Wednesday, 15 July 2009

HIV Project up and running at the speed of light!

A bit of a delayed post... but so newsworthy I still had to get it up!

The first two weeks of June saw the official opening of the HIV Education project here in Vilanculos. The project runs alongside the Teaching English project and volunteers from both projects attend the preschool together in the mornings. In the afternoons they split up into their specialization of HIV Education or Teaching English at Cafe Edson's.

The HIV Education is structured as a two-week workshop consisting of 4 two-hour sessions. The workshops aims to not only to provide information about the biology of HIV/AIDS and how to protect yourself, but also to really encourage the group members to speak openly about the controversy and taboo around the subject. The activities are meant to really get the group members out of their shells and ranges amongst educational (but fun!) DVD's, interactive theater, art creation and interpretation, and educational games.

We kicked off the first session with the staff members of our volunteer camp, about 15 people in total. Our volunteers at the time were Laurie, Joe, Charissa, and Ineke. As the guinea-pig leaders of the new project, they did such a brilliant job in pulling everything together and presenting it in an accessible, fun, and informative manner. We were nervous that our audience wouldn't be too enthused or perhaps a bit intimidated by the interactive theater and art creation, but we couldn't have been farther off base!

I think all of our lingering nerves and trepidation were assuaged when Samuel, one of our volunteer cooks, arrived at the second session with a special request. He asked if we could save some time at the end of the session because he had been inspired to write a song about HIV/AIDS since the first meeting of our group. At the end of the session, Samuel began to sing with the rest of us keeping rhythm. Despite the lyrics in Xitsua (the local dialect of our area) the power and emotion in the air was palpable and it was clear to all of us that we were part of something so special and moving that it couldn't be put into words of any language. Jorge, our gardener, kept a rhythmic baseline chorus of "use a condom, use a condom, use a condom" which brought wide smiles to all of our faces when it was audible below Samuel's Xitsua verses.

Another highlight of the session included a homework assignment requiring the group members to bring in an artifact or object that had some relation to the theme of HIV/AIDS. We weren't sure if the group members would feel comfortable sharing such potentially personal information and it wasn't obligatory. Our fears were once again swept away by the outpouring of emotion that each staff member presented in relation to their "object". One particularly moving presentation revolved around a letter that one of the staff members, Joao, had received from his girlfriend. He told us the story of how they met about three years ago. After being together for a little while, he breached the topic of going to the hospital together to get HIV tests. Apparently his girlfriend had a real problem with this whether out of fear or perhaps a misguided feeling of betrayal because Joao didn’t trust her fidelity. It lead to a break-up. After nearly a year, Joao received a letter from her that he read to the whole group. In the letter she apologized for not having understood the importance of testing but that she now knows the Joao was suggesting the correct course of action. In the letter she included the slip of paper that the hospital gives out with the written result of your HIV test. She asked Joao if having seen that paper, he would be willing to take her back. Joao was proud to announce that they’ve been together happily and faithfully since then.

In the picture below, you can see Samuel, Joao, and Orlando sitting with our sex education dolls “Juan” and “Sylvia”. Juan and Sylvia are made in central Mozambique by a women’s empowerment through employment program called the TIOS Center. The dolls are very, very (!) anatomically correct and also include allusions to HIV transmission methods other than sex (i.e. a tattoo and an open wound). Juan and Sylvia have been a great hit in the sessions and can always be counted on to throw the group into fits of laughter as they learn.

We have also been using theater to open up the group to talking about HIV/AIDS. The method of Forum Theater has long been advocated as an effective and fun way of tackling controversial issues in an educational setting. For our workshop, the volunteers put together a short skit about HIV/AIDS. Forum theater skits are always comprised of at least two people, one is an oppressor and the other is the oppressed. After presenting the skit to the group members, a narrator turns the tables and asks the group members if they would like to enter the action and replace one of the characters to re-run the scene. In this way, the group members are able to use the knowledge they have gained in the session about HIV/AIDS to ameliorate the behaviors, actions, and decisions presented in the original skit.

Forum Theater has been a massive hit in our group. As a cornerstone of our workshops, we believe strongly in the power of theater to encourage people to turn thought into action. It’s all well and good for individuals to be able to recite the X number of transmission methods, but if you can give a young woman the opportunity through theater to actually practice saying “no” to a man who wants her to have sex without a condom it’s a whole other story! In the photo below, you’ll see Samuel and Jorge after they have entered into the Forum Theater action. The play was about Anita (Samuel) and Pedro, a married couple. In the original play, Anita broached the subject of condom use and Pedro vehemently negated the possibility, lashing out in an emotionally and physically violent manner. In Samuel and Jorge’s modification, Anita actually manages to convince Pedro to try it and see what he thinks.

The picture below shows the group members creating personal artistic responses to the theme of HIV/AIDS in the last session of the workshop.

Inviting the group members to create art is a lovely way to end the workshop because of its informal and open-ended nature. In the western world we’re all very familiar with the idea of artistic expression and could ramble off a million justifications for the necessity of art in schools, for example, to aid with personal development and expression. The Mozambican government however, likely due to lack of funds, isn’t able to offer any sort of art program in its primary or secondary schools. To see the group members touch paint to paper for perhaps the first time is a truly special moment. After 45 minutes of painting, gluing, and glittering our way into self-expression about HIV/AIDS. We came back together for the last time as a group to present what we had all created and to discuss our interpretation of it as well as welcoming other group member’s interpretations. The range of thought and emotion amongst the creations was amazing and once again affirmed our belief in the power of art for self-expression and growth.

We’re so proud of this beautiful project and can’t wait to be part of its development throughout the Vilanculos community. We’ll keep you updated on highlights of other upcoming sessions. Next up are the parents of the kids at preschool!

We would love your feedback and ideas as well about how we could make this workshop even more dynamic and effective. We actually hope that it’s constantly evolving and just getting better and better, so bring on the feedback!