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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Girls: U Can Prevent Pregnancy/HIV!

At the school where we live in Botswana, Africa, there is a mural with a caption in big red letters: "Girls: U Can Prevent Pregnancy/HIV". I tried to film a video of me talking in front of the mural about how the words send a flawed message to high school students. Basically, the mural's words imply that HIV and teen pregnancy prevention falls solely on teenage girls' shoulders. It is an issue here in Botswana that is too complex to try and sum up in a few words for a video camera, so I decided to write about it instead. Because the gender issues surrounding HIV are so dear to my heart and purpose in the Peace Corps, I am sure this will be a topic that I revisit time and again during my two years here in Botswana.

Unfortunately, teenage pregnancy and several types of sexually transmitted infections including HIV are prevalent for Botswana teens. It is unfair for a mural to depict prevention as an issue for girls only. There are many people who influence or affect this situation including: boys, men, and women in the community, parents, teachers, school counselors, health professionals, local and national government, media, foreign aid, etc. (The list could go on and on.) However, teenage girls are blamed for unwanted pregnancy or for bringing HIV “into the family”. When a girl becomes pregnant, she must take an HIV test at the clinic or hospital where she receives antenatal care. If found to be HIV +, the partner or family often blame the girl/woman for bringing the virus into the family/relationship and accuse her of acting promiscuously. However, rape and defilement are often culprits of teenage pregnancy. During my staff meetings at the hospitals, it is not uncommon for me to hear about young girls being raped by their uncles, friends, or other acquaintances, so it is important to note that most rape cases occur domestically and by someone the girl is very close to.

Additionally, there are “transactional relationships” that influence teenage pregnancy and HIV infection. This is when young girls are enticed by older men to sleep with them in exchange for some gift such as a cell phone, food, clothes, etc. Sometimes families are even aware of these relationships and do nothing to prosecute them as defilement cases because they know the girl is bringing goods into the household or they consider the man to be worthy of marriage and trick themselves into thinking that the daughter will marry the man someday. Some families even encourage girls to enter these relationships for “the sake of the family”. Since the girls are much younger than the men in these transactional relationships by anywhere from 10-40 years and because of long standing gender inequalities surrounding sexual behavior, girls are unable to make the man wear a condom. In addition, men often tell the girls that since they are getting a provision of some sort for the sex, it is not their place to stipulate condom use.

Girls who want to attend secondary school (high school) but live too far away from the villages the schools are located in must live at the school as a boarder. This can be a dangerous situation for girls because they are often sexually abused by the boys who board at the school. This is an infrastructure problem because of the way the boarding houses are managed and because of how close together the boys and girls dormitories are located. In some situations, there are only one or two “boarding masters” for 200-400 children living at any one school. These boarding masters are supposed to keep a close watch on the children after school hours but are not always “manning their posts” properly or are unable to regulate all illegal and dangerous behavior of hundreds of children at once.

Gender inequalities, poverty and economic opportunities, and education are just three of the major areas that go into preventing such a deep seeded issue like rising teenage pregnancy rates and HIV infection in Botswana. I am not by any means the foremost expert on the issue and have only lived in Botswana for four months, so I'm afraid I have not done the issue justice with this short note. I hope to readdress the topic at some time in the near future. However, I hope I have driven the point home that girls face a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding teen pregnancy and HIV in Botswana and that this issue is one that falls on the shoulders of many different people, not just girls.

If you would like to get a better understanding on why the HIV prevalence is the second highest in the world here in Botswana, please check out a book called, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS by Helen Epstein, particularly the chapters on Southern Africa. The book is not about Botswana only but it does address the contributing factors in Botswana. Also, you can read Saturday is for Funerals by Unity Dow that is strictly about the HIV epidemic in Botswana and is written by a Motswana writer.

Thank you for taking the time to read about this issue that is so dear to my heart and I hope you will continue to follow our blogs and facebook postings!


