IMAGES OF THE SMALL SOUTH AFRICAN VILLAGE OF LUJIZWENI are as clear in my mind as the day I arrived: chickens darting through mud huts, robust women working corn crops with crying babies on their backs, skinny children playing in the dusty earth, the smell of burning garbage, and the bluest sky imaginable. I had gone there as a volunteer for Student Partnership Worldwide to teach HIV prevention and health promotion to young people.
At the University of Victoria, where I majored in sociology and anthropology, I found my courses incredibly interesting but I was frustrated by the detached perspective of academic work. The question of what we could actually do to make the world better never seemed to come up. So after graduation, I set out determined to “save the world.” I wanted to see what impact one idealistic person could have. I wanted to help where I was most needed, which I eventually decided was Africa.
Last January, after four weeks of training, I was paired with Sibongile, a local Xhosa-speaking volunteer. We held youth-friendly HIV workshops in the village and at the nearest clinic (90 minutes away by foot). We established a health promotion resource centre. In other words, we did what we had been trained to do.
The people in the village generally knew about HIV and AIDS but they were preoccupied with their daily lives. Even though one of every four people in the village had contracted HIV, the disease was rarely talked about. I had to find out why.
Sibongile and I went from hut-to-hut asking about barriers to a better quality of life. I thought that if I could understand their immediate needs I could understand the factors behind the HIV prevalence. From my university background, I expected answers like “gender inequality,” “teen pregnancy,” or “alcoholism”—which would’ve meant more workshops in those areas. But the actual responses were: “no access to clean water,” “no way to make money,” and “no local clinic.” I was stunned. I hadn’t been trained to do workshops in those areas. Their needs were so basic.
I began to see the village in the context of decades of Apartheid oppression. The Xhosa people were uprooted from all over the country, placed into a homeland, and given self-government (which really meant widespread neglect of large groups of black people). After 1994, there was reluctance to criticize the same government that had freed them from Apartheid, but conditions hadn’t improved. When we held a workshop on “goal-setting” not one young person understood what we meant. Or when I tried to explain “self-awareness” I discovered it doesn’t translate into the Xhosa language. That’s when I realized that if young people see little or no opportunity in life, why would they care if they contracted HIV?
From that point my work became much more effective. I decided to involve the community in developing themselves. I asked my Grade Nine girls (nearly half of whom became pregnant during the time I was there) to form a soccer team. Thirteen of them joined and proceeded to win championships, building great team pride.
I helped a group of women generate income by selling chickens. Seeing their success, another group asked me to help them start a sewing centre. Both groups are profitable, but more importantly they have gained self-esteem. And with the community’s involvement, Sibongile and I petitioned the municipality for clean water and toilets.
After nine months, I discovered that an idealistic person really can achieve something. And so did the people of Lujizweni. Before I left, the whole village held a going-away party, thanking Sibongile and me for “helping them to make things happen.” By listening to what they needed, and helping them reach their goals, I was able to help them empower themselves. And empowered, informed people are more likely to choose safe sex and reduce HIV prevalence in Lujizweni, and elsewhere in Africa.
As for saving the world, I figure I’ve made a good first step—and I plan to try as hard as I can to make another.