Students forge and actualize African AIDS programs

Students forge and actualize African AIDS programs

By Kate Augusto

In 2005 alone, 98,000 people from Zambia died of AIDS. Esther Chou, a junior biology and international affairs major, has been trying to lower this statistic through her past two co-ops.

“We are all connected, everyone in the world, and it is our duty to change, lead and innovate,” Chou said.

Two-thirds of the world’s HIV-positive population lives in sub-Saharan Africa, where Zambia is located. Chou worked with members of the HIV-positive community in Zambia, as well as former sex workers and widows.

Chou traveled through FORGE, a program that sends university students to refugee camps in Africa to implement “projects designed to educate, empower and enrich the lives of young refugees,” Chou said.

The camp Chou was assigned to was ill-equipped to deal with its HIV rate of one in four, she said. The camp, which had 14,000 refugees, had only one HIV testing facility and no doctors.

On her most recent trip during the spring of 2006, Chou focused on vulnerable women in the refugee camp. She worked to “teach them how to fish instead of being given fish,” she said, referring to the parable about teaching skills rather than giving hand-outs.

Chou and the other ambassadors gave these women business training through capacity-building workshops. They were then given low-interest loans.

“A lot of times, women with HIV are single mothers or prostitutes that can’t get jobs anywhere else,” Chou said. “They don’t choose to be poor; they just don’t have the opportunity to change their situation.” She said two-thirds of Zambia’s population lives on less than a dollar a day.

Chou provided inspiration to Ben Kneppers, a senior mechanical engineering major, he said. He traveled to the same refugee camp as a volunteer for FORGE during the spring of 2006, but took a different focus than Chou.

Through sex education, Kneppers worked to prevent the spread of HIV. Almost half of Zambia’s population is younger than 15 years old and exposed to sex at a young age because many families live in one-room houses. This makes them a key group to target for education and prevention, he said.

For his project, Kneppers and other ambassadors recruited the Meheba Tigers soccer team to act as role models for youth in the refugee camp.

Kneppers taught the Tigers how to facilitate what is known as Grassroots Soccer, which originated in Zimbabwe. It is a program designed to teach HIV/AIDS prevention to adolescents through soccer using older soccer players who are well-known and admired in their communities.

One of the games the Tigers were taught to facilitate in Kneppers’ camp was called pressure limbo, a variation of limbo where the word sex is written on the stick and the stick is placed at different heights representing different ages. The bar for 12 year olds would be up high and for 15 year olds it would be closer to the ground. The idea is that the older you get, the harder it is to avoid having sex. The game prompts conversations about options for safe sexual activity, such as abstinence, monogamy and condoms, Kneppers said.

Volunteers with FORGE design programs to keep them successfully running once ambassadors leave. For Chou’s project, refugee staff members were recruited to keep the business program going. The progress of these women was tracked for three months after Chou and her group left to ensure it was still being run effectively without Chou there. There was an increase in profit of about 20 percent each month, Chou said.

For Kneppers’ project, he and other ambassadors leased a run-down bar and named it the Meheba Tigers HIV/AIDS Center. As with Chou’s project, staff members were hired to run the project once he left, he said.

Kneppers said the center now includes a question box where a camp expert answers the questions on a board for all to see. Also new to the center is distribution of information pamphlets and condoms. They hope to soon have an HIV/AIDS library, Kneppers said.

Support groups are also being developed in the camp. There is already one for single mothers, and the hope is that one will be developed for orphans and HIV-positive people, Kneppers said. He said the latter would be somewhat difficult to establish because there is stigmatization in the community, causing many to keep the fact that they are HIV-positive a secret.

Chou and Kneppers said they hope their work had an impact, especially among the kids.

Kneppers is currently on campus taking classes, but Chou is in Africa again for a couple months, working part-time at the same camp and tracking the progress of the businesses she nurtured.

“She loves what she does,” Kneppers said. “She’s like Mother Theresa.”

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