Sex Ed is Universally Awkward


School is back in session so my counterpart and I are back in the schools doing weekly health lessons. Today I actually remembered to bring a camera, and it’s about time I do another blog, so I decided to write about today’s lesson.

Each Wednesday morning all the schools in Adabokrom hold worship. Sometimes preachers come and deliver a sermon, but other times, like today, its all student led and mostly filled with singing, dancing, and playing instruments.  Since all the classes are doing the same thing, it’s a convenient time to hold lessons with the whole school directly afterwards, since they are already together and not occupied in other sessions.

Today’s lesson was about HIV and AIDS.  It can be a touchy subject in Ghana, so we had to go to the headmasters a few days ahead of time and let them know this was the topic we wanted to talk about and make sure it would be acceptable. I have heard from other volunteers that they have been told to only teach the A and B of the ABCs when it comes to sex ed in schools (A=Abstinence, B=Be Faithful to Your Partner, and C=Condom Use). Thankfully, my headmasters were more open-minded and welcomed us to deliver the talk.

We technically have two Jr. High Schools in Adabokrom, but they share a building so I generally think of it as just one big JHS.  After worship finished this morning, 250 students took their chairs outside under the trees to wait for our lesson. We started out by asking what the students already know about HIV. They had some knowledge, and some especially bright students knew quite a lot.  To start, I asked, “What is HIV?” Everyone stared for a minute, then a boy stood up and said “Human Immunodeficiency Virus.” I was pretty impressed. They struggled a bit more when I asked them to explain what each word of that meant, but we eventually got there.

Then I handed out 15 pieces of paper on which I wrote statements like “In Ghana, 300,000 people have AIDS,” “Africa has the highest rate of AIDS in the world,” “Traditional healers (herbalists) can cure AIDS” and “You can be cured of AIDS by having sex with a virgin.” I asked the students to read their statement out loud and then to identify if it was true or false, and why. Then as a group they discussed each statement, with CK answering questions in Twi to make sure they fully understood.

As we were finishing that section, one of the nurses from the clinic came to do condom demonstrations. I had planned on this happening at the end, after we had fully discussed the dangers of HIV to show the students there are ways of preventing it, but it ended up working out well. If nothing else, it brought lots of laughter to the students in between serious sessions.  Honestly, this nurse is not my favorite person. She is very cold, which is really rare for a Ghanaian, and she has quite a superiority complex over most of her patients, which I hate. But her lack of sense of humor and her high self-confidence made her the perfect person to demonstrate how to use a condom in front of 250 awkward teenagers. They giggled, and at times roared, with awkward laughter as she very explicitly showed them how to insert a female condom, and she did it all with a straight face, loud voice, and expert knowledge. And when things got too out of hand she had no problem being authoritative enough to bring everyone back under control. All I can say is I’m glad it was her and not me up there!

Then CK did the demonstration of the male condom, and we ended by doing an exercise to show how quickly HIV can spread without your knowledge.  We selected 16 students and handed them folded slips of paper and told them not to look at their papers. Then we told them to walk around and shake hands with three others. Afterwards, we had them look at their papers; three had “X” written on their slips. “X” meant they were infected with HIV. Then we asked who shook hands with these three people. Eight more raised their hands.  Then we asked who had a “C” written on their paper—one girl did.  We told them that girl was protected because her “C” meant she used a condom; the rest weren’t so lucky, they were now infected too.  That meant 10 out of the 16 were now infected with HIV because they didn’t know they had the virus and they had unprotected sex. That sobered them up quite a bit. Obviously, this is no where close to actual numbers of infection rates, but it was a good visual for the students to realize how quickly a disease could theoretically spread.

For some reason, maybe because most of the lesson was in twi, I didn’t feel nearly as awkward or embarrassed as I thought I would teaching about sex, HIV and condoms. I actually had a really good time, and I think the students learned a lot. We told the students were they can buy condoms, and CK told them that if they were too embarrassed to go buy them themselves that he would buy them for anyone who wanted, as long as they brought the money first. Overall, it was a good day in the classroom.


Juju or malaria?

