One of the projects I have been working on here is sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness. In East Africa HIV/AIDS is a huge problem. In some countries on that side of the continent, as many as 40% of the population are infected. Here in West Africa the infection rate is not so high, but it is still about twice as high as in the US. Education about how to avoid HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is one of the priorities for Peace Corps volunteers everywhere in the world.
I knew I would be doing HIV/AIDS prevention activities when I got my invitation to be a Peace Corps volunteer and I was not sure how comfortable I would be as a sex educator. When I was teaching Introductory Psychology, I used to blush just explaining the ideas of Sigmund Freud! After two years of talking about it, I am quite comfortable discussing it in French. We will see if that transfers to English in America.
One of the projects I have been doing, both this year and last year, is to provide informational sessions outside of the regular school schedule for students in the equivalent of 6th grade, and to all levels of Junior High and High School here in my town. There is a woman who works at the maternity center who helps me with the sessions for the girls and a man from the health service who helps me with sessions for the boys. I tell the students something in my hard to understand French (poor vocabulary and strange American accent) and my friends repeat the ideas in French with a Burkinabè accent that many of the students can understand, and then again in Moore, the local language that children learn at home.
The discussion of sex is pretty much taboo in African culture and it is a hard topic for parents to bring up. I have invited parents to attend the sessions in the primary schools, partly so they will know what we are telling their children, and partly to help them open the conversation with their children at home. Unfortunately, not very many of the parents accepted the invitation.
Almost all of the students in the 6th grade in each primary school did come to the meetings and were very interested. In the junior high and high schools a smaller per cent of the students attended, but those who did come were very interested in the information we had to share and they had many questions. The basics of human biology are not part of the regulars school curriculum until 10th grade, so many students were glad to learn about their own bodies and how girls get pregnant. Unplanned pregnancy is one of the reasons people cite for there being so many fewer girls in high school than boys. Helping girls understand the risks of early sexual activity is how this fits into Girls Education and Empowerment. But I feel it is also important for the boys to understand the risks and how to protect themselves and their partners if they do decide to be sexually active. It takes two to make a baby!
In keeping with Peace Corps policy, we did discuss abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage as the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Given the problem with unplanned pregnancies, however, it was also important to explain the importance of using protection if you do have sexual relations. I did a demonstration about how to use a condom, and showed students that, even though condoms are pretty strong, it is possible to break them. We also stressed the importance of putting used condoms in the latrine so the kids would not play with them and possibly contract HIV that way.
Joining the world fight against AIDS
Another AIDS awareness project I worked on here was suppose to take place on World AIDS Day, December 1. Because of delay in funding for the project I did not get the materials needed until February, and I wanted to do it when another AIDS activity was going on at the school. That activity never materialized so I decided it was time to just do my project. This idea was to get students to think about avoiding HIV/AIDS and to make a pledge to live a safe and healthy life style.
The project consisted of making a mural or sign about AIDS in a public place. To do this I talked to the principal of the school and he thought it was a good idea. We selected one wall of the library building. First we had to paint it white so that the slogan would be easy to read. I started to paint it myself, but boys came along and wanted to help. I ended up sitting in a chair in the shade, supervising. I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer, although I did not charge them for the privilege of helping.
The wall did not look so great after one coat, so I invested in a second bucket of paint and another group of boys helped with that. Here is our nice white space on which to write the message.
I asked one of the boys who had done a really good job with the white paint if he would help me paint the slogan. We agreed to meet at the school on Saturday morning at 8:00. The Librarian met me there and we got out all the supplies, but my boy did not show up. His friend was there and assured me he was coming, but that his parents had sent him to the market for something but he would be here right away. By 8:45 he had not appeared so I left his friend in charge of the paint and ladder and went to a wedding I had promised to attend. On Sunday I passed the school after church, not expecting to see anything on the wall, but this is what I saw.
It is not exactly what I had in mind. I gave the boys a drawing with the bottom half of the wall blank, as a place where students would make a paint hand print to show they had pledged to live a healthy life style, but what was done was done and I was not about to start over. The slogan translates roughly to "The students of this High School say NO to HIV/AIDS
Last Tuesday afternoon, when there were no classes scheduled, we invited the students to take a pledge to live a healthy and safe life style and to protect themselves and their partners from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. After taking the pledge students could put on a latex glove, put their hands in black paint, and put a hand print of the wall. To facilitate cleanup I bought a box of latex gloves and had students put one of their hand before dipping it in the paint
Here are the two boys who painted the slogan being the first to put their make on it.
Here is is, after about 50 students had made their pledge.
After they put their hand print on the wall, they could try to answer a question about HIV/AIDS. The man who is the librarian at the school also works with a group for AIDS prevention and helped me with the question and answer part of the project. If a student just attempted to answer a question, the won a condom. If they gave the correct answer, they won three. I have received many comments about the wall from teachers at the school. I commented it was not exactly what I had in mind, but one teacher said, "It is good the way it is. It is clear that it was made by the students and not something an adult put up." I think he is right. Another commented that it would be a nice way to remember my time here in the town. I think that is the only material thing I have done that will cause people to remember me, except for my project to repair a village pump, which I will tell you about next time.