Get Up and Go: Finding a New Way to talk about HIV

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s not often that you are handed a project on a silver platter. But that’s exactly what happened. Just after arriving at my site, my organization was selected to implement a new flagship program. Funded by Barclays Bank and UNAIDS, the Tweende Youth Empowerment Program addresses HIV and other vulnerabilities amongst youth through life skills and financial management.

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High levels of unemployment make youth vulnerable to social ills – substance abuse, risky behaviors, etc – while degrading their confidence and self-worth. Youth don’t feel like they have the skills to change their situations. They are never really taught how to find jobs, how to manage their money, or how to start their own businesses. They don’t know how to create a budget – money that comes in goes right back out again. They don’t appreciate how their choices today can affect their lives tomorrow.

There is some good news though: Youth in Botswana are all entrepreneurs by nature. They know how to hustle, how to make a Pula here and there. Tweende looks to foster these talents and encourage youth to formalize their economic instincts. We want to guide youth towards happier, healthier lives. This is a step towards making a Botswana conducive for youth to grow and prosper.

The drama group performed skits that looked at social ills as well as money.
The drama group performed skits that looked at social ills as well as money.

Tweende is still in its early days; this past weekend we finished with Phase One. Over the last month, Tweende staff held five events, reaching more than 800 youth all around Maun. Instead of pamphlets or lectures, Tweende challenged a local drama group and motivational speakers to reach out to youth. Events were filled with music, dancing, laughter, and healthy debate. These events started the conversation about money – why it’s important, where it comes from, how we use it, and how we lose it.

This week, the team is being trained on Aflateen – a life skills curriculum focused on deepening confidence and knowledge about money. Youth learn about themselves and their place in the wider community. They learn about savings and spending, about enterprises both social and financial. For the next two months, we will focus on training the youth of Maun in this curriculum – preparing them for the next step.

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Phase Three is an intensive training on employability – skills employers look for in their employees. During this we’re also looking to connect youth with opportunities, either job placements or business shadowing. Youth will walk away with some practical experience, and maybe even a job. We’ll follow this up again with entrepreneurship training for those youth who want to strike it out on their own – helping them design and manage a sustainable business and identify opportunities for investment and funding. Our young entrepreneurs will be paired up with business mentors to guide them through the process of starting a small business.

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All of this might sound well and good – but how does this connect to HIV? 

Peace Corps Volunteers in Botswana are all focused on HIV in one way or another, and this project is also supported by UNAIDS. However, the activities all seem to be targeted towards finance. Even the curriculums we are utilizing are weighted this way.

The theory behind this project is that youth will gain more than an income if they are employed. Having an income reduces a person’s vulnerability, but its more than that. Youth will be better positioned to make good choices: they will have the resources and skills to make positive changes in their lives. Youth will have greater ownership over their lives and their health.

The HIV Testing Tent gets set-up before an event.
The HIV Testing Tent gets set-up before an event.

During the first phase of the project we integrated HIV in a traditional way. Each event had an HIV information booth where youth could ask questions about sexual and reproductive health and pick up some condoms (or a lot of condoms). We also brought along our friendly neighborhood HIV Test Counsellors, who set up an HIV testing tent. But we want to go further. HIV has been the hot topic for decades, and it’s time for a new approach.

My fellow Peace Corps Volunteers helped out running the HIV Information Desk.
My fellow Peace Corps Volunteers helped out running the HIV Information Desk.

Tweende provides me an opportunity to delve into something that has interested me since I first arrived in Botswana: the opportunity costs of HIV. By integrating HIV into a business curriculum, we encourage youth to think about their social choices with an economic lens. Knowledge becomes a currency, and their choices are an investment. HIV has a price – not only to each individual but to the community at large. HIV becomes more than a health issue, it becomes an economic issue. And a personal economic issue at that.

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