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Camp Upward Bound and Peer HIV Educators — South Africa pt. 4

July 21st, 2011 at 1:32 am

Hey everyone,

It’s hard to believe my summer here is nearly wrapping up – far too soon. As much as I didn’t want to believe it, my Peace Corps friends here and others at home were completely right when they warned me two months is far too short.

After going through the intensive training with my peer educators last month, the project has taken off. The group has congealed beautifully – I leave each and every meeting on such a high, watching this group bounce ideas off one another, inspire one another and push each other’s comfort zones all in an effort to make their community, Tugela Ferry, a better place than it was before.

After returning from the camp I mentioned last time organized by two local Peace Corps volunteers – an incredible week of both fun summer camp-like activities and moving self-growth and life skills development on the part of the kids – the Peer HIV Educators put on an incredible performance at a district HIV Awareness event. Tired of the standard speeches they’ve sat through their entire lives, lectures on the ABCs of HIV prevention and scare tactics of their teachers, they wrote and beautifully performed a 30 minute play for the event. Incorporating song, dance, and poetry, they covered topics ranging from knowing your status and testing, to correct condom use and stigma, to substance abuse and treatment with a host of other more subtle lessons scattered throughout. It was simultaneously informative and hilarious (they crowd was out of their seats laughing at points – an uplifting contrast to solemn, almost fatalistic atmosphere sometimes found at these events), both full of grassroots enthusiasm and empathy and professional in execution.

Sphelele performing a condom demonstration at a community HIV awareness event at the conclusion of the play

I was blown away. I think I freaked them out a bit as I ran up and swarmed them afterwards, hugging them and congratulating them on an incredible performance. It seems so simple and probably sounds ridiculous but something about watching them up there on stage at this community event, only weeks after most had never met and many spent most of their spare time drinking and depressed about their future prospects, just filled me with hope that these kids are going somewhere in life.

The odds are stacked against them – unemployment in this district reportedly reaches nearly 80% and nationally youth out of high school account for a highly disproportionate amount of unemployment, crime and new HIV infections – but hopefully this is the first step of many on the way to true self empowerment. We will certainly continue to work on HIV education in the community (currently we’re in the process of reaching out to several local schools and churches for them to run workshops incorporating their play and other presentations and several of them are also helping me train the next group of Peer Educators next week since nearly 60 youth from the community heard about the project and want to join). Yet in many ways this has become an initiative of the group not just empowering the community but empowering themselves.

After the HIV Awareness Day I worked with two Peace Corps volunteers on a CV writing and job interview skills workshop for the group (though word got around and young adults from several towns over joined us which was awesome), the following day I accompanied the group on a home visit to help a particularly poor man in the community (it was totally self-organized by the group which was awesome to see) and the next day we planned a typing and computer literacy class for the group. Peer HIV education will continue to serve as the cornerstone of the group but in many ways it has turned into a means to an end, a tool for self development, skills and confidence building and coming together as a group to tackle a horde of other issues in the community.

The group pairs up for mock interviews

The group pairs up for mock interviews

Yes, two months is not nearly enough. There’s still a lot of work to be done and so much potential in this group. But perhaps it’s for the best, a sort of forced exit, a deadline for me to step back and let them take the reins. As I tried to drill into my group at our meeting yesterday, if they feel dependent on me to continue their work in any way, my trip here will have been a failure. These next couple weeks will be devoted not to leading any new workshops or skills-building sessions, not to orchestrating meetings or planning community HIV education for them, but to passing on the torch, proving to them that they have what it takes to take this group as far as they want after I leave. I can’t wait to see what happens.


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