Friday, December 9, 2011

10 Things you learn after moving to Botswana

1.) Get yourself on "Africa Time" asap; it can be quite nice if you learn to embrace it

2.) Expect everything to happen or nothing to happen at any given moment

3.) African insects are genetically superior to all other insects around the world

4.) Carry toilet paper or kleenex with you everywhere b/c all toilets and latrines are without TP

5.) Carry handi-wipes or soap with you b/c even hospitals do not have soap in the bathrooms

6.) Livestock animals are everywhere; get used to it and go ahead and embrace them using your yard as a giant litter box

7.) Pretend those roosters crowing outside your window from 2:30-6:30 AM are a sound machine, lulling you back to sleep

8.) Learning everyone's Setswana name is next to impossible but you must keep trying even when you feel like an idiot for asking people to repeat their names five times

9.) Drinking room temperature water (90-100 F) in the Kalahari Desert will drive anyone crazy after three months

10.) Just relax. You live in Africa now and to survive, you have to go with the flow

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Good Day – December 4th, 2011

Today we spent the day satisfying a couple of invitations that had been extended to us earlier in the week. First was lunch at the home of Indian immigrants that Hayley passes by on her way home from work. She often stops and talks with the lady of the house (Sumaya) when she sees her in the front yard watching her two children (Azan and Ayan). After becoming acquainted, the family asked us to join them for lunch and we gladly accepted (the family is very kind and friendly, and we love Indian food!). At the luncheon we learned that they have lived together in our village for over five years, and that the husband (Nasim) has been here nearly eleven. He owns and operates a food deli that sells meat pies and other quick meal options to the people that work in the downtown—downvillage—area. Needless to say, the food was fantastic and Hayley is looking forward to helping Sumaya cook some dishes in the future.
After eating we sat and talked with the family for another hour before heading back home to wait for our ride to pick us up and take us to a recreation lodge on the outskirts of the village (earlier in the week an Afrikaner woman named Cornel had picked up Hayley as she was home and gave her a ride. After getting to our house they sat in the car and talked for a bit and Cornel invited us to go with her to a lodge outside of town on Sunday). The lodge is setup in the countryside with some cabins and camping areas and offers visitors the chance to see some of the animals that live in the area (this includes: an Alpha lion and two young male lions that are vying for the chance to take over as the current Alpha becomes older, many different birds, blue wildebeest, aardvark, ostrich, various antelope, and many other typical African animals excluding elephants and Rhinos which avoid the desert locale and instead live up in the wetter regions of Northern Botswana).
The lodge is operated by a pillar of the community (Jill) that has an amazing history of work and study throughout the region of Southern Africa. She has worked as a nurse, biologist, and community leader for much of her life and even spent time living with a KhoiSan settlement as part of a team put together by a group in London to catalogue social, environmental, and linguistic information on some of the most at-risk indigenous societies of the world (Native Americans, Indigenous tribes in South America, Inuit, aborigine, and the San bushmen).
Our ride to the bush lodge was provided by Cornel, her two children, and a friend of hers. They often go out to the lodge for a few hours on the weekend to relax, enjoy the scenery, and chat with Jill and others that might be staying at the lodge. We ate a Jell-O cake while enjoying good company in the cool air of the late Botswana afternoon. Normally, the weather is not so cool but the past week’s heat was broken up by rainstorms which were brought in by merciful cold fronts that brought the temperature down to bearable levels!
We got to see some pretty birds and pet some friendly dogs that live at the lodge. After being in Botswana for around three months we have been deprived of quality time with friendly well behaved dogs, because the standard care for dogs in Botswana in severely lacking and most of the dogs are hyper and/or terrified of humans because of the mistreatment they are subjected to. However the dogs we met today, owned by Afrikaners, were like so many of the dogs we loved to pet back home. They included some small, fluffy terriers, a laidback hunting dog mix named Blue, and a Boerbol (named Lola) that must have weight at least 140lbs!.
The warmth and openness that these people, and others, in the community have showed us over our first few weeks here have given us a lot of hope for our future in the village and made the transition much more enjoyable as we try to figure out how best we can be of service here. These experiences are not unique to us as volunteers in Botswana. Many of our fellow volunteers have said the same thing about their communities and experiences. This shows that, for the most part, the people of Botswana are very friendly and eager to bring visiting strangers into their homes and show them a level of hospitality that is rarely seen today.