Tuesday, March 29, 2011
I’ve never been surrounded by so much contraception in my life! I have over 800 male condoms, just under 100 female condoms, and birth control pills in my house! Why so much birth control for one, nearly-fifty year old woman who is not sexually active with others?
I walk by my garbage can and there are open, discarded condoms in my trash. The birth control pills? I’m taking them.
When I learned I was coming to live and work with South Africa in the United States Peace Corps, I knew two things about South Africa: a) that South Africa was the home of one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world, Nelson Mandela; and b) that South Africa’s people were dying in droves of HIV/AIDS.
As an education volunteer, I knew I would be coming to South Africa with a primary assignment to teach English. As with all developing nations, everyone wants to learn English, the global language, the language one “must know” if one wants to succeed in the business world. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What’s the use of learning English if you’re only going to die from HIV/AIDS?”
Well, the good news is that as a Peace Corps volunteer, you can teach English and involve yourself with HIV/AIDS projects. This is what I’ve tried to do.
I originally hoped to have a “film club” project at the college with three goals: teach film studies (or at least promote interest in film), provide a safe recreational past-time for the college kids (I was hoping for a weekend “movie night,” on campus, for Friday and Saturday nights), AND to sneak in HIV/AIDS education (I hoped to scheme a plan to provide “free movie admission” for anyone interested in attending an HIV/AIDS discussion—come to my AIDS talk, see a movie for free!). So, I skipped off to the local health clinic and carried home 800 male condoms and 100 female condoms and applied for a grant for the movie equipment.
Well, it’s a year and a half later, the condoms are still in my house and I’ve resorted to using them for DVD repair. (Hence, the open, somewhat-used, discarded male condoms in my trash can: the lubricant from the condoms supposedly repairs scratches on DVDs.)
I had asked for the female condoms because I hoped to have separate HIV/AIDS talks for guys and gals. The burden of practicing safe-sex in South Africa (well, really, in probably every part of the world) lies with the woman. Due to cultural demands on female and male gender roles, the males hold the power and very much dislike using condoms, and it can become a power play if a female requests the use of a condom. I had hoped to have small, informal group discussion with the college girls to help them understand that female condoms are available and to help them understand how to use them. (A first for me: I inserted my first female condom in South Africa; I thought I’d better be ready to answer any question!) When I asked for the female condoms from the clinic, the nurse was very reluctant to give them to me because of the expense: she fussed, “I’d better not see any of these girls wearing the rings as bracelets!” (The female condom has two flexible rings to hold the condoms in place, and yes, the rings are flexible and large enough for the girls to wear as bracelets. ) I promised I would not distribute the condoms without educating first.
So, there in my room lies a box of nearly 100 female condoms.
So why do I still have them?
Cultural attitudes, that’s why. There is very much a parental disapproval of the dispersal of condoms on college campuses because they feel the college is promoting sexual behavior among the students. Not only is it the parents that feel this way, but it’s also the college educators that feel this way. There is some truth to this, that sexual behavior is likely to increase. However, I feel that kids will have sex anyway so why not give them the means to protect themselves? Mine is, of course, an American attitude and American attitudes often aren’t well received in rural South Africa.
The condoms are currently provided by the college but the kids have to ask for them from their Student Support Officer. Furthermore, the South African government has made condoms available to all South African citizens through the nation’s health clinics. When I talk to the kids about this, they say when they go to the clinic, or even the Student Support Officer, they feel the health care workers shame the kids about having sex, something along the lines of “You’re too young, you shouldn’t be having sex,” etc., so the kids avoid going to the clinic for free condoms.
Well, yeah! Come on people! College-age kids are nothing but walking hormone-producing, nothing-but-sex-wanting machines! And it’s killing them and it’s killing the future generations of South Africans because they’re having unprotected sex!
I have tried to sneak condoms into the dormitories and public restrooms on the campus, only to find whole packages with 12 or more condoms inside, thrown on the ground, in a defiant, “No one’s telling me to use condoms!” There is dreadful misinformation and rumors about condom use and the spread of AIDS in rural South Africa: one such devastating rumor is that the condom is intentionally infected with the HIV virus and therefore to use a condom is spreading HIV. By the way, it is biologically impossible for the HIV virus to remain alive in the prepackaged condom-environment.
Also, I detect an attitude of disdain at one more white, talking head telling black South Africans what they should do about HIV/AIDS. When I told them about meeting a man that was living with HIV for over thirty years, the kids countered, “Well, yeah, that’s because he’s white.” Their argument: white people have all the advantages. And, well, yeah, he is white.
So, I’d all but given up on the film club, but this is still a teeny, eeny, weeney chance it may still pull through. We’ll see. I’m running out of time… And quickly running out of time…
Oh, the birth control pills? I’m taking them. Eish! At nearly 50 years old, my body has decided to throw the hormones out of whack and the pills are to help it, my body, get back on track. (Sorry guys, I know you don’t like hearing about it—try living with it.)
So, here’s a girl that is all dressed up with nowhere to go!
See you in Aug/Sept,
PS. Condom payload update: I had approached my campus manager about his supporting condom distribution in the dormitories and public restrooms, so he knew of my significant “stash.” He called me this morning, to ask if I might carry the boxes of condoms to the Student Support Officer’s Office. Apparently, our campus, in its upcoming audit, will earn a “nonconformance” for not having any condoms on hand for the students. My contribution of condoms to the college now, although they may never be used by the college kids as intended, and therefore may never be used for STD/early-pregnancy prevention, has saved the college from a “non-conformance” on its audit. Eish! All form, no function!