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Condom Day

“It’s Condom Day!”
18 June 2004


You joined The Peace Corps because you wanted to change the world in some small way. This idea roughly translated into teaching English in Namibia, so that the students (that was before you started calling them “learners”) could have a better chance of qualifying for University and improving their standard of living. It seemed to make sense at the time.

A year and a half later, your naivety is gone and you have realized that the world changes regardless. All you can do is nudge a few people in the right direction, presuming you know which way that is. Given the high rate of HIV infection (20%-30% of the population has the virus), you have come to terms with the sobering realization that all the English in the world won’t help if your learners, containing the knowledge you’ve given them, die prematurely from AIDS. You want to nudge them towards life.

This is why you find yourself, one day, standing in front of a class of 36 twelfth graders who are giggling nervously because you, their beloved English teacher and newly-minted “Life Skills teacher”, have just announced, rather gleefully, that, “It’s condom day!” You triumphantly produce two wooden penises and a box full of condoms, just to emphasize your point. “Now, I know that of course none of you are having sex now-” A brief spasm of confusion halts their laughter. They look guilty. Does she really think we’re not having sex? “-but you probably will sometime in the future. Now, how many of you plan to have 14 children?” The girls all shake their heads adamantly, clucking at the very idea; several boys raise their hands-obviously imagining all they fun they could have producing the 14 offspring. You continue, “How many of you plan on dying from AIDS?” They are duly sobered; no one raises a hand. “Ok then. That’s why you must use a condom every time you have sex.”

You start with a game. The learners form four groups and each group is given nine sheets of paper, each with one of the steps to using a condom correctly. Their task is to put them in the correct order. The first group to finish correctly will win sweets. You’ve never seen learners so engaged in an activity, bent over the papers, “-this one is second to last…” “-no, you must check the expiration date first…” “-which one comes next?”. A group says they’re finished. You check the order. It’s a bit disconcerting to see that they’ve put ‘tie the condom’ before ‘have sex and ejaculate.’ After a few more false victories, one group finally manages to put the steps in the correct order. Knowing that the kids will listen more to each other than to you, you have one of the more articulate learners then explain the steps to the class. It turns out that the condom should be tied after having sex and removing the condom. Go figure.

Next, you ask for a volunteer to demonstrate how to put on and remove a condom, using one of the wooden penises. Sakeus jumps up. He may have failed four out of his six subjects last term, but this is his area of expertise, he is now the authority on the subject, he will teach and the others will learn from him. Without any self-consciousness, he selects a green-colored condom and proceeds to accurately demonstrate how the prophylactic should be used. The class is attentive, only chiding him when he comes to the “have sex” part. “How? Tell us how!” They feign ignorance. You feign sudden interest in something outside the window, so they won’t see you laughing and you won’t see whatever Sakeus might be doing with the wooden penis to answer their question.

After the successful completion of Sakeus’ condom demonstration, it’s time for a femidom (female condom) demonstration. You hold up an empty, two-liter plastic Fanta bottle and announce, just for the fun of it, “This is my vagina.” (English class and Fanta will never be quite the same for anyone again.) Luckily for you, Kristina volunteers to demonstrate how to use the femidom on the Fanta container. The class “oohs” and “ahs” over the femidom’s larger size and it’s two rings, and is especially enthralled by the “fthoink” sound when the femidom is removed from the bottle.

You encourage them to ask questions. You manage to answer them with only minor tinges of embarrassment. Finally, the learners ask the ultimate question, “Can we have condoms?” Of course. Although you don’t want to admit to yourself that they are really having sex, the façade is shattered when the learners maul the box of free condoms and ask if you have any Cool Ryder or Sense brand condoms, because they “like those ones better.”

Ndapewa is upset with you. “Miss! What are you doing with those condoms?”

You are confused. “What?”

“Why don’t you throw them away? You are encouraging people to have sex! They should abstain and wait until they are married!”

“Yes, I know,” you say, pausing to think of where to begin? This is always the debate. “But they are having sex anyway. I am just encouraging them to do it safely.” It is no use citing research that there is no correlation between condom distribution and increased sexual activity, but that there is a correlation between condom use and decreased STDs. Instead, you demonstrate reality on a nearby learner. “Gabriel, don’t have sex. Wait until you’re married.”

“Yes, miss,” he says, while reaching for more condoms.

“See? I can say what I want, but in the end, he will do what he wants. He’s going to have sex anyway, so it’s better that he protects himself.” Ndapewa sighs in resignation. You feel the same way. You get to do this with eight more classes.

Most of the classes proceed about the same as the first, except one time the English teacher next door, Mr. Nuushona, enters the class to make an announcement. He is oblivious to the situation he’s walking into, and doesn’t seem to notice anything unusual, such as your desk being covered in condoms instead of your usual books and papers. A learner, in some twist of cruelty, invites him to “stay and hear the lesson, because it’s very interesting.” Mr. Nuushona is a compliant guy, so he says, yeah, sure.

You find yourself suddenly utterly embarrassed. You, who had a minute ago been brazenly swinging wooden penises around while discussing the pros and cons of femidoms and condoms, have been brought to a complete standstill in the presence of another teacher. Then, slowly, you begin to laugh, because it’s the only way to unfreeze, and the class also begins to laugh, but everybody is trying to hide it. Finally, Mr. Nuushona gets his bearings and realizes that something is amiss. He glances at your condom-covered desk, at the femidom packet in your hand, at the Fanta-vagina, and suddenly it all clicks. He does not want to be here! This is not the safe confines of an English class! It has morphed into a perilous Life Skills class. He was tricked! He darts out the door before you can give any explanation.

But you must stay, and somehow you continue.



Love, Sera

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