This meta-ethnography aims at providing a synthesis and an interpretation of the findings of recent social science research on the questions of retention in antiretroviral therapy (ART) programmes in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The literature reviewed comprises ethnographic studies of the barriers to adherence to ART in various cultural settings. The results show that the quality of services, treatment-related costs, as well as the need to maintain social support networks - which can be negatively affected by HIV-related stigma - are important barriers to adherence. In addition, they show how African concepts of personhood are incompatible with the way services are conceived and delivered, targeting the individual. In SSA, individuals must balance physical health with social integrity, which is sometimes achieved by referring to traditional medicine. The ability of local concepts of illness to address social relations in addition to health, together with a historically grounded distrust in Western medicine, explains why traditional medicine is still widely used as an alternative to ART.