Friday, January 22, 2016

"Using the Power of Soccer in the Fight Against HIV and AIDS"

It seems that just about any time a big group of volunteers get together there is one question that consistently pops up:

"So what projects are you doing?"

Recently my group, newest group of Healthy Youth volunteers, have been killing it at this question. We've had multiple World AIDS Day events, a carnival geared towards life skills, a BRO camp (Boys Respecting Others) for herd boys (arguably the most neglected group in Lesotho), and a football tournament for 12 teams with an incentive to get the most people tested and to know their status.

It might be hard to tell for readers unfamiliar with Peace Corps service, but all of these projects are fairly large projects. Geared towards reaching, and testing (HIV testing), hundreds of Basotho! They invoke help from multiple Basotho counterparts, NGO's and other organizations willing to offer food, money, and/or their time, and even PCV friends willing to help!

I hadn't been planning on doing any large scale projects in my area. Instead I went to a Grassroots Soccer PC SKILLZ training towards the end of November. Grassroots Soccer is something I've been hearing a lot about since arriving in Lesotho in April and I was excited to learn how to implement it in my village.

Here's some info about GRS from their website Grassroot Soccer:

"Grassroot Soccer's work is a refreshing and highly promising effort that can help turn the tide against HIV. Soccer is like a universal... Grassroot Soccer thus reaches large numbers of young people with HIV education, and bases its programs on the best available evidence."
-Helen Epstein, author, The Invisible Cure

Their Mission: Grassroot Soccer uses the power of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize young people to stop the spread of HIV.

Their Principles:

1. Young People have a vast potential to create meaningful change and play a significant role in realizing an AIDS-free generation.

2. Soccer is an ideal way to reach, educate, and inspire young people in a language they understand and enjoy.

3. Eradicating HIV and AIDS requires an integrated, collaborative, holistic, and community-wide approach. 

View of my walk to work everyday of the GRS camp

I took Tefo, one of the brothers of the bo-'m'e I work with, to the training as my counterpart. We learned how to implement all 11 practices that encompass the GRS curriculum. Initially, I think Tefo was overwhelmed by the GRS training. He had never participated in something like GRS as a participant and now he was expected to teach the curriculum as a coach!

One of the last days of the training Tefo and I talked about when we would like to implement the training in our villages. Generally, the training is done with one practice a day and held maybe two days a week. Since we were both new to the curriculum we decided that we would focus on the Secondary/High School aged participants first.

The larger village near us, Liphiring, has a secondary school but no high school. So if students want to further their education past the U.S. equivalent of 10th grade they need to commute daily to a high school in the camptown or they need to attend a boarding school. Tefo and I were worried about participant turn out so we decided to do a GRS camp during summer break (end of November to end of January), hoping that we could capitalize on having the most secondary/high school aged kids around since most kids are home from boarding school during summer break. 

A camp differs from the typical GRS implementation by having multiple practices a day instead of the typical one practice a day. We decided to run our camp from Monday to Friday and to hold graduation on Saturday. Therefore needing to do at least two practices a day with only one day of three practices. 

The yellow roof is the church

Before we could nail down actual plans for the GRS camp we needed to have a place to hold the camp. Ideally, a place with enough space to do the activities while also having shelter from the elements (wind, rain, scorching sun...). For Tefo and I both, our first thought was the area church. It's in a central location for most of the nearby villages and everyone knows where it is. However, I was concerned that the Catholic church might not be okay with some of the practices we would be teaching. GRS talks about many ways to prevent HIV/AIDS, things like: having mutually faithful partners, circumcision, abstinence, knowing your status, and using condoms. 

Honestly, I could write a blog post alone on my thoughts surrounding the Catholic Church's influence and stance on things like condoms in a country with an HIV/AIDS epidemic...However, that isn't going to be this post. 

I approached my supervisor, a prominent member of the local church, with my GRS handbook to ask permission to use the church for the week. I sat down with her and encouraged her to look through all of the lessons. Pointing out how one particular practice involved a condom demonstration as well as an activity focused on using condoms and the importance of men getting circumcised. As she gave me permission to use the church I felt the need to clarify and make sure white privilege or a language barrier weren't getting in the way. She turned to me and said:

"These things, they are important. The children need to be taught these things."

