I am for women, but I am not a woman. I might be grasping the very basics of Sesotho but I wasn’t ready for 3 hours of it. I was from a ‘well-educated’, greatly privileged background, less so one of scarce finances, high unemployment, strong negative cultural peer pressure and prevalent teenage pregnancy. It was only the second weekly session of the 6 month programme. My list of social enterprise tasks was expanding with our manager’s return from the UK. It was a humid and dark shipping container room where I – a 29 year old British male on his fancy free 5 month world tour – was now sat on the floor amongst 15 local Basotho girls in their teens and early twenties ready to begin their life-skills session.
The Unknown becomes The Most Remembered
I’m becoming familiar with the great insight and experience gained from entering into the unknown. Just last weekend I joined housemate Moses at my second consecutive church service at the Westernised but uplifting ‘Victory’ church. These are my first services for many years and a million miles from Portchester Castle’s St Mary’s. My 30 minute pilgrimage from Maseru West to the ‘Pioneer’ shopping mall cinema church venue came only five hours after sitting in a Lohakoe hall filled with immensely passionate gospel music followers, enjoying live performances from Lesotho and South Africa’s finest choirs and solo artists. Entering the eighth hour of what I thought was going to be a reasonably quaint and quiet Saturday evening of soulful performances; my heavy eyelids and dry mouth helped ensure the novelty of a whole audience leaping up from their chairs to dance to the 88thencore of the final 8 bars begun to wear thin.
Pioneer Mall – The Home of Victory Church
Victory Church Entrance
Like the ‘Gospel Alive’ evening (in hindsight, the clue was in the name) and my time with Pastor Wilson learning about why we should not keep God in a box, attending the 3 hour Kick4Life ‘Women4Women’ session on Wednesday morning provided an enlightening experience. I walked away from the container with my eyes as wide open as Malealea’s mountain range. My motivation was as pumped as Kick4Life FC’s supporters at the final whistle on Sunday’s vital premierleague win and the No.7 team as they welcomed ‘home’ their manager and head chef. My heart was getting heavier like the storm season now breaching Lesotho.
No 7 Team’s Welcome Party for Tess and Wayne
Tess is not a fan of teddy bears.
Entering stormy season – the view from the SE Office window
So here I was, sat waiting with my colleague Busi to find out whether Lerato’sexcellent tour group presentation on the Kick4Life Academy activities a few weeks ago could indeed be followed up in action. I knew this might be an important opportunity for me to learn more about Kick4Life as an operation. Up until now, apart from the excellent HIV curriculum workshops during the ‘All-Stars’ tour, most of my day-to-day exposure at Kick4Life had been with the money making enterprise side of the model. Naturally, as per a previous blog post, my (and some others) concern is that in all this focus on securing financial sustainability the crucial social support and development aspect might lose its focus, momentum and impact. Women4Women
Women4Women is Kick4Life’s vulnerable women’s programme designed for the most “at‐risk” women throughout Maseru, Lesotho’s Capital city, ages 17‐25. The Women4Women Programme creates a safe space where these women can come together and learn and discuss women specific issues. The key objectives of the Women4Women Programme are to improve the overall health and well‐being of the participants by providing important life skills and health related information.
Once all of the girls had arrived and Lerato closed the container door to the noise of other centre activity outside, the session began. She started by handing out green A4 sheets of paper and a pencil. Half hesitant, Lerato offered me a sheet and asked if I wanted to join in. I tried to gauge whether the girls would be hindered by my involvement. What better way to experience than to take part?
Activity 1: My Handprint
We were asked to trace around our hand for this first of three activities and then fill each finger with answers to the following questions.
1.Your full name
2.One word that describes you
3. What makes you happy
4.An important person in your life
5.Something the group won’t know about you
I struggled with Questions 2 and 5. Partly just because of my standard indecision but actually more due to some internal dilemmas. One word that describes me? How truthful shall I be in who I am here? Should I keep it light and upbeat with a ‘smiley’? Should I be honest and critical with a ‘shy’, ‘nervous’ or ‘sensitive’ and risk falling on the wrong side of the balance between people opening up to me or falling on my confidence-knocked awkward backfoot? I sold out with a ‘clumsy’.
Question 5’s dilemma was more an ethical one. Mentioning my world travels might have sounded impressive to some, maybe even slightly inspirational. More likely though, such a gloat would have been entirely inappropriate and counter-productive. ‘I play percussion in a Caribbean steel band back at home’ was my safer option. With all of the girls now waiting for me to finish the task, my aim of quietly observing from the back without disturbing things was already failing.
