Small changes in culture, big steps in prevention

Global Service Corps’ HIV trainings make way for small changes in culture that lead to big steps in prevention

Just two weeks ago — mid-February 2012 — Global Service Corps took an unusual but timely break during one of its Arusha Region trainings in the remote Maasai village of Kilimatinde.  The circumcision ceremony that all Maasai boys and their life-long peers anticipate throughout childhood was about to kick off their initiation to manhood.

Donor funds enabled HIV/AIDS information to reach hundreds of Maasai families in 19 hard-to-reach Arusha Region villages, through GSC trainings that address Maasai lifestyle-unique challenges to prevention.

Maasai male circumcision happens just once every seven years and involves all community members in celebrations and ceremonies started centuries ago.  The peer-group of males who together go through rites of passage will become their communities’ new generation of protective morani (warriors).  They are young males (ranging in age from 14 to over 20) who have either not reached puberty or been part of a previous circumcision group. One tradition requires the honored young males to endure circumcision without numbing, medication, or show of pain.  Another calls for continuous use of only one knife that remains unwashed throughout the ceremony, making each youth vulnerable to HIV through the blood of an infected peer cut before him.  The expected activity of the newly circumcised involves them in sexual partnerships with unmarried girls and without use of condoms, which puts not only the males but all the community’s young people deeply at risk of HIV infection.

Maasai are some of the people most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.  One reason is that their unique lifestyle and culture keep them out of geographic reach while they are also unrepresented by population groups that international aid and national governments generally target through high-impact communication campaigns.  But like all populations whose at-risk behaviors can vary from one to the next, the Maasai require education and training designed to address challenges specific to their lifestyle and ways of sharing information.

These Kilimantide youth wear the traditional dress that identifies the members of the 2012 circumcision peer group. The siblings and parents of many group members participated in GSC’s HIV prevention community and classroom trainings. They hold the promise for change that sharing information offers.

Thanks to generous donations, Global Service Corps has lead lifestyle and cultural-specific HIV/AIDS prevention trainings (that address high-risk circumcision practices, for example) in 19 Maasai villages across Northern Tanzania’s Arusha Region.  Community and school trainings are designed and lead by Global Service Corps’ Tanzanian staff, many of whom are Maasai themselves.  All encourage and build skills among adults and students to share their new HIV/AIDS information with family, peers and other community members — information that shows the relationship between HIV-infection and cultural traditions like those of the circumcision ceremonies celebrated last month.

It’s too early to measure the impact of Global Service Corps trainings on changing traditions that affect HIV transmission (with knife cleaning between circumcisions, for example).  But in all of the 19 Maasai villages GSC has held trainings to date, there were community members and students who acknowledged the importance of changing behaviors and identified people with whom they could share their new knowledge – and that’s a big step toward HIV/AIDS prevention for generations to come.

-Kim B., Tanzania Semester Abroad Faculty

These Kilimatinde secondary schoolers are now part of the more than 700 Arusha-Region students now equipped to teach their peers, friends and families HIV/AIDS facts and prevention strategies to limit HIV/AIDS and its impacts on their communities.

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