With a location secured Tefo and I went to work spreading the word about our camp. I told the bo-'m'e I work with that we were looking for high school aged kids at least 13 years old and they also helped to spread the word to their different villages. The week before the camp started my supervisor even made an announcement at the church!

One of my favorite views in my village

The weekend before our camp started Tefo came to me to tell me that he had found us another counterpart, Ausi Keneuoe. She is 22 years old and currently attending school in Maseru. Since my Sesotho is no where near fluent I was very excited to have her to help us. I had even asked a fellow PCV in my district, Lea Rodriguez, to help us out. Lea is an education volunteer so he's essentially been on vacation since the end of November, but since ED volunteers get limited vacation days (just like HY volunteers) they often end up hanging out in their villages, bored, until school starts again. I remember him asking me one day how many days of the camp I would need him to be there for. I told him that I didn't think I would "need" him at all since I was hoping we would get 20 participants, and that he could come hang out for as long or as short of a time as he wanted. These turned out to be famous last words...

We had told everyone that our first day would begin at 1pm on Monday. Checking my watch at 1:45 I was looking at about 15 participants sitting patiently in the church. Every time I consulted Tefo and Keneuoe to see if we should begin they assured me that the kids said more were coming. 

Skills Contract that everyone signs on the first day of practice

At 2:30, I was no longer concerned that we would have a small number of participants. Instead counting 45 participants waiting for us to start I sent a text to Lea telling him that I was very glad that he was coming to help because I did, in fact, need him. 

First practice:
Find the Ball

Participants pass a tennis ball back and forth behind their backs.
When the singing stops they stop passing and take turns guessing who, in the line across from them, has the ball.

After the activity we talk about the difficulty in being able to tell who had the ball. 
And how difficult it is to tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them. 

The first day was incredibly hectic! We had to get all 45 participants to take a pre-test, sign the skillz contract, and get the first activity rolling. All while it started to pour on the church's tin roof, making it incredibly hard to hear! That first day I arrived home absolutely exhausted and incredibly excited to be reaching so many kids!

The next day was equally stressful, even with 4 coaches! We had about 20 new kids that we needed to get to sign the contact and take the pre-test. Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures on the second day. 

On Tuesday, when Lea and I got back to my house, we talked about how we didn't have nearly enough graduation certificates. I had printed out 40 certificates, which at the time seemed like WAY more than I would ever need. However, now I was looking at the prospect of having at least 45 participants graduate. I was also planning on making chocolate 'no bake' cookies for the graduation and I was pretty confident I did not have enough ingredients. We would need to go back to town to get ingredients and print certificates before the graduation on Saturday. 

Transmission Tree
Participants move between 3 different areas meeting a new person in each area
Each meeting represents a new sexual partner

3 participants pretend they have HIV
Someone who 'met' them comes up and puts their hand on their shoulder
Showing how everyone is at risk of contracting HIV even with only 3 sexual partners and 3 infected members

My transportation situation into and out of my village is a rather difficult one. I have two taxis that leave at 8 and 9 in the morning (almost) everyday. And then two taxis that come back in the late afternoon. If we went into town using the taxis we would miss an entire day of the camp. Something that I couldn't afford any of us to do...

Eventually, Lea and I realized that we would need to walk into town (about a 3 hour trip, one way) after practice and then walk back in the morning before the next practice. We chose to walk into town on Wednesday evening, because we were both already exhausted from the stress of camp and figured the exhaustion would only get worse. Better to bite the bullet and get the walk done sooner rather than later.

Walking back on Thursday I was incredibly exhausted. The stress of trying to make something work for so many participants and having so many people turn to me for answers was taking its toll. It was very difficult being the only person who really understood how the practices were supposed to run and what we were hoping to get across to the participants. At one point in the beginning of the walk I actually started crying to Lea about something seemingly very silly. Luckily he gave me the chance to cry and get it all out! I felt much better after being able to express how overwhelmed and stressed out I was. 