One by one the girls were invited up to the front to present their answers as a way of introducing themselves to each other. With quiet voices, papers hiding mouths and eyes looking everywhere but at the rest of the group, nearly every girl who took to the front demonstrated the most common answer to question 2; ‘shy’. Turns out I would have been in the majority, although it was clear enough that their shyness was on a more serious level. Interestingly, ‘short tempered’ and ‘cruel’ both made more than one appearance. I was on my own with ‘clumsy’.
‘Mother’ was by far the most popular answer for question 4. Including my own. What didn’t we know about each other? Well, quite a few of the participants are ‘very loving’ and ‘love everyone’.
With all the girls now sat back down, Lerato asked if I’d like to share mine. Standing in front of the attentive ladies, for some reason my British accent and mannerisms felt particularly apparent. I felt a bit like a Michael Palin trying to communicate with a non-British speaking curious crowd in one of the travel adventure DVDs I re-watched before this journey begun. Thankfully my audience was an English speaking and interested group and smiled and quietly laughed at my mini-presentation. Any benefit the girls had started to feel in terms of confidence in presenting in front of the group extended to me too.
Activity 2: Getting to Know You
It was time to put our pencil and paper down, pair up and exit the container for the light. Where did you grow up? What is your idea of a perfect day? What is your most embarrassing moment? There’s something immediately empowering about having the chance to talk about yourself, isn’t there? Following Lerato’s instructions, I suggested to my new acquaintance Malekhooa from Mazenod, south-east of capital Maseru, that we take a walk around the 5-a-side pitch I have become so familiar with now as we attempt to share answers to these next three questions. Again, some internal moral dilemmas were pressing but with important matters of remembering names, places and, as instructed by Lerato, our partner’s answers without writing them down, I soon took to helping build our rapport before returning to the container.
“England. A place called Ports-mouth.” I pointed to my mouth. A perfect day? I gave a sequence of events; getting on a train, meeting 1 or 2 close friends, catching up while walking and taking in a new place and then getting back on the train again to return home. Most embarrassing? For anyone who already knows my fainting at work story, this has now made it to the shores of Southern Africa…
In return Malekhooa told me about her favourite US rapper she would listen to on her perfect day and the naked old man she embarrassingly bumped into in a street back at home at 10pm at night. Having returned to the container, thanks to my translator colleague Busi, I learnt that perfect days tended to revolve around going to church and spending time with family. Embarrassing moments meanwhile ranged from having someone finding a tick on her bag at school and her 16% test score posted for all the class to see, to her boyfriend marrying somebody else and the death of her mother.
“Do you trust the people in the group?”. Lerato’s activity-closing question was met with a resounding ‘yes’ from participants, explaining that they do because they have now shared this personal information. “Only being truthful can set us free”, Lerato concluded.
Activity 3: My Wall of Concerns
A simple task: list all of the challenges faced as young people, was perhaps the home run that Lerato had been lining up for through the ice-breaking and self-stabilising first two activities. Separated into groups of 4, we took some sugar paper and the girls started to scratch their heads. Who am I to describe the experience of being a young lady growing up in Maseru? With my group’s list stalling at 4 or 5 challenges, however, I begun to start trying to help tease out challenges that I could imagine – and that my privileged education has told me – might exist. Our list reached 9 challenges before we rejoined the group. I was initially volunteered to present our answers but gently redirected the suggestion given the benefit to be had for my fellow group members in discussing our answers.
Lerato then summarised all answers by identifying the most common four: Money (chelete), unemployment (mosebetsi), negative peer pressure and teenage pregnancy made up the quartet of most pressing challenges. Challenge number two, unemployment, introduced a reappearance of that inspiring voice of Lerato’s, albeit in Sesotho this time. She coated her advice with her own example working her way from Kick4Life volunteer to eventually finding the full-time salaried position of ‘Activities Co-ordinator’. “Don’t be too picky on a job you are given as you don’t know where it might lead and you will pick up valuable skills along the way”. Breaking into English, Lerato’s advice was impassioned and assured.