So there’s this adorable child that lives in my house, Kennet. (I think his name is supposed to actually be Kenneth, but Ghanaians have trouble with “th” so everyone calls him Kennet. They have the same trouble when trying to pronounce Heather). Kennet is two and is a beautiful child with an infectious laugh. But sometimes, okay a lot of the time, Kennet cries. He cries out of the blue, usually for no reason, and often it’s a fake cry, and everyone knows it. Not so cute. At first I thought it was just because he was spoiled and acting like any American toddler who didn’t get his way. But honestly, here in Ghana kids are amazingly well behaved, and no regular two-year-old acts like the “terrible twos” we know so well back home.

A soccer ball recently appeared in my house, and Kennet has been absolutely obsessed. There’s always an array of young men coming in and out of my house (they look up to my landlord and like hanging out here, especially around meal times or in the evening when the generator/tv turn on). They like the soccer ball too, and sometimes take it to kick around. Kennet absolutely freaks out when this happens. It happened this afternoon, when I was sitting and chatting with Kofi, his dad. Kofi sighed and said, “He is such a troublemaker.” I don’t think ‘troublemaker’ would be the word I would use to describe him, but his constant tantrums do get old. I asked Kofi, “When Sandra was his age, did she cry this much?” Kofi told me no, Sandra was very quiet and well behaved. Then Kofi told me Kennet cries so much because of his sickness.

Kofi mentioned this to me once before, when I first moved in. He said Kennet is always crying because he had been sick. I thought that was understandable—a baby crying because it was sick seemed perfectly logical. But Kennet has been relatively healthy since I moved in with them, so it seemed strange to me that Kofi was still blaming the tantrums on the “illness.” I asked for more details.

He told me a while back Kennet got really sick, had a high fever, couldn’t walk and his limbs began to swell. He also couldn’t speak. They took him to the local hospital, but everyone in town told Kofi this was the result of bad juju as a way to punish Kofi. I think I briefly mentioned this in an earlier post, but there was a lot of drama about Kofi building the house we live in now. Kofi is a very successful businessman in town, and unlike most Ghanaians, knows how to manage his money well. Once he saved up enough money, he wanted to build himself a new house, so he went to the chief to ask for a plot of land. The chief gave him land right behind the big market, where people from all over come to buy and sell goods every Thursday. Shortly after giving Kofi this land, the chief had a stroke. Due to the very low education level in town, no one recognized this illness to be a stroke, but rather they believed someone placed a juju curse on the chief. The chief was so incapacitated by the stroke he cannot speak and is paralyzed on one side of his body. Thus, the decision was made to appoint an acting chief, Nana Amidu.

Now, Nana Amidu was not happy about Kofi building his house so close to the market. He and some of the elders felt that the house was on land that belonged to the whole community and shouldn’t have been given to Kofi in the first place. There were several meetings with all the elders to discuss the matter, and Kofi and Nana Amidu actually went to court over the issue. Kofi got to keep the land and continued to build his house. (an interesting side note to add to the drama, which I found out after I moved in, Nana Amidu is Kofi’s father, and they are no longer on speaking terms).

So, since Kofi built his house against the wishes of the acting chief and half the elders, many people assumed that Kennet’s illness was a juju curse intended to strike down what Kofi holds most dear—his son. Kofi turned to the local medicine man for help, and he and his wife have been diligent in giving Kennet a variety of local herbs to cure his sickness. For the most part, they have worked.

Now, not to knock juju, but to me it’s pretty obvious Kennet had a case of cerebral malaria. Cerebral malaria is a severe case of malaria that affects the brain, and often leads to physical and mental disability, epilepsy and emotional problems in children, if they are lucky enough to survive at all. Now that Kofi mentioned this to me, it occurred to me that Kennet is fairly uncoordinated for a two year old, and he walks more like a child who only began walking a few months ago (which, in reality, is how long ago he learned to walk). He also tends to favor one leg slightly more than the other. He tries to keep up with the other kids, but sometimes he struggles. And you should see him try to copy his sister when she does cartwheels—he pretty much just sits down, it’s really cute. So as it turns out, the constant tantrums really are from the illness after all.

Kennet is pretty lucky, all things considered. There is another girl in town, Fati, who has also been affected by cerebral malaria. She cannot use her left arm and she is very slow mentally. However, she knows a lot of English and loves to come talk to me. Every time she sees me she asks when my mother is coming to visit. I don’t know why, but it took me a long time to wonder why a mentally disabled girl knows so much English when so many healthy girls don’t know any at all. Finally CK told me that she used to be a normal girl and at the top of her class in school, but one day she fell very sick, and remained very sick for six months. Her family didn’t think she would survive, and assumed a juju curse was put on her. She somehow pulled through, but she wasn’t as lucky. She gets around okay, but most people laugh at her and make fun of her constantly. She doesn’t always pick up on it, but she does often get confused why people are laughing. She’s only 16, but she no longer goes to school.

