First you go in, then you go out.

Back to last weekend’s HIV/AIDS awareness day in Ngluni

I arrived after it had been going for an hour or so. There was music coming from the dusty market street in Ngluni and in the distance I could see a group of people danding wearing what looked like yellow baseball caps and white T-shirts. They were doing a little shuffling dance and moving around the market, between the wonderfully ramshackle vegetable kiosks that Kenya is full of: a few tomatoes balanced on a construction of twigs and torn sacks.

I was welcomed enthusiastically by the people running the loud PA system outside one of the more permanent shops. I’d been invited by practically everybody: having a Mzungu present is a status symbol and helps attract a crowd. There wasn’t much of a crowd at that point, thats why the dancers — who were in fact wearing specially printed T-shirts and paper cap-peaks on elastic — were circumnavigating the market: drumming up support. They returned and I was greeted by a couple of ladies in the group who live on my route to Tala market and whom I sometimes visit on those journeys. Then the music changed and they danced again, in a line in front of the steps of the shop. I’d been given a seat on the steps with the other ‘guests’: Mama Darlene herself and Jackson, the VSO who works with her and who had helped set the day up. I got up, descended from my step and joined in the dancing, copying the man next to me. They promptly gave me a yellow cardboard anti-AIDS cap-peak on elastic to wear.

Well this did the trick. By the time we finished there was a crowd. I still wonder if they just came to see the Mzungu dancing. Once the audience was in place they started with their message. This was inspired: they did a series of performances: funny sketches with a message. I thought it was odd that the performers stood with their backs to the audience we had summoned and performed for the guests on the stage while the crowd watched their backs.

First sketch had a young man with a cap and a stick pretending to be an old Mzee addressing a line of four young men at length in Kikamba. Every now and then he intoned some couplet and they repeated it; as they did so they turned to their left and rocked forward onto their toes and pushed their hips forward, then rolled back. A youth came up behind Jackson and me and volunteered a translation.
“He’s talking about swimming”, he said, “He’s saying that it used to be wonderful to go swimming, the water was pure and it was such fun. First you go in, then you go out!”
As he said it the performers did their hip thrusting once again. The meaning was clear.
“But now its no longe safe to swim”, he continued, “because the water is polluted.”
Once more, the four young men thrust themselves first in and then out. But this time the one furthest to the left and thus in the front when they al turn to to their in-and-outs, didn’t roll back out. He froze in mid-thrust. A young man in a white coat with a pad of paper came and examined him, pulling at his clothes and listening to various parts of his body. The conversation with the Mzee and the three remaining young men continued. For some reason that was not translated to us, every now and then, ana apparently in response to the Mzee, the three men made a noise:
“Aaaaaaahh!”, was the fist one. The doctor wrote it down on his pad: “A”.
“EEeeeeeee!”, was the next. He did likewise: “I”
“Duh!”, next, and then “Sssssss!”. The doctor held up his paper on which he had made his diagnosis: “AIDS!”
Wen all this was finished, the same headmaster who was (later) embarrassed by the Kikamba workd for sex, came up to the microphone and explained that (according to our translator) it was now necessary to wear a swimming suit whenever we wanted to go swimming.

Next up, after some more dancing to over-amplified music, a sketch entitled The Great Theif. This one was explained in advance by the headmaster: it was a lesson for those who don’t believe that their behaviour could be putting them at risk.

A man sat on a bench leaning forward on his knees and expounding on some subject. Our translator told us he was supposed to be a politician. I suspect the subject of his discourse was something pious about how his own behaviour was an example to others. Every now and then he would take a break from ranting and slurp from a bottle of Coke that he’d put down next to his bench, then return to the diatribe. While he spoke another man, the same actor who had been the Mzee in the first sketch, would approach the bench from behind, hunkered down on bent legs that made him waddle, still wearing his cap and armed witha drinking straw. He would look about at furtively at the crowd and then dip his straw into the politicians cokebottle, steel a big slurp of soda and then waddle away with a satisfied grin on his face.

The moral of this was also clear, especially since it had been explained beforehand by the MC, and the procedure repeated slightly more times than I thought was absolutely necessary to get the message over. I assumed that these sketches were the overture to a more explicit discussion of sexual behaviour followed by a condom demonstration. Time was pressing on and I wanted to get to Nairobi before dusk (were advised not to travel at night) so, after we were all introduced (and I was asked to say a few words to the crowd, which the headmaster translated), I got Jackson to take me for lunch – a hearty plate-full of beans and cabbage for 10 bob (about 6p) and a big African-style chapati for another 10. After seeing the embarrassment of the headmaster at the word ‘sex’ I wasn’t sure about the condom demo so I asked Jackson if there would be one. He said that they had not planned to do one. He was going to speak on Healthy Living and there were a few other speeches planned.

