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Awareness Amidst Trees

by Dr. Sunil Shroff on November 17, 2007 at 6:18 PM
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Awareness Amidst Trees

Asia Kika had no idea what a female condom was until a recent sunny morning when she was taught how to insert one and what it does to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

The 48-year-old mother of six was demobilised from the ranks of Mai Mai militias in 2004 following a bloody 1998-2003 war in eastern Congo. She had heard of AIDS, but was not really sure what it was or how to prevent it.


"This is something I will teach my children. Everyone should know about this," said Kika, carrying some brochures and several packages of the latex condom, vowing to use one every time she has sex from now on.

Kika lives in Alunguli, a small town on the Congo river in Maniema, an enclave province with no borders to any other countries, only a few kilometres of paved road and a train which putters by once a month.

Maniema hasn't been terribly blighted by AIDS, but the potential for new investments in a burgeoning mining industry and an accompanying influx of workers could make the area a new breeding ground for the disease.

To pre-empt that, German aid agency GTZ is spreading the word as far as possible on AIDS prevention, hoping to reach a chunk of the province's two million inhabitants, most of whom were caught up in the devastating conflict.

GTZ created a sort of travelling sexual education caravan, which is mobile and has travelled hundreds of kilometres to reach Congolese in the far reaches of massive Maniema - often further than any government initiative can.

It's all set up under a big-leafed tree, partly to shade from the burning Congolese sun, but also to appeal to the local traditions and make people feel more at ease with the sometimes awkward learning material.

"To bring people together we found out what is the traditional way to do so. And that's around the mango tree," said Achim Koch, project manager for GTZ's youth initiatives in the region.

Red wooden beams support colourfully painted fabric to create a three-dimensional star shape with five stations, each with a different educational component. Some 50 people crowd into the enclosed space, with 10 people at each station, and they revolve every 15 minutes.

GTZ has managed to reach more than 16,000 people since it began the project in March, but it hasn't been easy.

Maniema's isolation has also meant it is bereft of much infrastructure, including roads. So getting to far-off destinations requires planning, strategy and sometimes a few mechanics along for the ride.

For the most part, cars can't drive on Maniema's roads, which are really more like bumpy, uneven paths, so facilitators jump on motorbikes, leaving behind the wooden beams, and set up the stations using trees and branches on the site.

The sexual education targets youth, particularly young men who were drafted into militia groups, but curious women like Kika often slip in.

"I may be older than the others, but why is it also not important for me?" she asked.

The United Nations estimates that Congo's HIV prevalence rate amongst women in the country's conflict zones may be as high as 20 percent, but nationwide the rate varies between 1.7 and 7.6 percent.

The 200 people who visit the stations per day learn how AIDS is contracted, how to prevent it, how to live with the disease, and different contraceptive methods.

Koch, who has a background in stage design, said young people respond well to the interactive learning, which includes games like a spinning wheel about sexuality and sketches of sexual positions, pregnant women or mosquitoes where participants must describe the risk of contracting AIDS in each scenario.

"Before, all we knew about sexual intercourse was from our own experience," said Emmanuel Ngandu, 20, a round-faced former child soldier with a package of 20 condoms in his hand. "Today I learned how to protect myself against AIDS."

Source: IANS

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