"Sbusiso -- you look like a Sbusiso," my host mother uttered in Zulu as she dropped yet another dollop of puthu and gravy onto my plate, a derivative of maize meal and a local favorite. "Definitely a Sbusiso."
No longer "David" nor my Hebrew name "Moshe," I was to become "Sbusiso" -- a name meaning "blessing" in Zulu -- for the next nine weeks.
I had just arrived in Tugela Ferry, a small rural town in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, about a six-hour drive from my parents' hometown of Johannesburg where I had spent the previous summer volunteering at a local clinic.
With the support of the national organization FACE AIDS and additional funding from my university, Yale, I spent the school year developing a peer HIV education project for high school students in this town, which I had grown to adore during my previous visit.
In this district, which faces an unemployment rate as high as 80 percent, out-of-school youth bear a disproportionate amount of the burden. Having left the formal support structure of secondary school, these teens find themselves without direction, guidance and hope for a productive future. They soon face remarkably high risk for HIV, unwanted teenage pregnancy and devastating substance abuse. Without intervention, these formative years will continue to be mired in disease and distress and will perpetuate the crippling grip of poverty.
My project over the summer was an effort to combat some of these perils, primarily through HIV/AIDS education. Drawing on my experiences as a volunteer health teacher in New Haven's public schools, I ran a workshop for 20 out-of-school youths to become "Peer HIV Educators," teens who teach other teens about HIV/AIDS science and prevention.
In the battle against an epidemic in which few interventions yield true behavioral change, peer education has been found by several studies worldwide to effectively improve knowledge about HIV/AIDS and improve certain behaviors that elevate one's risk for HIV. By training this group of out-of-school youth, I hoped to take advantage of this valuable resource in a community where HIV prevalence is estimated at nearly 40 percent.
Immediately, the teens in my workshop began putting their newfound skills and knowledge into action. Targeting schools, churches and more remote village members, they wrote several short plays, poems and motivational speeches and performed condom demonstrations to educate their fellow community members about HIV prevention, to combat stigma and to provide practical prevention skills to empower those at highest risk. In little to no time, they became known in the community as new players in the collective fight against HIV and were sought out to participate in community HIV awareness events.
To enact real change in the incidence of HIV, however, education must be accompanied by real structural change to mitigate the lethal combination of factors that result in an often-insurmountable risk for infection.
In addition to developing the leadership and communication skills necessary for the peer education that my youth were carrying out, I ran several workshops to further empower them and provide additional practical skills. We worked together on typing classes, college and financial aid applications and small garden building in the community, as well as sessions on writing resumes and job interview skills.
As word of the group spread around town and the waiting list to join continued to grow, I trained four teens to lead the same HIV peer educator training I had led for them. They ran the workshops beautifully, reaching an additional 40 youths.
Although I originally had planned only a peer HIV education project, ultimately the trip evolved into something more far-reaching. From sexual health education training to life-skills building, from college application writing to leadership qualities development, it transformed into a more comprehensive rural African youth-empowerment initiative.
Working with a Peace Corps volunteer focused on a similar effort in a nearby village, I am now in the process of trying to raise enough money through small grants and donations to turn this project into a formal organization. I plan to return in January to spend my second semester and following summer in Tugela Ferry to further develop the organization and train the Zulu youths to effectively run it themselves -- the ultimate form of empowerment.
Without exaggeration, my months in South Africa were truly life-changing; my flight back to South Africa cannot come soon enough. I'll continue to wait in anticipation until the day when I take my next two liter bucket bath, taste delicious puthu and gravy, and hear from my adopted Zulu parents the familiar call of "Sbusiso."
David Carel, a graduate of Barrack Hebrew Academy, is a junior at Yale University majoring in economics and African studies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org . For more information on the project, see kznyouth.org.