Monday, February 27, 2006

Into the Schools

February 20, 2006, Monday. 11:44pm.

With a little ingenuity and a bit of begging, Hillary and I revived the
VCT�s mobile outreach program, which had gone on unintentional hiatus back
in November due to, well, you know. Starts with a �c,� but it�s not
Communism. Anyway since the VCT had no funds to pay for transport and lunch
allowances for an outreach program, we decided to ask the village hospital
if we could tag along in their ambulance when they went out for mobile
clinics, and conduct HIV/AIDS awareness at nearby schools. They were more
than happy to oblige, and invited us to be a part of their school health
program, a combination of mobile clinics and health talks.

The best part of all this is not that I get to ride in an ambulance (no
siren, more like a glorified paddy wagon) but the fact that one of the
nurses promised that the next time a newly-dewormed student passes a worm,
she�ll save it for me so I can see what it looks like.

Anyway, Hillary and I went to a primary school today and talked to sixth-
through eighth graders. One of the teachers had been through a workshop on
how to teach about HIV/AIDS in schools. He kindly offered to let us borrow
his notes, which began: �Where did AIDS come from? 1.) AIDS came from
America when homosexuals started committing sinful acts with each other.�

This one was new. No one knows for sure the origins of AIDS; many American
scientists think a researcher conducting research in Africa acquired a
simian form of HIV from monkeys, which then mutated into a virus capable of
living in human beings. In Africa many people believe that AIDS came from
America or Europe; some go so far as to say that the virus was cooked up in
an American lab and shipped to Africa to further oppress Africans. But this
was the first time I�d heard the gay theory.

His notes continued: AIDS is a punishment from God. People get AIDS because
they have committed a sin (with a list of sins punishable by AIDS). Condoms
have holes that allow viruses to pass through (accompanied by a chart with
diameters of holes in latex vs. diameters of HIV and other STDs).
Masturbation is a moral perversion. Private parts should only be used for
the purpose they were designed for; they should not be touched any other
way. Activities that spread AIDS: men having sex with men, women having sex
with women, kissing.

Hillary listened patiently while I railed against the notes after the
teacher had left the room. I was preaching to the choir for the 900th time,
but the choir understood and nodded sympathetically.

We moved to the classroom and began teaching the standard lesson � What is
AIDS? How do you get AIDS? How do you prevent AIDS? It was clear the
students already knew the basics, so I started asking them to ask me
questions instead. The ninety students were silent. Their teacher (the one
with the notes) was watching them.

It was the first time I had taught students younger than high school, and I
hadn�t thought about how to discuss the ABCs (Abstain, Be faithful, Condom
use) appropriately for the age group. Off the top of my head I said, �Be
faithful means for married people like your parents, they should be faithful
to each other. If you have older brothers or sisters and they have a
partner, they should be faithful to each other.� It was totally patronizing
but it was the best I could come up with on the spot.

Finally one grinning eighth grader asked, �So is it okay if we�re faithful
too?� It was one of those high-context Kenyan phrasings, so I had to ask for
clarification. The actual question was, �Which of the ABCs do we use if we
have a partner?�

I knew it was a Catholic school and I knew after reading the teacher�s notes
that the �correct� answer was to abstain.

�It�s your choice,� I said. I could see the teacher cringing in the corner.
�You know the risks of each option so it�s up to you to decide what�s right
for you.� Then I added some other stuff about how if you get pregnant or get
someone pregnant, or if you get sick from an STD, it could cost you your
education and your future, and the teacher seemed relieved. He wrapped up
our presentation by reinterpreting the ABCs for his students:

�You need to abstain from sex to avoid getting AIDS. You need to be faithful
to your partner by abstaining from sex. And C is for condoms, but I don�t
want any of you using condoms.�

We had some extra time afterwards because the ambulance was late picking us
up, so I asked the students to write down any questions they might have on a
piece of paper, anonymously, and pass it to me. I wasn�t sure if I would get
much of a response since I didn�t get many questions earlier. Instead I was
bombarded with questions the students were too embarrassed to ask aloud, in
front of the teacher and their peers.

Do condoms have holes in them? Do condoms prevent AIDS? Can you get AIDS
from kissing? Can you get AIDS from shaking hands with someone with an open
wound on their hand?

The problem, I�m discovering as I talk to more youths, is that people get so
many mixed messages from so many different places in their lives � AIDS is a
punishment from God, yet you shouldn�t judge or shun people with AIDS
because they�re innocent; abstain until marriage, but you�re not a real man
if you don�t have sex to test out your goods before you marry someone; use
condoms, but you don�t need to use condoms because you�re supposed to
abstain unless you�re a prostitute or some other immoral person, therefore
the only people who use condoms are immoral people; everyone is a sinner,
and if you sin God will give you AIDS, so don�t sin.

No wonder people are so confused. Part of me feels like dropping in on a
school once a year isn�t going to make much of an impact. Kids (and everyone
else for that matter) need consistent messages from everyone in their lives
� schools, religious leaders, parents, peers � but most of the time they
have nowhere to turn for answers except their peers, because everyone else
just tells them to abstain abstain abstain, and if you�re abstaining you
don�t need to know anything about sex, so why are you asking about it? And
when all your peers are facing the same void of information, it�s just the
blind leading the blind.

One of the most disturbing things I learned this week is that reproductive
health education in schools is minimal, or nonexistent. Students learn about
sperms and eggs and reproductive organs from a strictly biological
perspective, but there�s no lesson about what happens to boys� and girls�
bodies during puberty. And in the Nandi culture parents don�t talk to their
kids about it. Most girls have no idea what�s happening when they get their
period for the first time, and they think there�s something wrong with them.
But they�re too ashamed to tell anyone about it, so they suffer through
their anxiety alone. Even after they realize periods are normal, they�re too
embarrassed to ask their parents for money to buy pads.

I am going to work a lesson on reproductive health into our school health
program. We went around to a bunch of schools to schedule a time to visit
them, and I asked each headmaster what information he or she felt was most
important for us to teach the kids. They all said malaria or AIDS or basic
hygiene, but no one mentioned reproductive health, probably because it�s
just not on their cultural radar screen. We�ll see how well this type of
content goes over on the frontlines. Stay tuned to this space.


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