Sending out an SOS: Youth Challenge Guyana
by Achal Prabhala
March 2, 2003
Port Kaituma High School is located in a small mining town in Region 1, nearer Venezuela than Georgetown. The Campbellville Secondary School is a public institution in George-town. One is well funded and works relatively smoothly, with no short supply of quality teachers.
Another is ramshackle to the point of falling down in parts, and exists solely on the enthusiastic spirit of its more committed teachers and community organizers. One school has slick, city-bred boys and girls who have ready access to the sights and sounds of the nation’s capital. The other has students who have never set foot outside their town.
Georgetown, for all its problems has opportunity; Port Kaituma offers little apart from a life of mining. Georgetown has electricity and running water; most parts of Port Kaituma have neither. Students in the interior can walk a few miles with ease; students in Georgetown might have a hard time travelling a block without the help of a minibus. One set of students has access to a public and private health network. The other has access to a health centre that doesn’t even have a doctor.
How, you might well ask, could these two schools be more unlike?
Yet, while the differences described are real, the voices of young students in both institutions are remarkably similar. Essentially, they’re all saying the same thing: its just coming in from different postal, social and economic addresses. Youth Challenge Guyana (YCG) an internationally affiliated non- profit organization, works with both communities, among several others, raising awareness levels around a series of key issues connected to youth development, prominent among which is the urgent and pressing concern of HIV and AIDS.
YCG is now an independent operational entity, though it retains close ties with Youth Challenge International, its parent body. This global organization runs programmes in Guyana, Costa Rica, Canada and Australia. In Guyana, it facilitates local community development, health education improvement and environmental initiatives through a network of paid and volunteer staff. YCG regularly receives workers and volunteers from Canada and Australia while continuing to build on its domestic support base.
In Guyana, Brendan Douglas, Dmitri Nicholson and Simone Fills manage the organization’s HIV/AIDS initiatives from a central Georgetown office, and through a series of training programmes they have dubbed ‘Life Skills Workshops.’ Ambitious in scope and unrelenting in its reach, the programme reaches some of the most remote corners of Guyana’s interior, as well as more accessible youth communities in the capital and on Guyana’s Atlantic coast.
Enabled in part by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), YCG has expanded the scope of its Life Skills Workshop to include further training and sensitization around HIV/AIDS. It aggressively seeks to co-opt youth communities by training peer educators, and thus, it manages to sustain itself even in remote outposts of the country like Port Kaituma without a formal organizational presence.
Port Kaituma itself is a network of small communities - Citrus Grove, Fitzburg, Compound, Four Mile, One Mile, Turn Basin, Teacher’s Quarters, Oronoque and Canal Bank - that are within walking distance of each other. Transport is limited to the very occasional minibus, and prohibitively expensive. The only business in this town is mining, and it has attracted numerous Brazilians, many of whom have made the town their home. There is no hostility; it appears that in the backdams, where the actual gold mining is carried out, there is plenty of space for everyone. Indeed, it is the surfeit of space that lured an American preacher named Jim Jones to Port Kaituma in the mid-1970s, and precipitated the disaster now known simply as the ‘White Night’ - the mass suicide in 1978 of hundreds of his followers - an event that remains fresh in the town’s collective memory.
Unregulated building and the lack of any road system has led to a hodge-podge of structures, one of which is the Port Kaituma school, which fights nature valiantly to exist. Althea Forde, one of the two key peer educators trained by YCG - over a five day session in Georgetown - is a keen mobilizer of youth communities. Her official position, as a teacher in the nursery school, helps. She is aided informally in all her youth activities by Ignatius Adams, a senior teacher, and Miss Blair, a parent of three exceedingly bright students of the school, and an active community participant. YCG has made multiple visits over the years to this town, and the memory of those workshops is fresh in the minds of the young students who attended the training.
