Call for Papers: Exploring Religious Narratives of AIDS in Africa and the African Diaspora

Biographies in Times of Crisis: Exploring Religious Narratives of AIDS in Africa and the African Diaspora
Call for papers for a conference hosted by the Religion, Identity and Memory Research Group, Faculty of Religious Studies, University of Groningen & the International Research Network on AIDS and Religion in Africa (IRNARA)

Brenda Bartelink, University of Groningen, the Netherlands
Rijk van Dijk, African Studies Centre, the Netherlands
Marjo Buitelaar, University of Groningen, the Netherlands
Kim Knibbe, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

The contemporary history of AIDS in Africa demonstrates how, over the course of a few decades, the lives of people and institutions have been drawn into the social trajectory of the disease. It has not merely reshaped the lives of those directly affected and their families, peers and friends but has also informed changes in certain institutions in African societies. Personal and institutional biographies have been reformulated as the epidemic has taken its course and personal meanings of religion have changed to cope with (the consequences of) HIV/AIDS. In addition, religious institutions have become part of the fight against the pandemic. In the programmes set up for treatment, care and awareness, new ideas concerning the disciplining of personal, social and institutional behaviour have emerged.

The role of religion in personal and institutional biographies of AIDS needs to be explored in more detail. At a personal level, more insight is required into how religion provides people with narrative models to respond to crises. Religio-biographies (Jacobson 2006) have been seen to play a role in meaning making and coping with HIV/AIDS in many African societies. However there are questions about when, how and for what reasons people use religious narrative models in shaping their responses to HIV/AIDS. How do religious narrative models play a role in coping with HIV/AIDS and how do they influence biographical choices regarding intimacy, sexuality, reproduction and relationships?
Personal and institutional biographies intersect and influence each other in responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa. For example, people living with HIV/AIDS are increasingly becoming involved in activist and institutional responses to HIV/AIDS. More insight into this interrelationship is necessary. How are religio-biographies of professionals in churches influencing organizational policies and counselling practices? And how are (religious) institutions seeking to influence or change religio-biographies on HIV and/or the epidemic? Memorial rituals and the (re-)writing of memory narratives are examples of how the histories of people dying from AIDS can be retained posthumously. Furthermore, personal and institutional biographies of religion and HIV/AIDS have become intertwined in a powerful discourse with wide ramifications for African public domains, healthcare and global/international support.

Deeper insight into the complex entanglement of discipline and agency is necessary for a better understanding of the role of religion in personal and institutional biographies of HIV/AIDS and how these influence each other. In the process, particular forms and styles of `narrative disciplining’ take place. People have `learned’ how to phrase the story of their (AIDS-affected) lives, how to formulate their behavioural choices and options, and how to respond to the requirements that a range of institutions are promoting in an attempt to curtail the epidemic. Some of these narratives and life histories are becoming well known worldwide. As these stories have become part of international fund-raising, policy-making and decision-taking, they have turned some of the people affected with AIDS into so-called `AIDS celebrities’. At the same time, biographies also signal agency on the part of individuals and institutions and provide a space to demonstrate how, in the course of engagements with AIDS, resistance can emerge under certain circumstances and for particular reasons. Narrativity can thus also be seen as a form of resistance and contestation. In the light of recent discussions on agency and its conception in a secular, liberal framework (Mahmood 2005), agency and the agentive power in religious self-narratives and life-story telling in the context of HIV/AIDS should be critically assessed.
The biographies of persons and institutions should not be perceived solely as formalized narratives highlighting the success of disciplining modes in the areas of sexuality, reproduction and relationships. Nor should agency be seen only in terms of resistance to certain forms of disciplining. As self-narratives have become a part of the personal and institutional responses to HIV/AIDS, for example in the counselling process, the agentic power in narrativity itself needs further analysis. This conference proposes exploring personal and institutional biographies in terms of their power (over individual and institutional lives), the ideologies and moralities they espouse, and the practices through which they are formulated.

The conference invites papers that address the following issues:

1. Understanding AIDS through biographies
2. Continuity and crisis in the rewriting of narratives of the self
3. Socio-religious biographies of the self and their contestation
4. Memory, voice and silence in embodied biographies
5. Diaspora, AIDS and strangerhood

Practical Information
The conference will be held at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands on 13, 14 and 15 December 2012. Abstracts (max. 300 words) should be submitted to the convenors for selection by 15 May. The selected speakers will be notified by 15 June and a conference programme, including the keynote speakers, will be announced in due course. The conference fee is € 40. For further information, go to

Brenda Bartelink
Rijk van Dijk