Thursday, May 10, 2012

HIV Conference

April 21st

What a delightfully happy day! Well, actually, parts of it were boring, frustrating, and bemusing, but the end of the day was so wonderful it has absolutely colored the rest in a lovely way.

This morning we had our “conference” on HIV/AIDS for the middle/high school kids. The biggest difficulty is the age range – in the US you can predict a child's age fairly accurately within a grade, but today we had kids that easily ranged from 12-22 years old, and it's hard to present age-appropriate information to all of them at once, particularly on a topic like sex. The director was late showing up, the guy from Seguenega with the DVD was late (and then the DVD was so scratched we couldn't get it to play). Thankfully we gave up on it after 40 minutes or so, but it was a long wait. We started out with a big crowd at 8am, around 200 kids by my estimate, but by the end we were down to about 100; apparently you don't face consequences for just walking out of presentations here, even as a student in front of your school director (who wondered in and out throughout the morning).

It mostly consisted of Major lecturing dryly off his notes, with the guy from district getting up and asking questions of the students and clarifying points. He leaned over at one point and asked if we'd brought condoms. I had thought that I would be leaving the condoms and wooden penises at home, as the director had made it very clear that they were not welcome, but at the last minute I tossed them into my bag and was glad I did. I told him that the director specifically asked us to not do a demonstration for fear of repercussions from angry parents who would see it as the school condoning sexual activity among the students. But when it was his turn again he asked if anyone could demonstrate how to properly use a condom, and (to my delight) out came the condoms and wooden penis. There was a lot of laughter, and all of the volunteer students had very shaky hands, but one did a decent job of explaining important steps that often get missed, like checking the expiration date, and making sure to throw it in a latrine so kids don't find it and play with it. The director was out of the room for this part, which helped, but pretty much the whole time Major was desperately trying to get back the microphone and stop them from continuing the step-by-step explanation. It wasn't perfect, but it was a lot better than not doing anything, and I was feeling very grateful to this guy from Seguenega that I usually only see in the context of supervising polio campaigns from time to time. It still boggles my mind that the director can tell me that unwanted pregnancy is a big issue in his school, but still be against teaching them how to use a condom.

They wrapped it up around 11am, which was nice for all of us. I had actually been ready to speak about almost anything, but the microphone never made it to me and I was ok with that, just sitting watching the students. Some were falling asleep. Some were taking notes. Some looked interested. Many looked embarrassed. But I felt like we were getting through to some of them, and at least the information was out there for all of them, more relevant for some than others, but available to everyone.

After lunch I was sitting in my courtyard reading when I heard a knock on my door. Lo and behold, it was Juliette, Rosalie's daughter! Normally I'm super awkward with kids, and this wasn't a huge exception, but we sat in silence for a while, punctuated with small bursts when one of us would babble at the other for a minute before lapsing into companionable quiet again. She offered to get water for my plants, but I insisted that Saturday is a day of rest in my book and no work will be done until tomorrow. She has this great smile and lively eyes, so unlike the timid girls today with their downcast eyes and determination not to answer questions. I'd love to photograph her with Rosalie, actually, they both have such open warm faces when they smile.

I kept reading until 3:30, then went to get some water and my computer that I'd left to charge at the CSPS. I had a delightful French/Moore conversation with Luddie, who starts all her sentences to me with “Jessica?”, and then even a decent exchange with the one girl whose name I can never remember, the one who is usually quite rude to me. But she said she wanted to talk to me about the conference we had today, and I told her to come over and talk anytime – I'm always willing to answer questions. This could be a really good way of getting out some information, since she's been here and in the school system long enough to know a lot of the girls from the village. I went back to my house very happy indeed, and then talked to JK and Dave! Such a good day.

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