Alvin Blair says that most of his friends know something about HIV and AIDS, but that in fact, sexual activity itself may not be the main issue. Many of his friends consume narcotics - marijuana and cocaine mainly - and under their influence, are probably capable of forgetting what they know about the risks of contracting HIV infection. Many young girls, he says, get pregnant - some as early as at twelve and thirteen years of age.
When asked if it is young boys in the school who may be the cause of these pregnancies, he opines that is usually much older men. Yet, he thinks that in most cases, the girls are not being forced into sex. “Theys want to wear fancy boots and so,” he says, implying that pregnancy, and the associated sex, might be a means of getting ahead.
For a young boy of fifteen - whose mother is in the same room we are speaking in - Alvin not only seems to know a lot of what goes on in Port Kaituma, he is also unafraid to speak out. There are a number of established brothels in the backdam, he says, which migrant workers from Mahdia, Lethem, Pomeroon, Georgetown and Brazil frequent. He infers that the frequency of sexual activity among his peers is influenced, in part, by this larger industry. He is certain that many of his friends have no intention of using protection, and even if they know about what constitutes safe sex, will not practise it when the time comes.
Adams, who himself is Amerindian, from the Arawak community, has been teaching in Port Kaituma for the last year. He is a graduate of the University of Guyana, and a recipient of a government Public Service Scholarship. An accomplished artist (he designed the $10 coin for the Guyanese mint), he is back in his hometown partly out of a personal commitment to develop the region, and partly because of the stipulations of his government scholarship. He attended the Life Skills Workshop the last time it was held, and suggests the need for more audio-visual aids. Students, he says, learn faster when there is sound and action. Yet, the school in Port Kaituma has few electricity connections.
Aneta, who is fifteen years old, wonders where all her young classmates - mainly, the boys who are using drugs - get the money. “Maybe they thief, or sell things from the house,” she suggests. Over and over again, others chip in to say that there is simply nothing to do in Port Kaituma. There are no recreational facilities, save one large playing field where a multi-purpose auditorium is being built. There are no vocational classes, no opportunities for formal skills training, and not even much entertainment, save the local bars. “There is so much potential,” laments Blair, who as a concerned parent, acutely knows just how bad it is.
So how bad is it? Everyone in the room agrees that the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS is yet so high that it is unlikely that anyone who thinks they are HIV+ will ever admit it publicly. Not that they can find out easily anyway. The health centre in town, staffed with just one Medex does not have a testing facility. That makes an HIV test an immensely expensive and nearly impossible event. Even for malaria, there have been instances where no one is available to take a smear. Blair feels that there is an excess of incorrect parenting going on. She thinks that parents are being too lazy and just not taking enough initiative. The lack of jobs and a sluggish economy leads many parents to send their children out to work, and that sometimes leads to tacit encouragement of prostitution, she suggests.
Adams thinks that peer pressure is just too strong. At the same time, both he and Blair present a compelling contradiction that needs to be worked out. While there are some parents who simply don’t care, it seems that there are others who care too much. Adams relates an instance where a young girl who was found in a compromising situation with a boy in the school, was given a lecture on sex education. The parents of the girl immediately complained to school authorities. Many parents, Blair says, feel that way; that sex education is immoral, and moreover, that they should not discuss anything related to it with their children.
Grace Ramjohn, a community health worker in Port Kaituma, has had some first-hand experience with HIV and AIDS. For one thing, a close relative of hers died from AIDS a year ago. The lesson it taught her was that personally, you could never be too sure. When her relative displayed signs of possible HIV infection, Ramjohn took her immediately to the GUM clinic in Georgetown, where she was tested. On hearing of her HIV status, the relative was shattered. She died one month later.
Ramjohn has seen many others, young and old, waste away from AIDS. She suspects that when young people leave their homes to work in the backdams, they frequent sex workers and engage in risky behaviour. She thinks it is the responsibility of owners of dredges to make sure that their employees - young men from the area - know about HIV risks. But there are other problems, beyond the fact that an HIV test is either a $19,000 plane ride or a three-day boat-ride away. There is the fact that condoms are rarely available at the health centre. Ramjohn used to bring back boxes of condoms herself, every time she went to Georgetown on work. Sometimes, the GUM clinic would pay for condoms to be airfreighted to Port Kaituma. But she has just retired, and now, there are none.
