Youth simply do not want to be associated with the stigma of HIV.

We quickly realised after arriving in Nkhotakota, why our organisation had put such emphasis on trying to involve more youth in its activities. We attended several HIV support groups in the early weeks without meeting a single young person. The verdict seemed to be unanimous – the youth simply do not want to be associated with the stigma of HIV. Those living with HIV positive status were avoiding situations which might link them with the condition for fear of others finding out. Misconceptions about HIV within the wider community seem to be largely to blame and the ignorance of others means that young people affected are frightened about being open about their status.

Secrecy is how HIV keeps spreading.

It was clear that something needed to change but that seemed like an impossible task. We often heard from the older women at support groups that young people living with HIV are most afraid about their friends’ reactions and worry about getting teased and bullied, which seemed to be a fairly common occurrence. Another big concern for them is that they wouldn't get married if people knew. The problem with this fear of speaking out is that it leads to secrecy and we heard from one Peer Educator that this is how HIV keeps spreading. Young people don’t want to say anything and then get into relationships and continue to keep quiet. In that relationship, there is no acknowledgement of the virus or discussion about preventing the transmission of it, so it then spreads.

We decided that we wanted to target youth at our community HIV and AIDS awareness campaign. It seemed like tackling the issue in a neutral setting, where there are both HIV positive and negative young people, would be the most effective tactic. Our in-country volunteers (ICVs) had mentioned how popular talent shows are in the area. This kind of event seemed perfect for raising awareness as it would draw a large number of young people from the local area and would also send a message of empowerment as youth showcased their talents on the stage.

We distributed flyers about our HIV and AIDS awareness talent show, put up posters within the community and even made a jingle for the local radio which was played several times a day. The young people of Nkhotakota were left with no doubt as to what this talent show was all about which was a risk because we’d heard that if youth thought the event was going to be too preachy, they’d be put off - especially with regards to something as sensitive as HIV and AIDS.

Even if just one person decided to get tested, that would be a good result.

We thought it would be really beneficial to have a pop-up VCT booth at our event. Even if just one person decided to get tested, that would be a good result. So, we met with the Nkhota-kota District Health Officer and arranged for seven counsellors to join us and set up private counselling rooms during the talent show, with a target of testing 50 people by the end of the event.

Our four ICVs really knew our district and were instrumental in sorting out the venue, hiring equipment and Kuuzy, one of the ICVs, even acted as Master of Ceremonies (MC) which was received really well by the crowd and our Field Officer delivering an inspiring awareness talk.

The show itself couldn’t have been better. We were spoilt for talent, with over 30 live acts including dancers, singers and poets. It was difficult for the judges to even start to think about a shortlist of the best performers but three in particular caught their eye.

Francis (20), Prince (18) and Wezzie (18) have lived in Nkhotakota their whole lives but often feel disenchanted with it, as there is little for young people to do and life can sometimes be boring. They look forward to community events where they can share their collective passion for music but they are few and far between. 

'The talent show has already had a positive impact on my life.'

Francis had never considered performing by himself and he was really worried about what people might think of his act. The audience loved his rapping and so did the judges, choosing him as one of the winners. He was elated to be chosen, saying “The talent show has already had a positive impact on my life. Coming along and coming second place has made me realise how good I am at what I do. I now feel encouraged to continue and pursue my music”. He added, “This type of thing should happen more frequently to stop people from going around and doing sexual activities, rather than using their talents for something good.”

'It's a good idea to go and get tested...Not knowing your status is living like you're blind.'

Prince and Wezzie also had their singing talents recognised, both coming in the top five. Wezzie, the only female performer of the show, exclaimed “The talent show was great! I didn’t feel shy when I was on stage. I gained a lot of confidence.” But the show went beyond simply being an opportunity to perform for her. She, like many other young people in Malawi, always has in the back of her mind the very real risk of contracting HIV – “You never know. Even if you have borrowed a razor, you may have gotten HIV” - so she decided it was the right time to get tested at the show. Even though it was a frightening prospect, she said, “It’s a good idea to go and get tested because when you get there, you know your status. Not knowing your status is living like you’re blind. Knowing your status means you know what you need to do to be right in the future. If it wasn’t for the talent show that day, I probably would not have gone for HIV testing.”

Meeting a week after the show, the three friends seemed excited and motivated. They want to get involved in organising a similar event now to help inspire and educate their fellow youth. “We did not realise so many people had talent in the district,” Prince said. Now it’s time to make the most of it. Luckily the judges have been on hand to offer tips – following the show, the trio have even recorded a song with Chido and Robbie, CC and DJ Tables and Chairs!

We had exceeded our target and 51 young people got tested for HIV.

Since the event, the ICS volunteers have also been approached by other young people who came along to watch. More questions have been asked about exactly what it is we do with the Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (COWLHA) and there has definitely been an increase in interest about getting involved. A report was also delivered from our incredible counsellors which confirmed that we had exceeded our target and 51 young people got tested for HIV during the show, 90% of which were under 25. We couldn’t have been happier with the outcomes – increased youth participation in activities surrounding HIV and AIDS awareness was our key objective for our community awareness and so far, it looks like the talent show really did have an impact in this area.

By Team COWLHA Malawi