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HIV/AIDS Awareness Week
27 June 2004

HIV/AIDS Awareness Week is theoretically a week of optimism. You hope your small corner of the world becomes more aware of the devastating effect of the disease, and the ways to prevent becoming infected. But sometimes you fear that there is nothing you can do to bridge the gap between awareness and actual behavior change. You remember a previous Life Skills class where you had the learners rank the qualities they wanted in a boy/girl friend. They unanimously chose "faithfulness" as the most important characteristic in a partner. You asked why this was most important, and they replied, "Because if they're not, we can get AIDS." Then you turned the question around and asked, "But are you faithful to your partner?" The answer was a resounding no, because they often stay in different towns on different holidays, and they have a girl/boy friend in each place. So it seems most people are not being faithful-monogamy is relatively new to their culture and hasn't quite taken hold. It is exists in theory, but not in actuality.

You think it would be easy, given the dire consequences, to just inform people that if they engage in these risky behaviors, then they have a good chance of dying at a young age. But how do you change a culture that is historically polygamous, and had it not been for this disease, would be just fine? Consider how many people smoke or consume too much saturated fat, even although they know those habits can ultimately lead to an early death. All the awareness in the world won't help when the cravings come.

As you lurch down the sand road, with ten learners, two giant speakers and the accompanying sound equipment in the back of the small pick-up truck, you brush aside your larger pessimism, and focus on the impending potential fiasco. You are driving into the bush to visit Okangororosa Combined School (grades K-10) to do an HIV/AIDS awareness program. As you swerve around a donkey cart, you imagine all the things that could go wrong: you could hit a donkey and roll the truck, killing the bakkie full of learners; maybe the principal of the school didn't receive any of the letters saying you were coming; perhaps the school has no electricity at all, rendering the sound system useless; or possibly the school doesn't even exist and this was all just a clever ploy by the learners to get out of school…You just don't know.bakkie full of learners

This is your first trip taking learners out of the school. You borrowed another teacher's truck, which, on the wash-boarded sand road, is going onto serious convulsions, causing you do drive only about 20km/hr. The school was allegedly only 5km away, but it turns out to be 5km on the tar road, and then another 7km through the sand, which alternates between really deep and soft, or really hard and bumpy. Because there are so many learners involved in the performance, you have to make two trips to the school, and then two trips back again. You don't really like driving in sand, Namibian style, with two learners in the passenger seat, and far too many learners in the back, screaming- what? greetings? profanities?-at every person you pass on the road. Maybe they're shouting, "Help! This oshilumbu is kidnapping us and deporting us as slave labor to eastern Europe where we will be forced to work long hours in a factory, in a country where it gets cold and snows and nobody eats oshithema with sand in it!" You just don't know.She is like the girl in the red coat in Schindler's List.  At the end of this movie, will we see her pink coat in the pile?  Will she be another victim of HIV?

But in the end, Sera's law of "In Namibia, the success of an event is inversely proportional to the amount of planning" proves true once again. You arrive at the school without hitting any donkeys, you greet the unfriendly principal, who has received your letters, and explain that this group will start setting up while you go and fetch the other half of the learners. You fetch the other group and deliver them intact, the music starts, the school kids flood out of the classrooms to come and watch the big kids from Ekulo, the program goes well (or it seems like it-it's all in Oshiwambo so you don't really  know), and the learners are now hopefully more aware of HIV/AIDS. But will it make a difference when they come to making the decisions that could save their lives? You hope by providing information, you are at least helping them to make informed choices, but, you just don't know.

Nevertheless, you leave Okangororosa with a feeling of having done something good. Maybe it's because you didn't really do anything-the learners did everything while you sat there, taking pictures, and laughing when the crowdPenda & Fransina lead the HIV/AIDS quiz and give out prizes. laughed (to fool them into thinking you understood Oshiwambo). Or maybe it's because you successfully drove a total of 72km in a vastly overloaded vehicle without killing anybody. Or maybe it's because you won a small victory for womankind. Despite legal gender equality here in Namibia, as you've discovered through the learners' responses to a certain essay question, many of them think men can do virtually everything better than women. You expect this sort of response from the boys, but it is quite disheartening to read females degrading themselves as not being as brave or strong or talented as men. So you are happy when you overhear them commenting on your driving ability, saying, "Ja, Miss! She knows how to drive! Even better than a man!" They cheer wildly when the truck almost gets stuck in the sand, and you successfully get it out. They are proud of their teacher. Or maybe they're cheering because now they won't have to get out and push. You just don't know.

The week continues, and you make it through all nine of your condom classes, more or less unscathed. The only traumatic incident being when one boy from 11A decides to demonstrate step #5 by having the wooden phallus engage in intercourse with the toilet paper roll. The problem is that you don't know the grade 11s very well yet. You only see them once every seven days, and so they remain just a lump of faces, some of whom talk more than others, and one of whom you want to kick out of your class. After this incident, you recognize that they're really not taking things seriously. You want to make them realize the gravity of it all, you want to scare them into taking control, you want to make a difference and you feel powerless to really change anything. Sometimes you wonder if you're doing anything at all, even nudging. You just don't know.

On Wednesday, you are expecting an HIV+ speaker to come and give a talk at the school. The idea is to try and make it real, to have a person stand before them and say, "I am HIV positive." But in the end, Sera's law of "In Namibia, the success of an event is inversely proportional to the amount of planning" proves true once again. Except in this case, you planned. You made lots of phone calls to the organization that provides the speakers, well in advance of the date. And nobody showed up. You called, and nobody answered the phone. Maybe they forgot. Maybe something happened. You just don't know.

On Saturday, the HIV/AIDS club is hosting a social evening at the dining hall, where they will do a drama, songs, poems, etc. In the morning, girls come over to choose which prizes to give for the raffle, and to wrap the presents that will be prizes for the quiz. Penda comes to make a sign advertising the event. Kids come and borrow the radio to practice their songs and dances. Laimi and Eva-shiwa come and learn to make chocolate cupcakes and sugar cookies to sell at the event. Somehow, the whole day goes by, and then it's time to go to the hall. But who arranged for the sound system? Nobody. You and Penda go to get the keys for the safe from Mr. Iipito. He's just leaving, and says he gave the keys to the principal yesterday. You go to the principal's house, but he's not there. You call him, and find out he's in Ondangwa and won't be back until about 8pm. The learners borrow an inferior stereo from another teacher, but it's not nearly loud enough to attract the learners. Only about 100 people show up. It's off to a slow start, but luckily the principal comes back early. You think, "Now we can get the nice stereo and the learners will come." Penda goes to get the keys from the principal. It turns out the principal has the keys to the outer door, and Mr. Iipito has the keys to the inner safe door. You call Mr. Iipito. Yes, he has the keys to the safe, but his is currently engaged and can't come back. You feel a bit annoyed, especially since you asked him for those keys before he left. Nevertheless, the show goes on, with no microphone and music that is far from blaring. The cakes and cookies are at least popular. This event proves Sera's second law, "Retinal scanners should replace keys." It could be feasible. You just don't know.

HIV/AIDS Awareness week ends, and you hope a few people have a few more things to think about when making decisions that will affect their life. You hope they will be careful and you fear they won't. But surely some will change, and they will live, and maybe you had a small part in that. But you just don't know.

Love Sera 

PS-We're having a telephone meeting with the interim Country Director on Wednesday, regarding Zac having his med-sep wife living with him. They want to make sure I'm not disrupting his work. Isn't that funny? We received a very official fax about it today. Hopefully all goes well.

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