Education, jobs, money; these things are clearly sitting at the front of my fellow participants minds. But sex and relationships? Now they were talking. It felt as if everything that had come before in the last two and half hours provided the platform to feel comfortable discussing what is clearly the most pressing matter. With little further provocation from Lerato, the conversation between the female participants started to pick up momentum and animation with an increasing number of the previously shy participants. ABC is a common abbreviation in HIV education. Or at least it was from what I remember from my first visit here in 2009. A is for abstinence – avoiding sexual contact in or out of a relationship. The young lady sat on the couch to the right of me was explaining how limiting time in the presence of your partner would help achieve abstinence.
“Is abstinence realistic?”. Lerato re-entered the discussion with a question which at first seemed to go against the grain of sexual health education. The discussion thickened and as I now realise with a very quick internet search on ‘ABC’ (B = ‘Be Faithful’, C = ‘Condomise’), this was cutting-edge Development in action. Indeed USAID’s following definition of the ‘Combination Prevention’approach to HIV Prevention strategies helps introduce the current ‘thinking’ and why it is no longer as simple as ABC.
…rights-based, evidence-informed, and community-owned programmes that use a mix of biomedical, behavioural, and structural interventions, prioritised to meet the current HIV prevention needs of particular individuals and communities, so as to have the greatest sustained impact on reducing new infections.
For these particular individuals, in this particular community, with this particular culture – whether coming from Lerato, Kick4Life or a larger Development body – it seems that the appropriateness of the ‘A’ in ‘ABC’ is rightly confronted and challenged, and through the powerful medium of debate.
“Who here is in a relationship?”, Lerato moved the conversation on to ‘C’. Every girls’ hand went up in the air. “Who here is carrying a condom right now?”. All hands fell back down. A pause – silence – as participants looked around the room at each other. The discussion picked up again as my translator in my left ear explained the girls’ concerns that carrying a condom would give their boyfriends the wrong impression that they either want to have sex or have multiple partners. Apparently some men also complain that wearing a condom makes them ill.
“These challenges will always be there”. In English, Lerato concluded the now lively discussion between the girls who had started the session in a significantly and self-admittedly shy manner. “You have to think of yourself and build your self-esteem. You have to think ahead”. She continued again in Sesotho, though I recognised the word ‘Hosane’ which means ‘tomorrow’. “Don’t just think about now, just to satisfy your partner, for example”. Knocking Down the Walls of Concern
“So how do you feel now? What did you enjoy about the session and what didn’t you enjoy?”. Lerato invited one last conversation. The participant who had previously fought for ‘A’ explained how she now felt confident where she would normally feel too shy to talk in such groups. After each being invited to answer these same questions by the welcoming and supportive Lerato, I was offered the opportunity to share my thoughts.
I thanked the group for allowing me to meet my new friend Malokaane. I then explained that despite having to have most of it translated, I especially enjoyed the conversation on sex and condoms. This was met with a few laughs. I continued to suggest how I felt it was important for them to talk about the subject and share their opinions even if different. I openly acknowledged how talking about the subject is difficult and awkward, and can especially be so when in an intimate situation. “But it shouldn’t be”, I added. “The sooner you understand and feel comfortable about these things, the easier it will become to handle and the more control you will have over your lives”.
This final moral dilemma of mine was the biggest of the morning. Was it wrong for me to say these things? I received a warm reception, encouraged by Lerato, so hopefully this ‘final thought’ from a 29 year old white male from the UK only helped to break down the ladies’ wall of concern.
In the Literacy Room with potential future Women4Women participants
These 3 hours in the 5-a-side pitch holding shipping container come literacy and entertainment centre provided the time, space and confidence for the Women4Women participants to think and openly talk about crucial life-shaping issues. The discussions were amongst new trusted friends and away from the everyday challenges of earning a living, looking after dependents, gaining an education and pressure in relationships. It’s still early days for them. But I hope and believe that the next 5 and a half months of sessions would help strengthen the young ladies as confident and stable women with real and obtainable long-term visions and prospects, and healthy relationships which only complement these.
This does leave me with one question about an equally as vital ingredient in achieving this. What about the men?
If this example is representative, replicated and built upon, I am satisfied that Kick4Life’s social programmes are alive and well. As a result I am increasingly motivated in assisting the social enterprise team in their aim to secure the financial requirements of the programmes and also provide a destination for a number of the participants. Kick4Life would appear to be on the ball when it comes to current HIV prevention and support Development strategies. Thanks to Lerato and my Wednesday morning with 15 Basotho ladies in a shipping container, any wall of concern that I might have had before about this is falling down.