Saturday, January 29, 2011

S is for SIDA

This past week a bunch of Volunteers and I from the Segou region jumped in a mini-bus and took a 5 hour ride to a fellow Volunteer's site in Dogofry, north of Segou. She had organized an AIDS awareness bike tour and asked other Volunteers to come up and help spread the good news about a terrible disease.

An AIDS awareness bike tour works exactly how you would imagine it to. A bunch of people jump on bikes and ride around to different villages and talk to people about sex, condoms, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome... or SIDA as it's known in French.

Ok. It's actually a bit more elaborate than than. Here's how ours worked. The bike tour lasted four days. Each day our group of nine Volunteers visited three different villages. We biked to each location, with most villages typically being three or four kilometers apart from each other. To help facilitate communication a DJ (and his sound equipment) came along. We also had a health extension agent (doctor-ish person) who explained what AIDS was, an actual doctor who tested people for HIV, and a Volunteer counterpart. (All people involved were Malian except the Volunteers.)

For each village our small parade of 10 bikes, 2 motorcycles, and a hand tractor and cart laden with sound equipment and mobile medical unit (a Coleman tent) would roll in and draw as much attention as possible. After setting up the sound equipment and med tent the DJ would blast music and some of the Volunteers would get up and start dancing, which had the effect of getting even more people's attention. After a decent crowd was formed the presentation would begin. We all introduced ourselves and then the extension agent would ramble on and on and on about what AIDS is and how people get it. Then there would be a small break with music where Volunteers would dance again to entertain the crowd. Then the counterpart would do a small skit demonstrating how AIDS "sickness" affects a person's immune system. Then more dancing and a song in the local language which had a chorus that simply repeated the words "SIDA sickness is bad" over and over and over. Then a question and answer time. Then we would pack up and leave. The whole time people who wanted to be tested for HIV could do so at the med tent.

I think over 200 people ended up getting tested for HIV and only one person came up positive. Not exactly numbers indicative of the "AIDS epidemic" that is supposedly ravaging Africa, but then you have to take into consideration that Mali does not have a terribly high incidence of AIDS and the area where we did the testing is fairly rural and not near a major transportation route (although one is being built in the area right now). So, its not surprising that we didn't find a lot of cases, which is something to be thankful for, and hopefully with a better understanding of the disease people in the area will be able to prevent it from becoming a major health problem.


I thought I would also share some observations we made while on the tour that most people found rather funny.

As most people know, the first rule about sound equipment is that you never put a microphone in front of a giant speaker. And the second rule is much the same... you never put a microphone in front of a giant speaker. So imagine our amusement (and frustration) when every time our "professional" DJ set up his sound equipment he insisted on placing his massive speakers about 15 meters apart, facing each other, with his mixing station and microphone directly in between. The result was feedback so terrible it would have made any amateur sound person in the US seem like a triple Ph.D in electrical and acoustical engineering. And of course any suggestion from we, the foreigners, went unheeded because why would we know more than the "professionals" who do this kind of thing for a living?

As most people who have been to a developing country know, most unwanted clothing from developed countries usually go to places like Mali to end their days. And for whatever reason, a lot of old clothing from the US in particular makes it to Mali. At one of the villages on the tour there was a woman wearing a black t-shirt that had the words "F*** & Forget" in giant pink lettering on the front. We all thought that rather ironic given the topic of the presentation. Equally as funny was that the woman and everyone around her had no idea what the t-shirt said since no one understands English, but would probably have been just as offended by the shirt's message as when the extension agent showed a condom to one of the villages we visited..

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