On Monday afternoon a messenger came to our house and said, “Mrs. Arcaro, the secretary is calling you.” When I arrived at the office a few minutes later, the secretary said that a teacher had called from Iipundi Combined School and wanted to talk to me, something about the AIDS club. After a few minutes, the phone rang, and it was Ceci, a teacher at Iipundi. She said that since the Ekulo AIDS club came to Iipundi a few weeks ago, she had started her own AIDS club at the school. They were doing a program on Wednesday, had invited an HIV positive speaker, and wanted our club to come and perform a drama as part of the program. I was a bit confused about why she needed us to come for the drama, and why the short notice. She said they had to do the program on Wednesday because the speaker, whom she had met at a workshop over the weekend, was going back down to Windhoek on Thursday. She said that she wanted my club to do the drama because, “That way the message is coming from outside. You see, at this school, we have a very big problem of teacher-learner relationships. I want you to do a drama about teachers dating schoolgirls. But I can’t bring it up or I might get in trouble. If it comes from outside, then we can discuss it. I want learners to see it and realize that it shouldn’t be happening.” I agreed to everything.
After I got off the phone, I went to the dining hall where most of the grade 10s and 12s were studying. I found one member of the club, and told her to gather everyone else. I met everyone outside under a tree and I said, “I have good news for you. Since we went to Iipundi a few weeks ago, they’ve started their own club!” The kids smiled and nodded, but seemed a bit confused about why I interrupted their studies to tell them this. So I went on, “And they’re doing a program on Wednesday and want us to come and do a drama.” Then they understood. I explained everything to them and then asked, “Is this OK? Can you come up with a whole new drama in two days?” They assured me they could, and that was all I had to do.
At 11:30 on Wednesday, I drove ten of the club members to Iipundi for what was sure to be our last drama. The program finally started around 12:30 and began with some of the Iipundi learners explaining “What is HIV?” and “How does it affect people?” and other such topics. Then my learners did their drama. It was all about a math teacher from Cape Town named, “Mr. Truelove, the love expert.” Mr. Truelove liked to punish pretty girls to make them stay after class, and then he would hit on them. Within a few days of teaching, he had seduced three girls. Unfortunately, Mr. Truelove had HIV, which he got from his girlfriend who had slept with a truck driver. At the end of the drama, the narrator informed the audience that one girl got pregnant and had to drop out of school, another got HIV and infected her boyfriend and they both died, and the third got an STD and wasn’t able to bear children.
I was sitting in the teacher’s section of the audience during this performance. In the beginning, when the learners came out with their outfits, the teacher behind me talked incessantly about the jacket Freddy, “Mr. Truelove” was wearing. “Oh! Look at that jacket! Is it his own jacket? Maybe it is the HIV club jacket. Now where did he get it? Oh, it’s ripped on the sides. Look at that!” The Namibian drama style requires a plot summary before the drama commences and when the topic of the drama was announced, the teachers near me made a comment like, “O! That is a dangerous topic. How can they discuss that at schools?” Later, as the drama continued and Mr. Truelove was praising one of his girls, a female teacher near me said to her colleague, “Yes! It is just like that. You feel so proud when the teacher calls on you…” By the end of the drama, most of the teachers were subdued.
(A few days after the trip to Iipundi, I talked to Pat, the volunteer that works at the school. He told me that at the staff meeting after our drama, his principal openly accused (“he pointed his finger right at three of the men”) certain teachers of having relationships with learners, and told them it must stop. I asked Pat, “If he knows who is doing it, why can’t he just fire them? It’s clearly against the rules.” Pat replied, “The problem is that there’s no proof. Both the teacher and the girl will deny it, because neither of them think it is a bad thing, or that there is anything wrong with it. To get fired, the girl basically has to get pregnant and accuse the teacher of being the father.”)
