Zimbabwe is a country raped by HIV / Aids to a point that we have so many young people today who were born with HIV and are living on ARV's. I had the honour of being able to run a social media training programme in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe for a group of 22 HIV young people between the ages of 13 and 24. The concept behind the programme was to empower the young people to have a roaring voice which up to that point was more of a whisper when sharing their stories.
The messages about HIV / Aids in Zimbabwe are, "Abstain as the sexually immoral get HIV", "Use condoms so you dont get HIV", "Sleeping with multiple partners is what will result in you contracting HIV". There has been no consideration at all as to what these messages mean in relation to to those people who contracted HIV from their mothers at birth. There is a fear among these young people, particularly the girls that they will be labeled "prostitutes" or "loose" if their status got out. Taking your ARV's in the shadows whilst "pretending to be normal" is the reality of these young people. Fear about dating and marriage, questions like, "will I ever be able to have a healthy baby?" come from their lips. Their future seems so daunting, so uncertain so dim.
At that cross road in their lives I met them and introduced them to the world wide web's ability to allow them to share their stories safely. We managed to get funding to buy them 'smart enough' phones that would go online and access all the free social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger. We showed them how to create their profiles, set their privacy and empowered them to choose online personas that protected their identify allowing them to speak freely and participate in the global discussions around their conditions without fear of being singled out or "outed" by those who know them. The challenge we faced from the onset was that many of these young people could not type let alone blog. Their computer skills were very limited, others non existent. We also faced challenges in getting them mobile data credits to be able to stay online sustainably. It almost seemed like to mammoth a task to achieve in a week yet we set out to teach them and that we did.
In that group of young people was a 20 year old girl who I will call Kay for the purpose of this post. Kay, was HIV positive and she was physically disabled. Her challenges were that much greater than anyone else in the group and yet she wore a permanent smile on her face and never complained. She found a way to maneuver the phone we gave her despite the challenges she faced and was the fastest learner. Her story was so heartbreaking, born of a single mother who had had a brief relationship with her father resulting in her mother contracting HIV and getting pregnant.She did her best in school but was bullied and teased due to her disability. It was amazing to see her resilience inspite all the challenges life had thrown at her. She was eager to learn, eager to share her story and eager to be supportive and assist the younger girls in the group.
The programme ended and sadly we could not source funding to do more training programmes with other groups of girls and young people in other parts of the country especially after the impact this course had on Kay and her friends. If I could lobby the government and NGO's to do one thing, it would be to finance programmes that give young people like Kay a voice and enable them to tell their stories and meet other people like them, whether they are facing living with HIV, they are orphans as a result of HIV, they have a disability,they have been sexually or otherwise abused or any form of victimization leading them afraid to speak out. Programmes like thes give young people like Kay a voice and their sharing their stories empowers them to take control of their stories in an otherwise negative environment.