Confident attitudes of Ju/’hoansi women may help protect them against HIV/AIDS, but several trends in rural Namibia and Botswana threaten their future safety. Ida Susser, who has taken numerous research trip with Richard B. Lee to the two countries since 1996 to investigate the ways the disease affects the Ju/’hoansi, provides detailed reasons for the growing infection rate among those people.

With the assistance of local field researchers they interviewed numerous people on both sides of the border—women, men, representatives of political groups, health workers, administrators, migrant laborers, folk healers, religious workers, and owners of shebeens (makeshift shelters where home brew is sold). They observed people gathering nuts and berries, setting snares for animals, and making trinkets for tourists. They saw the Ju/’hoansi participating in work crews and getting paid for their efforts—the men nearly twice as much as the women for the same work.

In the smaller villages, they observed that the Ju/’hoansi were still able to move their shelters from one spot to another at will in order to maintain their social stability. Lee and Susser also visited larger, more stable, communities such as Tsumkwe in Namibia and Kangwa in Botswana, where many people lived in permanent brick houses.

The towns offered stores, clinics, schools, connections to the outside world, shebeens, and skyrocketing cases of HIV/AIDS.

Susser describes the ways they visited and interviewed people in the villages. Since Lee has had more than 40 years of experience in the region and knows the language fluently, his entrée into the communities allowed them to easily gain information from many people. They found the Ju/’hoansi quite willing to talk about their health problems, and in some instances to seek medical assistance from them. When they sought information from young unmarried females, they found that they got the best results by interviewing them in groups of two or three, since the women could tease each other and keep conversations flowing.

Susser and Lee learned about the transmission of HIV/AIDS during their first visit to Namibia in 1996. Men told the investigators that the Ju/’hoansi women were responsible for transmitting the disease into their society. Outsiders—laborers and visitors of all sorts—congregated at the shebeens in Tsumkwe in the evenings to drink and socialize with the Ju/’hoansi women, who then became infected.

As Susser and Lee continued their investigations, they realized that Tsumkwe was one of the main routing centers for HIV/AIDS infections into the Ju/’hoansi population. The South African Army had been stationed there during the 1980s during the fight against the independence movement of Namibia. More recently, the government of Namibia was creating jobs for veterans in remote areas, including Tsumkwe. Because of its road connections, the settlement had become a major station for border guards, administrative personnel, and other travelers. The incidence of alcohol use—and sexual exchanges—appeared to be higher there than in more remote villages.

The authors, and other researchers such as Megan Biesele, informed villagers about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, but the Ju/’hoansi themselves also spread the word. One teenage girl at Dobe told Susser and Lee, “There is no AIDS here, but I know they have it at Tsumkwe. The girls over there told me not to sleep with the boys because they have that disease there. I am afraid of AIDS at Tsumkwe” (p.212-213).

The researchers visited shebeens during the daytime and saw people whom they knew already drinking. They realized that the money the people earned from the sale of their trinkets wound up with the owners of the shebeens. The Ju/’hoansi men and women discussed the violence that resulted from drinking alcoholic beverages. One woman described how her husband had beaten her when she refused to give him more money for his drinking, and other people present, men and women, nodded their heads. They met a couple children who told them how their father had murdered their mother at a shebeen.

As of 2003, the two researchers had not yet found incidents of HIV/AIDS at the smaller, more remote villages. The author concedes that the disease may also be located in them and not yet diagnosed, but they have no liquor shops, few visitors, and few itinerant laborers. Perhaps as important, Ju/’hoansi couples appear to be more stable in the isolated villages. But the women who live along traveled roads, where casual sex may be a tempting source of income, are in greater danger.

Most interestingly, the researchers found that the Ju/’hoansi women, unlike other women in the area, had such a strong sense of equality with men that they felt empowered to insist that their sex partners use condoms whenever they wished. If their husbands or boyfriends did not wear condoms when they requested, they would refuse to have sex. The non-Ju/’hoansi women normally felt that their male partners would not accept such a refusal, so they would not dare to insist on condoms.

The Ju/’hoansi saw little use for the female condoms, while Ovambo women in the region were fascinated with them. Since the Ovambo woman could not ask her man to use a male condom, she could use a female one. It would be under her control, not his. When Susser asked a group of Ju/’hoansi women if they could make use of male condoms, they gave spirited responses. “Give us some and we will teach our husbands how to use them,” they said enthusiastically (p.216).

Susser admits it’s a complicated picture. The Ju/’hoansi women do not have as much control over the situation when they have sex with non-Ju/’hoansi men, so they have become the more vulnerable gender to contract HIV/AIDS. Also, they have more contact with non-Ju/’hoansi men along the roadways and at major centers such as Tsumkwe, and even the most remote villages receive visits from occasional tourists and development workers. None of the villages are totally isolated, so all are at risk. HIV/AIDS education should be a high priority for both countries, the author concludes.

Susser, Ida. 2006. “The Other Side of Development: HIVAIDS among Men and Women in Ju/’hoansi Villages.” In The Politics of Egalitarianism: Theory and Practice, edited by Jacqueline Solway, p.205-220. New York: Berghahn Books [Reviews of other articles in this book appeared on May 17 and May 31, 2007]