‘Pssst Pssst, Azungu Azungu!’ is shouted over at us as we step out the door to board the minibus to work. This morning call is heard often from the bicycle taxi operators who work outside...

The half way point has soon approached out here in Malawi, so it’s about time to let everyone know what we are doing! I believe that everyone has the right to information on sexual reproductive health (SRH), irrespective of age, gender or wealth. Here at THAO Mzuzu, this is exactly what we address. Our job as peer educators is to deliver sessions on SRH related issues to bicycle taxi operators and students at both private and public secondary schools in the northern city of Mzuzu.

Team Kusintha with Progressio staff Thomas and Mercy and THAO staff Oswald and George

‘Zina lane ndine Laura. Ndine wakujiipereka ku Tovwirane kuno ku Mzuzu.’ In more comprehendible terms for those non-Tumbuka readers this means ‘My name is Laura and I work for Towvirane in Mzuzu’. With this statement often arises cries of laughter, cheers and general uproar from the audience. This is either surprise at the Mzungu (white person) speaking the local vernacular, or that rural ‘twang’ I’ve been said to possess! Anyway, this is a glimpse into what we do. We introduce ourselves, present our peer education sessions and at the end we do referrals to SRH services and, in the case of bicycle taxi operators, hand out free condoms.

At schools we focus on abstinence as the best preventative measure. With bicycle taxi operators we focus on being faithful to one partner and/or correct and consistent condom use ('condomise'). It’s as simple as A B C- abstain, be faithful and condomise. There are four main topics we teach about; HIV & AIDS, STIs, HTC (HIV testing and counselling) and positive living. However, this doesn’t mean that we are limited and there is room for us to modify our presentations as we see fit. For example, our group noted that VMMC (voluntary medical male circumcision), a topic encompassed within the HIV and AIDS section, to be a very important preventative measure and one which both youths in schools and bicycle taxi operators have little to no knowledge of. We therefore decided to make it a stand-alone section in our presentations. Kate and Ikram also tried incorporating true or false and catch games into their presentations and now we all use these techniques within our sessions. At times it is difficult because there isn’t always as much to do as we would like, but the flexibility of THAO has without a doubt enabled us to get creative in order to teach how we want and to manipulate the information into a way we are all happy with and feel comfortable to present.

Ikram taking referrals from youths in a local secondary schools

In our 'free’ work time (when we aren’t out in the field presenting one of the many sessions booked by our community liaisons Mphatso and Leah) we conduct language and learning lessons in the office as we endeavour to know more about the culture here in Malawi, to learn more of the local language Chitumbuka and ensure we have enough knowledge of SRH issues to answer questions!

Now for the personal aspect of this blog. What do I think of our project? Well, from the girl who giggled at the word penis growing up I’d say I’ve personally come a long way since then. There isn’t much else quite like standing in front of a class of up to 100 and trying to convince the boys to get circumcised, or how important it is to be tested for HIV. But then, knowing you’ve imparted some knowledge to an audience who otherwise may not have received it, and who are often very grateful in return, is very rewarding. The bicycle taxi operators who used to call ‘Azungu!’ at us now call us by names or say, ‘remember me?’ when they see us around the city. And when we get referrals (students/bicycle taxi operators asking to go to a SRH service), the daily sense of achievement is never higher. Having spoken to the Minister of VMMC in Mzuzu and hearing that six people we referred after our sessions have already undergone the surgery, the team couldn’t have a greater high! And that’s what I mean, in my application to ICS I said that ‘I didn’t expect to change the world in three months’, but it’s those little achievements that make it all worth it.

Working for a sexual reproductive health charity comes with its own set of challenges. Working abroad comes with a whole set of others: cultural differences, the Malawian time schedule and individual struggles. But without these challenges our experience wouldn’t be the same.

As we endeavour into our last half of the placement things are changing. We are all becoming more confident in delivering our presentations and developing them day by day, we are getting ready for our special project focusing on VMMC, and the bicycle taxi operators are calling 'Azungu!' less and less. Because, well, that’s just THAO Team Kusintha do it!

Tiwonanenge (See you later!)

Written by ICS volunteer Laura Cullen