There is no question that the task that lies ahead for YCG, and communities like Port Kaituma, is daunting. But the sheer grit and level of commitment of community workers like Forde, Adams and Blair, not to mention some of the students themselves, is more than heartwarming; it is inspiring.
At the Campbellville Secondary School in Georgetown, a group of eager, articulate young students have gathered as part of YCG’s regular programme. They are a motivated lot, and participate in YCG activities on an ongoing basis. Anil, a sixteen-year- old boy, begins talking about the state of sex education in the school. “Three years ago,” he says, “they brought someone in who showed us how to use a condom. He demonstrated it to both the boys and the girls.” Raoul, a more recent entrant to the school, wasn’t at that programme. He is adamant that unless sexual education and awareness begins early, it will have no effect. To him, it doesn’t matter that you are told you what to do in Form 5 (when the students are about sixteen years old). By that time, he says, most of the students who wanted to, have already experimented with sex.
Keon, another student in the group, thinks that showing young boys how to put on a condom (as YCG and other groups have done in the past) is a waste of time. “It’s common sense,” he says. Natasha, an opinionated young woman of fifteen, immediately rebuts his point, saying that it was in fact hardly common sense, and very useful for her, as a girl, to learn.
Someone puts out the question of pregnancy, and solicits answers. Keon laughingly says that the only advice he would give a young male friend of his (who was responsible for a pregnancy) would be to run. Someone else says that in any circumstance, an abortion should not be encouraged, as it is improper to take unborn life.
The conversation turns to HIV and AIDS. Raoul honestly describes his own feelings. He says that if the situation arose where he was compelled to make a choice between unsafe sex and no sex, he would choose the former. He thinks that most of his peers would do the same, regardless of what they might say at a forum like this, and regardless of how many HIV/AIDS awareness workshops they have attended (he himself has been to several). Many students seem to agree with Raoul’s opinion. Yet, Anil and Keon suggest that there is a way out. If only young students like them are given some kind of sensible advice early on, and the act of sex is not mythified as much as it is now, that may help. Keon laughs at the fact that his parents never really talked to him about issues connected to sex, and Anil nods his head in agreement. A lack of openness, and a complete absence of discussion, are seemingly universal problems, shared across the board.
When Anil encountered an acquaintance who was HIV+, he was moved. With enormous feeling, he says that if it had been him, he would have simply committed suicide, the stigma that person faced was so acute. Some of the other students laugh when Anil says this, but he doesn’t back down.
Raoul relates a story from his own experience. A friend of his found out he was HIV+. Many of their common friends got to know. Raoul and his friends, decided together that they would go out of their way to treat their infected friend “like normal.” Raoul is aware of issues of stigma, and the often irrational reasons behind them. He was well aware that there was no possibility of infection of any sort from association with his friend. He was equally sensitive not to change his behaviour in any way, and further made sure that none of the other friends did either.
But, Raoul says despondently, his infected friend slowly dropped out of their group and retreated into his own shell. Raoul made an extra effort to rekindle the friendship, but it died, as eventually did his friend. The point he is making is this: that even with the erasure of some stigma, there are other sources of it you cannot necessarily control, and this can bring an infected person down.
Melissa Rockliffe, a YCG officer who ran the programme at Campbellville Secondary School, later speaks of how she is moved personally every time she listens to a student discussion like this one. With UNICEF’s support, YCG is able to conduct more such workshops, and build further inroads into student communities like this, all across Guyana. Indeed, from Port Kaituma to central Georgetown, if there is one good reason not to lose hope in the face of the most difficult - even impossible - circumstances, it is the shining brightness, curiosity and motivation of the young people we encounter.
Melissa is motivated to work by the spirit of these young boys and girls; she thinks that they present an overwhelmingly important case for humanity. She’s right. They do.