Friday, December 10, 2010

World AIDS Day activities

According to UNAIDS, in 2009, 33.3 million people worldwide were living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and there were 2.6 million new infections. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV and nearly 30 million have died of HIV-related causes. In Central and South America, 1.4 million are infected with the virus. This number is minimal when compared with Sub-Saharan Africa where there are 22.5 infected, but HIV/AIDS is a rising problem, increasingly being spread by men who have sex with men (who do not necessarily identify as homosexual), and youth who do not use condoms and have multiple partners.

December 1st marks World AIDS Day and this past month, I have been teaming with local health volunteers, nursing students and youth health promoters to plan and execute HIV/AIDS educational sports tournaments in billiards and volleyball.

The billiards tournaments are a way to educate men (billiards halls are not a place that women are usually welcome in) about HIV/AIDS and condom use while involving something that they like (pool) with another thing they like (prizes). The first time I helped out at an HIV/AIDS pool tournament was during Peace Corps training, during my first three months in-country back in 2009. I thought it was a neat idea: participants sign-up beforehand and pay an entry fee; during the tournament they have to listen to brief educational talks about HIV/AIDS and condom use; in the last round, the final two players have to respond correctly to a question from the talks they received in order to get their points whenever a ball falls into the pocket. What kept me from organizing a tournament in my town was the fact that organizing one would require me to go into a billiards hall at night and voluntarily surround myself with machista Nicaraguan men. Not exactly on the top of my to-do list. However, after our recent President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)-funded workshop with men, I felt more empowered to work with this population. I also had two male leaders from my community that I had brought to the workshop who were revved-up to work in HIV/AIDS education and who really wanted to put on a billiards tournament. So, with their help we put together my town’s first billiards tournament at the end of November.

It was a success – although we only had eight participants in the tournament (we had wanted 16), there were easily 30-40 men standing around listening to the information and observing. We had the support of the billiards hall owner who was present at the tournament, which made all the men mind their manners and respect those organizing the event a little more. A nurse from the Health Center and the Small Business Development Peace Corps volunteer who also shares my site also accompanied us and helped out.

World AIDS Day was December 1st, and I requested funding from Peace Corps to organize the same type of tournament-style HIV/AIDS educational event, but this time with volleyball. Volleyball is a very popular sport in my town (you may remember from previous blogs that I was on a team for my first seven months in-site). I knew that using volleyball to spread HIV/AIDS education would let us reach the youth population and catch their attention, drawing spectators to watch the event and learn.
Eight teams (four male and four female) signed up, ages 14-24. The youth health promoters that I work with through the non-profit Plan International helped me write the proposal for the funds, organize the budget and give the informational talks about HIV/AIDS in-between the volleyball rounds. Two nurses from the Health Center and a Master of Ceremonies to play music and control the microphone also assisted. Another Peace Corps volunteer came from the city of EstelĂ­ to help me out as well. (Above, two of my favorite nurses and I at the tournament).

I was pretty nervous in the days before the event since all eight teams had not yet signed up. Was anyone even going to show up the day of the tournament? Would it rain? Would the electricity go out and we would be without music? I was worried that everything would fall apart – Nicaraguans are notorious for promising to help you with something, but at the last minute they fall through. We announced the tournament the usual way, via loudspeaker driving around the town two days before the tournament, calling for teams to sign-up. This did the trick and at 6 PM the night before, the final team had signed-up.

We also announced the tournament using a cloth banner hung in the street (another common way to spread news here). The youth promoters and I cut a couple hundred red ribbons for pinning on shirts for all the players and Health Center staff to signify solidarity for people living with HIV/AIDS. Before coming to Nicaragua, I had never actually met someone infected with HIV. After working as a community health volunteer here for a year and a half, I have had the opportunity to meet several HIV positive Nicaraguans who work in local HIV/AIDS support organizations and who fight for the rights of those who are living with the virus. After my experiences with them, I truly know the meaning of that red ribbon and what it means to wear it on December 1st.

The tournament came together at the last minute, as most Nicaraguan events do. A large amount of what we needed to put the event on (sound system, tent, extension cord, pick-up truck, Health Center staff, and the volleyball net) was donated by the Mayor’s Office and Health Center.

Peace Corps funds mainly paid for the food, educational materials, and the street banner. Plan International donated two large trophies complete with inscribed plaques, and 12 backpacks filled with school supplies for the two male and female winning teams. Teams that placed second received a volleyball (also a valuable prize since sports supplies are a luxury and not provided by the schools) All participants received a certificate of participation - Nicaraguans love those! (Below: the prizes and the two winning teams).

Many spectators turned out to watch the games and listen to the information about HIV/AIDS. The nurses handed out condoms, and the health promoters played a basketball game with youth on the side of the court – if they got the ball in the bucket, they had to answer a question about HIV and they got a candy if they answered correctly. The six games flew by – the players paid close attention to the HIV/AIDS information and were able to answer all their questions correctly in order to move on to the next round. Loud reggaeton music blasted over the town as the soundtrack to our tournament thanks to our DJ. That is one thing that worked to my benefit that day; Nicaraguans never complain about noise.  Below: the youth health promoters that helped out with the event.

Immediately after the tournament ended and we had handed out the prizes (the kids were thrilled), I took off in an express bus to the capital of Managua. My Peace Corps group had our “Close of Service Conference” the next day and I had to be there early. We are officially the oldest group in-country and will be the next ones to leave. I will finish my Peace Corps service in April 2011. I know that my time is limited and the days are flying past. I’m trying to savor each day I have left in-site since we often have to run back and forth to Managua in these last few months doing administrative and medical Peace Corps activities, as well as helping train the new group of health volunteers that arrive in January and will be replacing us.

For Christmas, I am going to visit my good friend Alana who is from my hometown in Alaska and is currently serving as a small business development volunteer in Peace Corps Peru! I have never been to South America and am looking forward to seeing Machu Picchu. A blog on my trip is soon to come!

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