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.