After the drama, Nelao, a 22-year old woman who was HIV positive, gave a talk. She explained that she became infected in grade 10. She was 8 months pregnant when she wrote her grade 10 exams. Although she passed, she did not go on to senior secondary school the next year, but stayed home with her baby. Later, her mother said she should get her education, so Nelao went back to school. During this time, her baby became very sick. After many inconclusive tests, they finally decided to check for HIV. The results for the baby, as well as Nelao, came back HIV positive. She told her mother, and her mother was very supportive. Later, she decided to disclose her status at her school, because it concerned her so much she couldn’t focus on her studies. She said that after going public, she did not feel any discrimination; most people were supportive.
She went on to pass grade 12 and join an organization of HIV positive people in Namibia. She said she wanted to be a role model to young people—both to warn them against becoming infected, as well as to demonstrate how one can live positively with the disease. She has not received any anti-retroviral drugs and has been HIV positive for 6 years without becoming seriously ill. Her son is in kindergarten now, and has just started taking anti-retroviral drugs and has been healthy so far.
She concluded her speech by answering questions from the learners and having them do condom demonstrations. The kids at Iipundi kept doing the demos wrong, so she finally called on one of my learners, Liiri. She did it perfectly, explaining all the steps in a loud clear, voice. I was so proud. The audience even applauded her.
After the program, Ceci had us and Nelao for a little reception in her classroom with peanut butter bread and juice. Nelao was very friendly and answered all of my learners questions with ease. She seemed really confident and very comfortable around people. On the way home, my learners kept talking about how great it was to meet Nelao. Apparently they had seen her on TV before, as there had been a little movie made about her story. She said during her speech that through the HIV positive organization she’s in, she has had the opportunity to travel to the United States as well as the U.K. She even met Tony Blair personally.
For me, meeting Nelao highlighted a complex problem in the fight against HIV/AIDS. On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful what Nelao is doing, going around talking to schools and standing before the learners saying, “I am HIV positive.” I think it helps to make the disease real, and yet provides hope for others who are infected. They can see someone who is living a healthy life with the disease. On the other hand, by breaking down the stigma against HIV and by countering the stereotype of a thin, dying person with HIV, she is also diminishing some of the fear of the disease. I just wonder if seeing her, with her nice clothes and healthy body, will cause some learners to think, “Well, getting HIV isn’t a big deal. I can just live a normal life. So why worry about condoms?” Of course this is not her message or her intentions, but I fear that it is the message some imprudent learners may take away. How can you make them fear the disease, without fearing the people who have it? The HIV/AIDS campaign slogan for 2003 was “Fight HIV & AIDS, not those with it.” But I think that that is a very difficult balance to achieve—one side or the other always seems to get compromised.
We had our last AIDS Club meeting on Friday, October 30. Fransina and Kornelia gave speeches and I handed out certificates after a little speech of my own. The theme of all these speeches was that our work does not stop or end here. Fransina encouraged the grade 10s and 11s to continue the club next year. Kornelia said that the certificate should be seen as a beginning, that everyone should demonstrate what they’ve learned in the club by setting an example to others through a responsible lifestyle. I just added on to what they said, and thanked everyone for their hard work. I actually made it through the whole thing without crying.
After the formalities, the club descended on the food that I had prepared for them: two chocolate cakes with icing and sprinkles, enough peanut-butter and oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies for everyone to have five, and three giant bags of popcorn, all home-made (I had cooked literally all day), plus 15 liters of American Kool-Aid. Once their plates were heaped high, we played the two DVD’s that were produced by the Elon University group that was led by Zac’s dad.
It was interesting to watch them watch documentaries about AIDS in Namibia. I think it was a good way to end—with them being reminded of the enormity of the problem, but at the same time their ability to solve/prevent the disease, if not for the whole country, at least for themselves.
There is a saying here in the north which states that, “AIDS came to kill people, not dogs.” They explained this to mean that AIDS is here to kill people, so it will get you in one way or another. If people really believe that they are powerless to fight the disease, to prevent being infected with HIV, then this attitude is perhaps the biggest contributor to the problem. A self-fulfilling prophesy.
Across the country, people are forming HIV/AIDS Awareness groups to combat this attitude toward the disease, to encourage people that they have power over their own futures. I hope it’s true.