I know, I know. I suck at updating my blog. I’m one of those people who love to read other people’s blogs but I’m too lazy to update my own. In fact, I had to force myself to sit down and actually write this darn thing. It’s not like I don’t enjoy doing it per se-- I theoretically love to keep people updated on my no-one-really-knows-what-she’s-doing life in Botswana. It’s just that I want to write about my time here right, and do it justice. I was actually reading a blog that I had started a month ago (sitting half-done on my desktop), but I’ve actually scrapped it and decided to start fresh. So now, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to let you in on what I’m actually doing here, and my work at Baylor.
Recap: The Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence (AKA Baylor) is a pediatric HIV clinic in Gaborone, the capital. It’s a joint project between the government of Botswana and BIPAI (Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative), which is a subset of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston (which is actually a pretty big deal in terms of med schools, and was even name-checked in “Grey’s Anatomy”... true story). In 2003, Botswana was the first African country to offer free antiretrovirals (ARVs) to all HIV-positive citizens, and Baylor has over 2,000 patients up to age 19 who come in for their (usually monthly) appointments. And Baylor is without a doubt the biggest clinic in the country to provide treatment. On a big scale, they distribute about 1/6th of the country’s pediatric ARV needs. On the small scale, when I make it to the office at 7 30 (which has happened about twice, since I usually stroll in groggy-eyed closer to 8), the clinic is completely full. Every day. About 75 people work here, including doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers... you name it. Where do I come in, you ask? As many of you know, I am not trained in any of these highly specialized fields (nor do I ever want to be), but Baylor offers so much more than just medical care. They really try to provide as many services as they can to their patients, and really just let them be kids. There is a morning playgroup for some of the younger kids waiting for their appointments, and then there is Teen Club, which is dedicated to the care and support of HIV-positive adolescents ages 13-19. One Saturday a month, teenage Baylor patients come to the clinic where we set up activities, sometimes of a fun nature or sometimes more of a session... it usually has an educational component though. In Gabs, Teen Club is the last Saturday of the month, and over 150 kids come of the 600 that are patients. Teen Club has expanded drastically over the past two years, and now has satellite sites in 5 other cities (we pair up with the local NGO and hospital to get referrals) where we reach over 400 teens. I find it hard to believe, but Teen Club is the only organization in Botswana dedicated to the care and support of HIV-positive adolescents. Kids will literally move here from 12 hours away, living with extended family instead of at home, to get treatment at Baylor.
Now, for my specific work. My job title is (drumroll, please)... Fundraising and Marketing Project Assistant. Yes, sounds really exciting. But Teen Club, while it is housed in Baylor and made up of Baylor patients, doesn’t actually get funding from the clinic itself. So in that regard, its an NGO. Any funding we do get comes from donors. And guess whose job it is to make sure Teen Club gets funding??? Yup. Well to be fair, my boss Ed does/did most of the proposal writing, and we’ve got fairly stable funding at the moment from Barclays and Unicef, so it’s not like we’ll go under if we don’t write proposals for a month. But a) Teen Club is really try to expand and reach so many teens; and b) Ed’s last day is in about 2 weeks, and I’m the only one left in the office who was hired to do the funding stuff. I made it clear even before I left though that I didn’t want to be that girl stuck behind a computer while everyone else gets to do the fun stuff. And luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), I have to do a bit of everything. Besides attending Teen Clubs, I help plan them, as well as the gazillion of other projects that Teen Club has going on.
So what have I gotten to do so far? Well, right when I arrived in mid-June, Teen Club was in the midst of planning its first-ever fundraising event, which was happening two weeks after I started work. That involved lots of ticket selling on my part, which wasn’t that enjoyable, but the actual event (which was World Cup-themed) went off quite well and we made a bit of money. After that... it was a whole lotta nothing for two weeks. I literally wasted away. And then all of a sudden... POW! It all started at once. Before I get to that though, let me explain what staffing is like. Teen Club itself has maybe 10 or 11 people—only 3 of those are hired. And most are short-term volunteers, usually Students Without Borders (3 month volunteers) from WUSC. So when I arrived, they had been there a while and so they go to do all of the juicy stuff. But soon, their contracts were coming to an end and my boss was leaving, so everything was eventually getting passed down to me. Which I don’t mind, but it keeps me awfully busy. For the past two weeks, I was coordinating and doing most of the writing (but not the budget, thank god) for a huge 2 million pula Proposal to the National AIDS Coordinating Agency (NACA). They fund our Multiple Concurrent Partnerships (MCP) Campaign, which I’ll talk about in my next entry. But basically we hold sessions at our Teen Clubs, as well as at other sites, providing education which prevents teens from having multiple sexual partners, since this contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS. This proposal included the running of sessions, trainings, procurement, and even job salaries. So I had to get this right. Luckily, I was working with a few other awesome people, and we handed in our draft (107 pages and counting) on Friday. And when we were done, my Associate Director, a Johns-Hopkins educated, former Assistant Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine who’s written a bunch of important articles, said to me “This is the first big grant you’ve ever written, right? I’m really impressed with your work and how you’ve coordinated everything. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought we were in Houston and you’ve been doing this for 10 years”. I must admit, I felt pretty good about myself then.
