The second year of the youth camp included music, dance and drama, group discussions and practical skills development to help the vulnerable adolescents psychosocially and economically.
By Karl Mikkelsen
Like most 15-year-olds, Timothy has a big dream for his future.
“Music is my life. I know a lot of music, and one day, I will become a musician,” the young Ugandan proudly exclaimed.
Timothy is also HIV-positive and a client of Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative in Kampala. He was one of approximately 70 other young clients who attended Reach Out’s “Power of Hope” camp for HIV-positive youth and adolescents from the 30th of January to the 3rd of February.
The camp sought to increase the adolescents’ psychosocial wellness, reduce stigma, and empower the youth with psychosocial and economic skills they could use in the future. Activities included group dances, songs, and skits about life with HIV and stigma, and the youth gained practical skills in candle-making and arts and crafts, helping combat high rates of youth unemployment in Uganda.
Reach Out Mbuya community workers have noted that some HIV-positive youth experience neglect at home or are rarely praised by their family members. The camp thus aimed to help the adolescents build self-esteem through recognizing youth for their participation in activities and teaching them that everyone has valuable qualities. The camp also included small group discussions on positive living with HIV and adherence to ARV drugs.
On Monday morning, the adolescents were split into five groups and were instructed to come up with a group name and slogan. One group proposed the name “Eagles” and the slogan was quick to follow: “We are winners!”
Team Eagles had approximately 15 members ranging from 12-22 in age. Their group leader Anna, a Reach Out Mbuya volunteer and Camp Peer, made sure that everyone was involved.
Next, the groups each created a song about positive living with HIV. Team Eagles worked together, concentrating on rhyming lines. Step by step, they created a song. Some of the younger and shyer adolescents began to open up. Team leader Anna made sure that everyone could relate to the song, which highlighted the positive aspects of life for the group members living with HIV.
Participants then created skits about stigma in an everyday situation. Team Eagles’ skit told the story of a teacher revealing that a pupil had HIV in front of other students. Afterward, the other pupils did not want to sit close to that HIV-positive classmate. The skit ended with a Reach Out Mbuya community worker coming into the classroom to talk to the students about HIV and the dangers of stigma. The classmate was then allowed back into their friend-group and everything ended happily.
After the various groups had prepared their songs and skits, they presented them in front of each other. The skits told various stories of someone with HIV experiencing stigma. Some of the characters were excluded by family members or friends, while others were too scared to visit a doctor, even though they were dying. Stories like these are unfortunately also taking place in real life for many HIV-positive clients.
Reach Out Mbuya shares the UNAIDS 90-90-90-goal where by 2020, 90% of people living with HIV know their status, 90% of people with HIV are in antiretroviral treatment, and 90% of people in antiretroviral treatment have undetectable viral loads, which means HIV-infection is undetectable in their blood. In 2014, UNAIDS estimated that just 10% of young men and 15% of young women aged 15-24 living in sub-Saharan Africa were aware of their HIV status.
Reach Out Mbuya strives to increase youth HIV testing through reaching out to adolescents in their schools and communities and initiating an adolescents-only clinic day once a month. Those who test positive then benefit from ROM’s youth programs, such as this camp and a monthly support group, where participants learn the importance of adherence to ARV drugs and how to reduce stigma. Activities such as skits and songs focused on positive living with HIV help Reach Out Mbuya work toward the goal of 90% of people on antiretroviral treatment having undetectable viral loads.
Economic strengthening and job creation for youth: bead and candle-making
Thursday was a day full of practical activities, aimed to empower the adolescents’ skills in bead and candle-making. The young clients spent several hours learning bead-making, creating beautiful necklaces and armbands. They were proud to display them for photos, and several of the youth even made beaded gifts for each other.
After bead-making, a trainer demonstrated how to weave the candle wick onto a candle-holder, which could make 36 candles at a time. The trainer asked for a volunteer from the onlooking crowd, and 15-year-old Timothy was quick to jump into the center of the circle. He demonstrated how to use a panga to chop the big block of wax lying on the floor.
When the block had been chopped into small pieces, the participants placed it into a large kettle within a big metal basin full of water, resting on a fire. Approximately 40 minutes later, the wax was melted and ready to be poured into the candle-holder. The wax dried and hardened inside the candle-holder, and within a few minutes the candles were ready to be removed. On the table lay 36 blue candles, ready to be lit.
When the candles had been safely packed away, it was time for a more energetic activity involving both the adolescents and the ROM staff. Loud music blared from the massive speakers in the main hall, and everyone jumped up and started dancing. The adolescents were laughing and showing off their best dance moves. The main hall turned into a dance club – a club full of Reach Out youth clients dancing together with Reach Out staff and Youth Peers.
“They are free here, they are all [HIV] positive – not like in school,” one attendee, 20-year-old Vivian, said. “The day I chose to accept my [HIV] status was the day I felt free.”