Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Friends Corner AIDS Training

“It was done through official channels, and half-heartedly. What they’re short on is imagination. Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for the common cold. If we let them carry on like this they’ll soon be dead, and so shall we.”
- Albert Camus, The Plague

I always like to start these logs off on a pleasant note. After reading The Plague and the latest Newsweek, I feel like stabbing at my eyeballs with chopsticks, so I’ll try to keep this light.

The national response to AIDS in Thailand, in terms of preventative education, is something like Camus would expect- half-hearted and inadequate. It’s a serious need in my own village, where there are plenty of health professionals interested and motivated to work with AIDS, but without the support from schools and government sources.

When my counterpart, Tuum, asked me if I could help her design a project to motivate youths to take a more active role in educating their peers, I jumped at the chance. Her idea was to ask 39 youth volunteers (3 per village) to train their peers and villagers in the areas of sex, AIDS, and life skills. The entire project would take place over the next year, and the initial training was last month at the Army Barracks of Khon Kaen. Here’s what happened…

Whenever any kind of official event takes place in Thailand, the couch people are there. They come alone, or in twos and threes, but never more than can sit on two cheap, plastic loveseats. I have been at official events in every major region of Thailand except the South, and have seen the exact same couches every time. While everyone else sits either on cheap chairs or the floor, the same blue grey couches with accompanying black, glass coffee table are present everywhere. Sporting the blue-grey scheme of my old Ford Tempo, these couches offer the greatest amount of class that 1,500 baht can buy.

Who sits at the couches? Not you.

If you want an elected official, principal, senator, parliament member, policeman, doctor, fundraiser, etc. to come to your event, you better have the couch set. And if you really want to show them how appreciative you are of their presence, here’s a tip- why not send the white guy over there to serve them cold water? Don’t forget the coaster.

The lives of couch people are like their seat, which is to say, comfortable. The uniform of the couch people is the formal Thai shirt. It’s a short-sleeve shirt that tries to be a suit- the result of trying to tailor a shirt of class, formality, and expense in the hottest climate imaginable. Each and every couch persons’ hands are adorned with gold watches and massive, tacky rings that can be redeemed at the Jersey shore with 2,000 points of coupons from Skee-ball. But in Thailand, tacky equals flashy equals wealthy equals respect. And it’s this select group of people who you need to open your project, or for that matter, to have a project at all.

Usually rolling into the event fifteen minutes to an hour late, they can be counted on to take up an inordinate amount of time opening your event. Entire mornings of scheduled education have been lost to the couch person with a microphone. The spectators don’t try very hard to hide their inattention, either, usually yawning or making telephone calls during the introduction. Despite not understanding most of what he’s saying, I’ll try to pay attention by watching the couch person’s mouth moving incessantly, accomplishing little. I find the experience very similar to when I used to feed my dog peanut butter.

At my training the President of my TAO was able to come and offer his thoughts of our project. Thirty minutes late, shirt, rings and formality strolled through the doors of the Army Barracks meeting hall.

“We don’t have any couches,” said Tuum, “or a microphone.” I could see from her face that she honestly didn’t know what was going to happen.

In the next fifteen minutes, the President of my TAO went on to shock the entire audience by speaking succinctly, informatively, and let’s even go as far as to say eloquently, about our project. Unplugged! Students turned off their telephones, no one fell asleep, and we started our training on time. This was turning out to be a great training.

To make the students more comfortable talking about sex in an unfamiliar environment, Tuum began the first day with a session on slang. She gathered them in teams to create an all-inclusive list of sex slang words. Some of my Thai friends from the TAO and I made our own list, and in a dashing display of linguistic ability (or emotional immaturity), my list was the longest and probably the most offensive. Certainly a proud day for me and my family.

Over the next two days, the community nursing staff gave a training written mostly by another PCV’s counterpart, and a Thai NGO called Teen Path. They incorporated games and singing to keep the event upbeat. As essential as the couches to any event are the drums and tambourine, which was quickly usurped by a nurse who seemed genuinely disappointed I was playing it incorrectly.

The last day of the training was spent in groups talking about community networking. In the future, these 39 student leaders will have offices next to the community nursing stations in their villages. What services would they like to provide there? How would they like to train their peers? What other organizations could they collaborate with? The results of these sessions were mostly what we expected. The leaders all had a pretty good idea what they wanted out of the project, and what they needed to make it successful. An interesting surprise we got was when two different groups asked to be able to give information on abortions, and where they can be performed. Abortion is illegal in Thailand, and my nurses are strictly against the practice, so this created somewhat of a stir. “What do you think we should do,” the nurses asked me the next day. “I have no opinion,” I answered. But I will certainly enjoy writing my completion report and telling the US gov’t that I just created a volunteer group that is handing out condoms and wants to advertise abortions. Anyone want to bet this is my last project?

One of the advantages of training at an Army base is that we were granted access to a trial of the obstacle course. We separated into groups and made our way to our respective stations, ranging from the log walk to the rope swing. We negotiated obstacles, laughing and enjoying ourselves, me hoping all the while that around the next corner would be Nitro or Blade waiting for me behind a tennis-ball machine gun. Then, the smiles just leaving our faces after the previous activity, we came to the barbed wire mud pit.

Apparently the soldiers didn’t see anything odd, or maybe even sadistic, about making students crawl upside-down through a mud course covered with barbed wire. While I stood by taking pictures, amazed that this was even an option, the kids made it through, one by one, hating life for a few minutes. "There are red everywhere!" they cried. After that obstacle was completed, we were told that the remaining five obstacles were closed down. Apparently the flamethrower evasion drill was closed for repairs.

The camp’s success remains to be seen in that the future village trainings are really our measure of effectiveness. Hopefully the student leaders picked up enough during the three days to help their friends understand AIDS and feel more comfortable about sex education in general. The training itself was similar to what students would receive if they were actually subjected to AIDS education in Thai schools. Hopefully the hospital, TAO, and schools can start to work together more frequently in this area. Officialdom, despite Camus’ caution, is our only option in PC Thailand, but thankfully, imagination is one of the only tools PCVs come equipped with.

P.S.- more about PC Thailand’s work with HIV/AIDS can be viewed at www.pcthailandgigs.org, a resource website we created for PCVs in Thailand and other PC countries.

All the photos from this event can be viewed at my flickr page.

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