I spent nine days in Malawi trying to turn deformed maize, witchcraft, and HIV into catalysts of change. Join me and my Face-to-Face AIDS Project and see how our ideas of charity evolve with on-the-ground experiences.
DAY 8: A PROJECT THAT ISN'T MEANT TO BE FOR US
A Call for a Proposal on Youth and HIV
In Kang'oma village, Mike, Christine and I are sitting in a small room with nine youth wanting to participate in a youth, HIV and leadership project for which we don't have funding. The project costs $3,000, and we're hoping it'll appeal to one particular American funder who wants to empower HIV-positive youth in Malawi. But we're afraid our proposal will be turned down.
We're sure that HIV has affected every member of this youth group. What we're not sure is if any of them are HIV-positive. It was only a few years ago that the first adults from Kang'oma got tested, and our guess is that very few, if any, of the teenagers know their status.
Another consideration is that there are fewer HIV-positive teenagers in Malawi than in the United States -- while American babies born with HIV have generally survived, the majority of HIV-positive babies in Malawi have died. Our project isn't about empowering HIV-positive youth, because at this time, that's not what's needed here in this rural community. And that's why there's a good chance that we'll be declined for funding.
Our Youth, Leadership and HIV Project Proposal
We asked the village chief and his community leaders to select teenagers to participate in this project. This way, the village chief and his leaders feel invested in the program, and the youth have an incentive to act responsibly. Here's a few of the participants they selected.
*Lemus Kamankhudza (pictured in orange), age 19. Male. Seven siblings. Family participates in Kang'oma Maize Garden Project for HIV-positive Households. Dropped out of school in third grade.
*Edwin Chatsunda, age 17. Male. Father died of HIV. Eight siblings. Studying in tenth grade.
*Ivy Kaole, age 17. Female. Family thinks father has HIV, but scared to get tested. Lives and cares for grandmother. Dropped out in second grade.
*Watson Jalivesi, age 18. Male. Lost both parents, probably to HIV. Nursed parents when they were dying. Cares for six siblings. Dropped out of school in first grade.
"The Kang'oma Youth and HIV Project: Using HIV/AIDS as a Way to Develop Leadership" gives a youth group in a rural village the opportunity to learn about HIV and other health issues, and then to develop leadership skills through implementing programs that improve local health conditions.
The group begins by studying HIV/AIDS -- the virus, how it attacks the immune system, HIV testing, medications, and how discrimination affects people. After learning about HIV, the youth proceed to study malaria, tuberculosis, and other common health issues such as malnutrition and intestinal worms. This period of learning is followed by implementing outreach programs that encourage people to get tested and informs them of ways to improve their health. Examples of outreach might include holding drama, dance, and music events to educate villagers about HIV and other diseases, conducting censuses, helping sick people, and serving as escorts to HIV testing centers.
Rather than taking a combative stance towards fighting HIV, this project treats HIV as a tool that can improve a community. HIV becomes the youth group's ticket to gaining respect from their village. They all first go and get tested to set an example to others. They do not discriminate against those with HIV. They make a special effort to help those who are sick with HIV. This is, after all, how leaders of a village would act.
So here's what the project is really doing -- it's enabling the next generation of leaders to develop a sense of community responsibility and the skills that'll help them improve life in their village. In short, the project develops compassionate leaders who'll be able to think outside the box.
A Project For Kang'oma, and Not For Us
It's a reality in Kang'oma that most youth drop out of school at an early age; helping their families survive is more pressing than going to school. It's also a reality that motivating people to get tested for HIV is a huge challenge. So that's why we want our project to have a different approach to both education and HIV. We didn't want to promote conventional education as a way out of poverty and we didn't want to label HIV as something to fight against.
We want to move beyond forcing a Western model on a Malawian village. Simply put, it should be the other way around. We want to mold the project so that it works within Kang'oma's societal, cultural and economic realities.
So providing an education in leadership might do more to strengthen the village's foundations than sending children out of the village to school. Having the village leadership bestow on its own youth group the responsibility of motivating residents to get tested might be preferable to dropping a mobile testing clinic in the center of the village. (Of course, it's a different story if it's the youth group who brings in the clinic.)
This project could go far beyond HIV, and even beyond malaria, tuberculosis and malnutrition. What an amazing day it would be if 17-year-old Ivy Kaole, who only has a second grade education, stood in front of her village and talked about how she protects herself from HIV, how she fixes her mosquito net, and how she encourages people to plant soybeans along with their maize.
And just maybe, how she envisions her future family to include a husband and only three children, rather than the usual eight or nine.
As the youth group elected their officers -- Ivy was named financial officer -- and marked what days they'd meet all the way to December, Christine and I kept telling them that we couldn't guarantee if this project would actually happen. We kept saying that we didn't have the funding yet. We think they heard us, but it was obvious that they were very excited about going ahead with the project, funding or not.
But oh, if we were to get funding, what the possibilities could be...
**After returning, we've learned that we didn't receive the funding due to the youth not being HIV-positive. We hope we can find someone to support this terrific, forward-thinking project. Individuals, youth groups, school groups, social groups -- we're waiting to hear from you!
Ken Wong is the director of the Face-to-Face AIDS Project, a documentary and charity-focused 501(c)3 nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York. Please consider supporting our Kang'oma Youth and HIV Project. Your donation of $30 a month will go a long way to helping us support the project; your donation of $3,000 will cover this project in its entirety for one year. To donate to the Kang'oma Youth and HIV Project fund, visit the Contact & Donate page at www.facetofaceaids.org, and include a message indicating that you want your donation to go for Kang'oma Youth and HIV.