A Fraught Embrace: The Romance & Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa.

AuthorBarney, Chase
PositionBook review

Swidler, Ann and Susan Cotts Watkins. A Fraught Embrace: The Romance & Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. xvi + 280 pages. Paperback, $24.95.

A Fraught Embrace, a collaborative work from sociologists Ann Swidler and Susan Cotts Watkins, explores the complex relationships underpinning the efforts to treat and control the AIDS epidemic in the nation of Malawi. Specifically, the authors investigate who they see as the primary actors in the mission to fight AIDS, from the "altruists" who envision themselves playing a critical role in saving African lives, to the African "brokers" who act as the middlemen and guides between Western altruists and the communities they want to affect, to the "villagers" who dream of their lives being dramatically transformed by the intervention of Westerners. Swidler and Watkins also work to characterize the entirety of AIDS altruism culture in Malawi, including the various governmental and non-governmental organizations that operate there, and the various employees and volunteers that work for them. Ultimately, A Fraught Embrace creates a detailed picture of the inner workings of every aspect of the "AIDS enterprise" in Malawi and both the positive and negative impacts it has on the lives of everyone involved.

Much of the evidence comes from the authors' combined twenty years of travel and experience in Malawi and the plethora of stories, personal relationships, and interviews with Malawians, students, colleagues, Western altruist "donors," AIDS industry employees, volunteers, and "brokers." The authors also make use of various family and health survey data, bureaucratic documents and reports, and even literature from NGOs and church groups operating in the country. Perhaps most impressive is the collection of over twelve hundred diaries and field reports that the authors collected from Africans detailing their thoughts and impressions dealing with the AIDS epidemic in their homes and communities.

Through the course of the book, the authors walk their readers through every stage of the industry and movement that makes up the so-called "AIDS enterprise" built around addressing the AIDS crisis in Malawi. In chapters two and three, the authors introduce their reader to the people that often become the altruists or donors seeking to help the less fortunate in a place like Malawi. Often, these are well meaning Westerners who have been "hooked" on Africa...

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