Monday, October 27, 2008

The Big Event

Friday was the big event. It was the culmination of all the Peer Mentors' effort in the form of our last session on how the HI virus is transmitted, a celebration of sorts, and a testing drive. I was a little skeptical at first, but it turned out to be a giant success.

I invited my APCD, who is more or less my Peace Corps boss, to come to the event. I also invited some other volunteers to the event to come and help. Four PCVs came over the course of the campaign, Mike and A.J. came beforehand to help with the kids' training, and Katherine and Adam came to help with the event.

The event wasn't quite as important as all the sessions the kids had been going into the classrooms and giving. I wanted Lydia to see a session. And she saw one, she did!

We needed to combine two classes, which we've had to do all this week on account of scheduling problems. ("Oh, by the way, Lerato, the learners are going to be writing examinations this week." WHAT?????? AGH!!!!!!) So we had a classroom packed with students, and we had teachers (who were generally very flexible and considerate of our sessions) that would come in and pass out papers or make kids come up and get them during the middle of the kids' presentation. People were coming in and out of the classroom the entire time. It was CHAOS.

Regardless, the Peer Mentors handled it with grace and class. Much better than I did. According to Adam's account I was pretty obviously fuming at least one point during the session. All I can say is that it was a good thing that the kids were in charge and not me!

So Lydia got to witness this typical chaos and she seemed to think it went fabulously. Well ... it did, to be honest. Through all the ridiculous amount of distraction and absurdity, it was obvious that the class was getting the information.
I feel confident that the majority of the students at Onkabetse Thuto High School now clearly understand how HIV is transmitted.
And more importanly, they know how to protect themselves.

After we concluded the sessions it was time for the event.
We were originally supposed to start after school until the day before someone said to me, "but if you start after school, everyone will be gone! We've got to start after short break."
Okay, so I got permission to start around 10 to 11, after the kids had finished cleaning their classrooms.

10 rolls around, still cleaning. 11 rolls around ... most kids are standing around and not doing anything. Why can't we start? Oh, there's one classroom that refuses to clean their room.
At this point ... I'm stressing out. We've spent a lot of money and done a lot of work, and I have no idea if we'll even get this thing off the ground.
12 o'clock, the principal gives us permission to start.
The music turns on, and all is right and well in the world.

Erin, who I love so dearly, and who has helped so tremendously, started the day off by announcing that she was going to test for HIV. Soon after, many students followed her, and there was a LONG LINE of kids waiting to get tested for HIV.

We kicked off our event with a candlelighting ceremony for those who have passed on because of HIV/AIDS. The wind was strong, so uh, it wasn't so successful. But we tried. We tried.

Then we went on to do a condom demonstration. We had a couple of representatives from LoveLife, which is a fantastic organization (that I hope to work with in the future), who helped to get the energy going by getting some volunteers to come up and show how to put a condom on.

After a couple of volunteers, one who used his TEETH (eek! don't do this), one of my Peer Mentors came up to do it properly. And I must say, he did a damn good job and was very professional.

After the condom demonstration, we had a two poets read their poems, some jika ma jika (a dance competition) and then we did a little HIV Jeopardy.

Just a quick note- remember earlier when I mentioned the dog? Well, you may have noticed it in most of the pictures I've posted. If you didn't notice, you can do a little Where's Waldo'ing.
Anyway, that dog, Dookie, is Erin's dog who followed her to school. Over a half hour walk. He stuck around the whole time. He slept outside the door of the classroom we were teaching in, and even found his way into the office while we were eating lunch. It was completely absurd. He also terrorized some donkeys, so that was cool.

Enough about the dog.

The main point of the event was the testing. Overall, we had 37 high school students who got tested for HIV, and there was a waiting list for at least 23 more kids to get tested. This way exceeded my expectations, and I am beyond pleased with the way things turned out, even if it did almost give me an ulcer.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Onkabetse HIV Awareness Campaign

This week has easily been one of the most gratifying weeks of my life.
My Peer Mentors have put in a lot of hard work towards getting ready for this HIV education campaign, and it is very clear.
It helps that this kids are incredibly bright and gifted in a variety of ways- but the hard work and dedication ... that's been the key.

It has been a real pleasure to go into all the classrooms and watch as these guys so easily demand respect out of their peers by using their skillful facilitation and passing on their solid understanding of HIV. They set the tone when talking about sex and anatomy by being super professional and demonstrating a level of maturity that has blown me away!

I have witnessed several "a-ha" moments that good teachers become so addicted to seeing on the faces of their students. I truly believe, with the bottom of my heart, that our combined efforts have really set a lot of learners straight about many of the myths and facts that are going around the community- and there certainly are some interesting myths going around.

There have been a lot of interesting comments and questions that have come from the classes. Some kids want to know, is sex a form of exercise? - To which I answer, "why yes ... sex CAN be a sort of exercise- but so can running in front of a train! ALWAYS USE A CONDOM!" CONDOMS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

One of the most rewarding moments of the campaign was after my kids ran one of their amazing sessions, and a young man from grade 12 came up to me afterward, thanked us for what we were doing, and asked if he could join in the efforts. YES! Yes. Yes, my dear friend, you can.

It's really encouraging to hear the kids at the school talking about the campaign- and they are. They're excited about learning about the virus, and I think they're really excited to be talking frankly about sex.

It has become so incredibly clear that an Abstinence Only form of education would be so completely ineffectual, preachy and ridiculous. Through the questions the kids have asked, it is ABUNDANTLY clear that a large portion of kids are having sex. Behavior change is hard enough as it is ... to try to get them to stop having sex when they've already started is a far cry from realistic. I want these kids wearing condoms. Condoms!!!!
We will support the kids who are choosing not to have sex by affirming their behavior and encouraging abstinence as their safest and most reliable protection against HIV, other STIs, and "falling pregnant."
By the way, the term "falling pregnant," while referring to a very serious situation that can range anywhere between devastation and jubilation, is a rather hilariously tragic term.

One of the biggest, hottest topics in the classrooms is always the topic of testing.
People are terrified of testing. And indeed, I can't very well blame them.
I remember taking an HIV test myself in order to join Peace Corps, and it was completely uncomfortable. And I cannot even think of a single time in my life where I may have been exposed to HIV- but the fear still resonated in the core of my being. "What if I DO have HIV? What then?"
I could hardly imagine the kind of fear that some of these kids would be facing. It is obvious that many of these kids have been engaging in unprotected sex. The infection rate among adults in the village is around 40%.
There is ample reason to be terrified.

We have also been promoting a healthy lifestyle, and been working hard on encouraging people to support those living with HIV- and they've really seemed to respond to the message. We've been working towards addressing the stigma of testing. I think this generation has been inundated with information about HIV- this week has been focused on trying to help them sort out the good information from the bad. They've been made aware of the fact that HIV is a problem in this country- it's been our impetus to make sure that people recognize that this problem is one that they need to own themselves.

One thing has become pronounced- the kids in the Peer Mentors have definitely owned the battle against HIV as their own battle.

During almost every class, after we've announced that we're putting on a testing drive at the school, there's been a wild reaction. A lot of "Aw hell nah!"s, and a lot of other, assorted, mixed reactions. It's got the kids talking. They're talking to their teachers about their fears, their reluctance to know their status ... it's a big deal.

This next week will be more hard work.

We'll see if we can pull this event off.
Wish us luck.