World AIDS Day Antics 2015: Utrecht Edition
Thursday was only the municipal events. Friday and Saturday were the District event with Friday intending to be focused on woman’s health issues. The actual event was more celebrating amaZulu traditional heritage as it took place on a chief’s land outside of Utrecht. To this is day it is the one of two segregated meals I had in KwaZulu-Natal (the other was an umsebenzi at host family 1.0’s house…aka the time 30 intoxicated men were outside my porch). The one speech I heard geared towards women’s health was a well done and heartbreaking dialogue by a traditional gogo dance group on how HIV was not present in the old days. There were Sisters/Nurses from the district hospitals providing cervical cancer, Blood Sugar, and Blood Pressure screenings as well as the mandatory HIV testing and counseling. However all the people present were government employees or caregivers who knew about HIV, and not the community at large.
The event started at 11 AM and ended at 4 PM. The local political dynamics caused drama with our transport to the event I was in an agitating mood. Since I was in the back row of a hot tent, trying to maintain a low profile, I did not realize when one of the district officials during the appreciation section acknowledged my presence (the one non-Black at the event). Mr. Swazi leans over and says, “they are talking about you.” I thought he meant our org’s the inattentive caregivers. No apparently the speaker pointed me out…oops. Hopefully I was not doing something notable.
The other part that was worthwhile was the dialogues on social concerns. Granted they were after all the political speeches and at 3 PM when everyone was hungry (after going since 11 AM without food in a hot tent). The event organizers still pressed a 15 minute discussion. They had us split up into four groups: men older than 35, men younger than 35, women older than 35, and women younger than 35. I joined my respective group where we were assigned to discuss the causes of teenage pregnancy and substance abuse. The women were candid in what they saw in their clients and loved ones. I was able to keep up without an isiZulu translator and actually shared a bit of what heard in a focus group of teenage mothers that I conducted that week. The only bummer was that the older men decided they were hungry and interrupted the womans’ groups (deep in conversation) with song to close the event.
In the end, I am glad that I went. First because I now realize how permeated stigma is in South Africa related to HIV. Stigma can be fueled by how we describe diseases. Second, I am aware of what makes the events interactive: safe place for discussions and songs. In Graduate School, my class analyzed a midwife education program in Malawi where participants in the training did not have access to education and used songs to learn concepts. Music is also an integral part of amaZulu culture that could be incorporated into a campaign to reach adults who experienced Bantu Education and children who speak isiZulu. Third, the rural communities need to be the target population as they are the ones who deal with the brunt of HIV/AIDS’ impact. Any event I coordinate needs to be accessible to them. Most of the people at the two events were Fourth, public health slogans need to have meaning to them. I lost count of the times I heard 90-90-90 and other slogans (in English) but the speakers did not talk about the context of these campaigns.
Finally (and probably the most important) I had to check myself. I am looking at this as a public health graduate student serving as a PCV in a country that is rapidly losing HIV Funding. Since the country still has the highest population of People Living With HIV (PLWHIV), every event needs to count at this point. The politicians were seeing this as an opportunity before the March 2016 local elections. The older participants (like the isiZulu dance group) have lost their culture in so many ways and may view HIV as just another method of pulling the younger generation away from tradition. Recently I was reading a book and a remark from a traditional leader in Modern-Day Nigeria brought some perspective to my lens.
“We cannot leave the matter in his hands because he does not understand our customs…just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not understand our ways and perhaps we are foolish because we do not know his…”
-Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Yes politicians were strutting themselves at the event and I abstained from attending the main event on Saturday since the two days gave me enough of a cultural fix. Yet perhaps to the amaZulu they reconnected with their traditions and maybe prevented illness though free condoms and beneficial health screenings at these events. I may be frustrated by local politics but government is a major stakeholder in public health. If the government cannot keep their people healthy, then they defeat their purpose of existence: to take care of people. It is high time for me to stop calling things foolish and instead figure out how to incorporate tradition in campaigns and try to work with a municipality as a team.