Malaria is a huge issue here, especially now in the rainy season, and it is the number one killer of children under the age of 5 in Ghana. I plan to do a lot more malaria education over the next two years, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to convince people of the distinction between cerebral malaria and juju. Juju beliefs run deep, and even educated men like Kofi and CK don’t entirely believe me when I tell them these children have been affected by malaria, not juju.

And right one cue, as I finish typing this, Kennet starts crying again. I hope he doesn’t have emotional problems for the rest of his life, but deep down I know he probably will.


Adwuma, Adwuma, Adwuma

Today I submitted my first grant application.  Well, first grant in Peace Corps anyway.  I have been meeting regularly with my local WATSAN committee (WATSAN is short for Water and Sanitation) to hear what their concerns are for Adabokrom and what they would like to do about it.  They told me the most pressing issue in town is the fact that five out of our nine boreholes are not functioning.  This means people have to travel into the bush to draw water from the wells. I have gone out to the wells several times now, and while it is a beautiful walk through the rainforest, it is a pretty lengthy distance to be carrying water, and what’s worse, the water is very, very unclean/unsanitary.  The majority of the 6,000 people of Adabokrom are using these wells as their primary source for water, which is obviously very concerning.  The WATSAN committee told me that before I came to Adobokrom they submitted an application to an NGO called Ghana WASH to get funds to fix the boreholes, but they recently contacted Ghana WASH and the grant application was lost. I have been working with them to rewrite the application, and today I finished it and sent it off. Wish us luck on getting funds to fix our boreholes!

During our pre-service training, we learned a lot about WATSAN committees; how they are organized, what their roles in communities are, etc. We also learned that most communities have WATSAN committees, but few actually meet regularly.  For example, we found out that the WATSAN committee for Anyinasin, the village we stayed in during training, did not have a functioning WATSAN committee.  As part of a project, me and some of the other volunteers met with some elders and tried to reestablish the committee. We had high hopes, but we were unsuccessful.  Needless to say, I was pretty surprised to hear that the WATSAN committee of Adabokrom not only met regularly, but got together and filled out a grant application on their own, without the prompting from a PCV.  On the whole, I am incredibly impressed with my WATSAN committee.  The chairman is a well-respected elder of the town. The secretary is a well-educated young woman who works at one of the banks in town. The treasurer is also a woman, and while she doesn’t speak any English, I can tell she is very intelligent and eager to do her part to help her community.  There is a third woman on the committee, and she is the wife of the assemblyman.  We also have two men on the committee who have taken it upon themselves to learn how boreholes work so that they can assist on any repairs, should we get funding.  All the PCVs in my region are working together to set up a training for borehole mechanics so that our towns can become more self-reliant and not have to depend on “experts” to come from larger towns, charging high fees to fix the boreholes.  I plan on bringing these two to the training, and they are very excited about it. Finally, the last member of my WATSAN committee is my counterpart, who is in charge of the Behavior Change Outreach. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to be working with.

Besides the two Ghana WASH grants/projects, I’ve been working on formulating an action plan to start a women’s group. I’m still working out the details, but my plan is to select ten women who are pregnant or have children under the age of 5 and I will meet with them twice a month to do health lessons on various topics, focusing on maternal and child health, but also incorporating nutrition and personal hygiene education.  Then, each of the women will be responsible for educating ten other women who live near them (who are also pregnant or have children under 5). The women will report back to me on how their home visits went the next time we meet. This way, I will be able to reach a broader audience, and the community will take a more active role in spreading health education knowledge. I hope to get this project off the ground in October.

Besides that, just returned from a training in Takoradi with BCS and I have been working with our Environmental Health Officer, doing home visits and suggesting ways people can improve their sanitation around their homes.  We are working on planning an event with the WATSAN committee to do some water and sanitation education, as well as raise funds to go towards the borehole projects. We are taking the elders on a transect walk of the community soon to show them all the broken boreholes, as well as the wells in the bush and the public latrine areas. When we do, I will be sure to take pictures and post them here so you all can finally see my town and what I’m talking about!