Now that I’ve gotten most of the semantics out of the way, I want to get to the real stuff, which mostly has to deal with the amazing teens that I get to work with. People have been asking me whether the work I’m doing is really difficult or sad. Well, yes and no. I technically get to see the teens when they’re healthy, since they’re all on ARVs and take good care of themselves. Sometimes, I completely forget that they even have HIV altogether. What’s difficult to deal with, when I really think about it, is thinking of how much pain these kids have gone through. Where Baylor is unique is that most of the patients were perinatally infected i.e. they were born with HIV. So chances are, their parents had HIV as well. I won’t ask, but I’m almost positive that most of them have lost at least one parent to HIV, if not both. They’ve also probably lost aunts/uncles, teachers, and other members of their adult support system. In fact, you don’t see many older teens (I’d say 17-19) in Teen Club, because many of them died before the national rollout of ARVs; I would say the average age is about 14 or 15. What’s potentially worse than all of that is the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS here, which I don’t get at all. Over 26% of the population is HIV-positive (giving Botswana the second-highest HIV prevalence in the world, after Swaziland), yet it’s so taboo to even talk about. Most of the teens, even the most involved ones, haven’t disclosed their status to a single person outside of their immediate family. People die all the time, and no one will talk about their cause of death, only saying “they got sick”. And HIV is a part of their lives every single day... they never get a break from it. Even when they’re healthy, they are reminded of it through school lessons, TV commercials and billboards... it’s just everywhere, they can’t escape it. And that’s why Teen Club is so important; it gives HIV-positive teens, who already have to struggle with the challenges of growing up compounded with their illness, the chance to really be themselves and see that they are not alone in their struggles. It really hit home the other day at dinner, where I was informed that while Baylor in Houston loses at least 1 patient a month, Botswana-Baylor has never lost one Teen Club members since it has started. The kids really see it as a safe place to be, but more than that, they pick up on the cues of others and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Now, about the teens themselves. Firstly, a disclaimer. I will never, by blog or in person, mention the teens by name or get into the details of their personal lives. HIV is such a highly sensitive topic here that confidentiality at Baylor is essential—and plus, they trust me and I feel I owe it to them to respect that trust. I can say though, that they are a very special group of kids. While it’s nearly impossible to get to know 150 kids (plus the kids at the other Teen Clubs, which I will likely to get to visit before I leave), I have gotten to know some. In particular, I have gotten to know the Teen Leaders fairly well. At Baylor they elect teens who are committed to a transmission-free lifestyle and act as role models for the other kids. They help plan the activities, and they are really the driving force behind the whole thing because they probably have more influence than anyone else at the clinic. They just set the best possible example for the other teens at Baylor. Anyways, there are 10 of them (5 boys, 5 girls) ranging from 15-19 and they devote so much of their time to the clinic. And they’re like my extended brothers and sisters, especially some of the older male teens that I met early on in my stay here. I can be pretty ruthless and mean to them, but they take it quite well. I’m fairly certain that quite a few of them have a crush on me though (haha), which has been interesting as of late. Anyways, I’d never admit it to their face (since that goes against the idea of me being mean to them), but they have all inspired me immensely. They’ve had tragedy after tragedy thrown their way, and they put my petty issues to shame.
But with the help of Teen Club, they’ve risen above it—they are the definition of “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade”. I’ve never been more grateful for all of my blessings in life.
There’s so much I want to say, but I couldn’t possibly describe in detail everything that’s been going on. My next blog (which I may or may not finish tonight) will be a crash course in everything HIV, it’s one that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. In other news, all of my roommates (who were all SWB volunteers) have left, so it’s just me in the house by myself . But new volunteers are coming in September, including Jonathan... woohoo! I can’t wait to see a familiar face. And thesis... I don’t want to talk about it.
P.S. “Teen Club Ya Chesa”= Teen Club is Hot. It’s the slogan and it’s awesome.