intimate secrets with a focus on secrets of infidelity that husbands keep from wives. Wives I met transformed information gathered in informal instruction and gossip about AIDS, sex, and infidelity into explicit actions to secure fidelity in their marriages and reduce their risk of HIV infection. More specifically I found that women are not merely concerned with altering their own behavior in the face of AIDS but with changing the behavior of unfaithful husbands or their husbands' girlfriends. The conspiracy theories, gossip, advice, and practical actions described in this dissertation constitute folkloric responses to dangerous secrets in the time of an epidemic. The responses, both verbal and practical, draw upon community knowledge and experiences and help people to navigate through risk within the restraints and strengths of community relationships.

Subject Area

African history|Folklore|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Wilson, Anika, "‘There is no secret under the sun’: Rumors, AIDS beliefs, and prevention strategies of wives in rural Malawi" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3328699.