On the way back from lunch I passed by the event once more. The crowd, which had never been large, had dwindled to a few curious children.

I think it must be a hard job that takes a lot of preseverance to make a change for the better out here in the land where everybody goes to church and nobody speaks of sex, though everybody’s doing it.


  1. Raj Says:


    From what I understand part of this problem is made worse by the Catholic churchs view on contraception. There was a programme on TV last year on the pope and the message he was trying to bring about contraception and sexual behaviour, and the impression that I seemed to get was that the catholic church (especially in Africa) frowned on the use of condoms and have found some "medical" information to support their claim that condoms did not stop the transmission of AIDS, to the extent thay tried to ban condoms.

    Absintence might be ok for some people but not all !!, espicailly when they are given conflicting message by those "in authority".

    As an aside one of Sunitas friends refuses to give money to Oxfam, because Oxfam refuse to send/distribute condoms as part of any aid package.

    PS. I miss you too !

  2. dee-zed Says:

    hi Mr S,

    The difficulties of talking about sex remind me of work that I used to be involved in years ago. HIV/AIDS awareness and sex education was seen as fine and (relatively) easy to talk about when focusing on the young majority population, but people reacted very differently when it involved people with disabilities. Suddenly the responses changed to the sort that you’ve described, people would get awkward and talk around or change the subject – in my experience mostly not the people who actually lived with a disability. This was even stronger when the people concerned had a mental health or learning disability, with some people becoming very offended and anxiously looking around for some sand to bury their heads in. Pretty much exactly the same thing happened if talking about sex among older people, say over 70. It also happened but in a slightly different way when talking about people who know they have HIV – here the ostrich mentality was particularly strong,and was linked to Moral Outrage, and people often wanted to stick with the ‘just say no’ message. And we all know how successful that is when looking at human behaviour….
    I don’t know if there’s anything useful in all of this for the situation there, it just made me remember some things. I do think it’s useful to reflect on the fact that ‘our’ sexual liberation and ability to discuss these issues openly can often tend to be restricted to those that fit within certain categories.

    And another thing …. Your last entry about whether to achieve things by working at the political national or international level or at a local community level. I think both are important, but that it’s essential to have the same people moving between the two levels. I have no experience of this in international aid settings so again what I’m talking about is things that it made me think about here. I’ve spent a lot of time around public services here at both levels, and have often been apalled at the lack of understanding, especially the lack of understadning that government/civil servants have of the local community level – either the service providers or the service users. I think it’s this lack of undersatnding that has led to some of the worst policies that just don’t work. There’s always seemed to be a huge reluctance to genuinely involve people with that community level experience (I mean properly involve in designing, running etc. not just a half hour consultation) and the relatively closed shop and frequent we-know-best arrogance of the civil service has contributed to keeping the necessary knowledge well away from where it’s most needed. Because of this, many of the people at the community level never get the chance to find out how things work at that government level and so the lack of understanding goes both ways. So people don’t have any common language or ways of thinking about things, so of course they can’t find common ground or effective ways of working together. I think that all of this has opened up here a lot over the last few years but there’s still a long way to go.

    rant over


  3. Mark Says:

    DZ! First thanks and I’m working on an answer to your earlier question about what time of year is best to come visit. Watch this space.

    Your comments on speaking of sex are ver insightful. I remember a TV programme in which a wheelchair user explained how hard it was even to buy pornographic magazines in the UK: he had to ask someone to fetch them from the top shelf for him).

    As far as I can see the best way to work on this is to just keep talking about it and pushing my own comfort zone so that I can appear comfortable, confident and non-judgmental about it. What do you think?

    The issue of communication between levels is also setting things off in my head. Thanks for that also. I guess there is little incentive for openness and communication if one or more of these perceived levels of administration is engaged in corruption or theft that they’d rather didn’t become common knowledge — or rather, it’s already common knowledge but they’d rather not reveal the details.

    Another barrier to effectiv communication is the cultural thing, at the top sometimes are foreign donors with their own agendas. In the recent VSO committee meeting I attended I heard that when people from the VSO office in london come to visit Nairobi they stay in a high luxury hotel. We were debating the fact that the subsistance allowance for mandatory visits to the capitol does not pay for a hotel in which any of us feel safe or comfortable. Its worth a lot **just seeing what its like**. Sometimes I take for granted the fact that I am seeing quite a lot of what its like, while still remaining in good comfort over here. You have reminded me how lucky I am that I am not cooped up in an air-conditioned suite.

    Looking forward to when you come and see with me. I’m sure it will open my eyes to have a visitor from the UK, to hear what you will say and what strikes you as odd that I might be already accepting as normal. ooh! can’t wait!

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