During my recent trip to Zimbabwe, our tour leader surprised us near the end of our trip by announcing that he was an HIV peer educator and that he was going to give a talk on HIV in his country. I had mentioned early on in the tour that I worked as an educator for Planned Parenthood and that part of my job was to teach about HIV. Like everyone else, I asked questions about birth control, condoms, STIs, and abortion, and talking about sexual matters appeared to be a very natural subject for him.
Zimbabwe has been at the epicenter of the HIV epidemic since the beginning. Nearly everybody in the country has been either “infected or affected,” a phrase often used here, as well. Soon after the first positive case appeared in 1985, the government went into panic mode. The virus was quickly spreading particularly in commercial sex workers, truck drivers and gold miners. Because so many people in Africa work far from home, having a second partner or frequenting sex workers is very common. This was, and still is, the primary way married women become infected and, in turn, spread it to their children during pregnancy and delivery. Millions of people in Zimbabwe have died from HIV infection.
Sam spoke of several factors contributing to the steady rate of infection, despite massive efforts to educate, distribute condoms and test, especially pregnant women:
- Even though sex outside of marriage is common, traditionally, husband and wives do not use condoms. The Catholic Church teaches abstinence-only and discourages the use of condoms. And rumors that condoms come infected with HIV persist.
- The age of first sexual experimentation is young, often between 10 and 12 years old. Yet the taboo of frank discussion about sexuality is strongly entrenched in much of the culture. When Sam was educating his six female cousins about using condoms, his uncle came home and accused him of trying to turn them into prostitutes.
- Only 10% of the population has been tested.
Imagine my surprise when Sam not only spoke about HIV, but also gave a condom demonstration using almost the exact same language that I use. His statistics on condom efficacy were similar (about 92% when used consistently and correctly). Carry your own condom. Protect them from the sun by keeping them in a front pocket. Don’t open with your teeth. Never flush. The only difference in information in my presentation and his was discussion of using a water-based lubricant – he said they don’t have them there.
Just like parents the world over, even those of us who are comfortable talking to strangers about all things sexual, when Sam’s six-year-old found a condom on the ground, Sam was a bit flustered and unprepared to explain the finer points of condom use … but he seized the teachable moment and explained the basics.