Who wants a future for Swaziland?

“Who here wants a future for Swaziland?” asked Lisa to a small crowd of Swazi youth. Several of them raised their hands tentatively.

“Why aren’t more of you raising your hands?” she asked them, looking around the circle. “Who here wants a future for Swaziland?” she asked with more emphasis. This time, every hand went up – although still cautiously. Swazi children have a tendency to be afraid of giving the wrong answer, and I was reminded of this as I watched their hesitant participation.

“Well, I have news for you,” she said. “It’s up to  you to create that future.”

I stood on the fringe of the crowd, watching her speak. Lisa is a Peace Corps volunteer based in a small community near Luve, about 35 minutes from Manzini. She and a few other volunteers had organized this event, an anti-HIV stigma community dialogue. The day had begun (much later than planned, in classic Swazi style) with some speeches from various community members, followed by a short film about HIV stigma, and was now concluding with small break-out sessions where community members were able to dialogue with each other. This group was comprised mainly of teenaged girls, with a few adults mixed in as well. They were sitting on a few benches that had been pulled together, and some were sitting on the laps of their friends as they listened to Lisa. Not all of them were looking at her; some were looking off to the side, some at the ground, and some at the other participants.

“You are all going to be mothers someday, bosisi,” she said, addressing the young women in the group. “Someday you might have son, isn’t it?” she asked. The young women turned their heads and nodded, now keeping their eyes fixed on her. “When you raise your son, raise him to love women,” Lisa said, her voice ringing out over the murmur of the crowd. “Raise him to love women enough to wear a condom.” The young women continued to look at her with wide eyes.

“And,  bosisi,” Lisa continued, “you all have the responsibility now to insist on condoms. Are you strong enough to bring condoms into your relationships?” she asked. No one responded, and their eyes wandered once again.

“You,  sisi , are you strong enough to insist on a condom?” Lisa asked one young woman.

“I don’t know,” the girl responded in a soft voice. “Sometimes, the boys, they usually don’t like to use a condom.” The other girls nodded at this. A soft breeze came along, fluttering the bottoms of their skirts in the bright sun.

Lisa paused a moment, looking around at the group with serious eyes. “Then that boy does not love you,” she said. “That boy  does not love you  if he won’t wear a condom with you.”

She looked around. “We have to talk about these things in order to change them,” she said, eyeing the children. “Someone has to stand up and  fight if we are going to beat HIV. And if we don’t beat HIV, then Swaziland will die. Do you understand?” she asked, pausing to look at each of the children. “Your country will die if you don’t fight this.”

I looked around at the group. Combating societal norms is quite an ambitious goal, but in the context of Swaziland’s soaring HIV rate, it is an absolutely necessary one. I wondered if Lisa’s words were having an impact on these youth. I thought to myself that if even one of the hundreds of people here today changed the way they acted and avoided contracting HIV, that it was worth it; that it was at least a start.

Earlier, I had walked around with Ozi, another Peace Corps volunteer, handing out condoms to the participants who were standing chatting in small groups as they waited for the next event to start. Many of them stared at us as we approached, their eyes revealing a certain wariness. As we got closer, their eyes widened in disbelief, and some of them clapped their hands over their mouths and laughed when they saw what we were carrying. It wasn’t just the condoms we had in our hands. It was the large, plastic model of a penis I was holding that had caught their eye.

“Do you know how to use a condom?” we asked as we handed the men handfuls of cheerfully decorated packages of condoms. “Can we demonstrate for you how to use it?”

They accepted the condoms, eyeing us with some suspicion as they looked first at us, then the large penis we were holding, and then back at us. It was a mixed group, with mostly young men in their twenties, but with a few very old  bomkhuli, or grandfathers, holding canes and standing proudly in front of us, their gray hair reflecting the sun. A few of the men gave us a practically unperceivable nod, their eyes half-fixed on us and half on the soccer game that was taking place behind us. I thought to myself how strange and unnatural it must feel for these Swazi men, so unaccustomed to talking about anything related to sexuality (especially with women), to be approached by two young American women in this way.

“Wonderful,” I said. I asked one of the men to hold the penis for me as I demonstrated how to use the condom. I showed them how to open it to avoid tearing the condom itself; how to put the condom on and take it off; and how to avoid contact with the fluids that carry HIV. I told them never to use two condoms, and to start afresh if they somehow made a mistake with the first one. “Niyeva?” I asked them. “Do you all understand?” They nodded in unison. “Siyabonga, sisi,” one of them said. Thank you.

“This is your weapon against HIV,” Lisa had said in another condom demonstration. “This is what will protect you if you use it – but only if you use it every time you have sex, and only if you use it the right way.”

We wandered around some more, approaching smaller groups with the condoms and doing demonstrations. One young boy approached Ozi and asked for her advice on being tested for HIV. Other community members approached volunteers and asked about male circumcision, and about HIV transmission, and about sex.

Later, as I stood listening to Lisa’s speech to these young people, I was thinking about all of their questions. All of these questions which, in Swaziland, typically have no forum in which to be discussed. As a rule, Swazi culture prescribes silence for many of these issues, which is what makes it so terribly difficult for those committed to the fight against HIV. Sexuality is rarely discussed – not even among close friends – and strict gender roles (especially in the rural areas) often preclude such conversations within relationships. Even dating is something that is usually kept hidden. If a boy and girl (or man and woman, for that matter) are seen walking together, the community will assume that they are having sex. This leads most young people to date each other covertly, giving the whole idea of a romantic relationship an atmosphere of secrecy, mystery, and repression.  This means that role models or confidantes in matters of dating and sex are rather scarce.

This was a dialogue in one community; with one group of young people. Maybe for some of them, it was just like any other day, or it was a way to get a free meal. But maybe not. Perhaps it was the start of something bigger for those in attendance: a new thought process, and a culture slightly more open from the one their parents experienced.

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