Presenting an energizer to get everyone excited for the next activity

Tefo explaining Take A Stand

Everyone closes their eyes and listens to a statement
Such as: It is normal for a man in my community to have multiple partners
(I forget the actual statement being said here)

If they agree they put their hands on their heads
If they disagree they put their hands on their hips

Helping Tefo with the Break Away practice

Doing a Kilo
An interactive way to say "Great Job!"

'Striker' tries to dribble two balls down the field towards the goal as 'HIV' tries to catch them

The two balls represent having two concurrent sexual partners

Reaching the goal represents reaching your goals in life

So much fun to watch this practice!

Thursday turned out to be the smoothest day of the entire week! We were able to get practice started on time and the weather cooperated with us. On Tuesday and Wednesday we broke the group up into two groups of about 30 participants. Abuti Tefo and I worked together to implement practices and Lea and Keneuoe worked together. On Thursday we decided to work together as one large group again because some of the practices were a bit more sensitive and we wanted to make sure we, as coaches, were all supporting each other. 

Keneuoe teaching the next lesson


All smiles


Another activity showing how HIV spreads through a community
Ausi Keneuoe pretended she was HIV positive. 
Those holding hands with her represented her sexual partners

As you felt one hand raise you raised your other hand

We watched as hands slowly raised throughout the circle
Representing that, because we had multiple partners (everyone had 2), the whole community was at risk for HIV
Even though only one person in the community was positive

Monkey Kilo

Their favorite energizer!

The banana energizer
They asked me to do it at least once a day

Yum Yum banana

Lea was taking all of these great pictures but I snapped a few of him too

Either scratching his leg or getting ready to run away

Gender Stadium
The guys sit in the middle of the circle and talk about things pertaining to being a guy
The girls sit on the outside of the circle and don't speak

The girls had a turn in the middle of the circle too
 I just don't have a picture of it

On Friday as Lea and I walked down the hill towards the church we heard bo-'m'e singing and making excited noises. No one had told me that anything was happening at the church that day so I started to wonder what was happening!

As soon as we walked up to the church everyone started singing and waving as though they had been waiting for us! This community always has a way of making me feel incredibly loved and welcomed. It's a feeling I hope everyone can feel at some point. 

Leading me over to the horse they wanted me to ride

This is something I've seen them do a few times
I'm not sure the attraction to having people sit on a laying down horse

Pure excitement/terror
Sitting on a horse as it stands up is an adrenaline rush!

I clearly wasn't enjoying myself at all

Unsure of how she feels about Lea

They don't care that painting your nails is considered to be a thing for females in the States...

Eating lunch


'M'e Malesia, my favorite of the bo-'m'e I work with
Showing off her slice of bread

Tefo and Keneuoe


Homeboy's gum boots almost come up to his knees
And he can still do the gum boot dance like a champ

So many participants for Friday's practice

Lea put on a boy's hat and glasses
The room went WILD

It turned out that an organization called LENASO was putting on a testing event that day. It would have been very easy to get frustrated with all of the 'should' thinking:

They should have told me about it

They should have done their event in a different place than our camp

I should have known, I would have rescheduled my camp

etc. ..

Luckily, I've been living in this culture just long enough that I was able to roll with the change and to look at the bright side. LENASO was doing a testing event, which meant that if our participants got tested it would turn our GRS camp into a testing event also! By the end of the day Friday we had 36 participants get tested and now know their status. 

Friday night was spent inputting the results from the participants' post-tests and making 240 no-bake cookies!

Going through the certificates a final time

Skillz contract by the end of the camp

Getting ready for the graduation to start

Our first graduate
He wasn't officially included in our data because he's too young but he attended every practice

That face: Pure satisfaction

67 Graduates

Successful camp!

Overall, this was an incredibly successful camp! We had 67 participants graduate from our GRS camp. To be able to graduate participants needed to take the pre-test, post-test, and attend at least 7 practices. We had participants from 8 different villages in my area. Some of the children walked up to 2 hours, one way, to be at the camp everyday!

The icing on the cake was having Tefo and Keneuoe come up to me after graduation to tell me that they want to be coaches again if we do another camp! Even though I felt like it was easy to only focus on the stressful and exhausting times, it's good to know that the coaches enjoyed themselves! 

If I were ever to do something like this again I would make sure to have at least 1 or 2 more Basotho counterparts and possibly another PCV.