“It spreads the HIV through play sex.”

I received this phrase as an answer to a question on a test having nothing to do with HIV/AIDS. I knew my work was cut out for me from that point forward.

Being the faculty advisor of the Anti-AIDS Club and a teacher of General Paper (an all-encompassing current events class), I find myself talking about HIV/AIDS quite a bit. Before moving to East Africa, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what AIDS education would look like. I knew a fair amount about the controversial PEPFAR and the differing work of other groups like UNICEF. It turns out when I arrived my expectations were completely off.

I think many people casually brush off the question, “Is HIV/AIDS still such a problem in sub-Saharan Africa?” with the answer, “Oh it’s just lack of education.” But in my experience, I have found it to be exactly the opposite.

As I had gotten to know my students better and after a couple rounds of no-holds-barred question-and-answer sessions about sex, I started to see that my students knew a great deal about HIV/AIDS. It turns out my students not only knew a lot about HIV/AIDS but had been inundated with all sorts of information. At first I was very excited about how much my students knew, but as I listened closer, I was disheartened to hear a confused story of sin, sex and total misunderstanding of what AIDS is and why they should be aware of it. They seem to receive conflicting information from all different sources ranging from school, church and various NGOs. This differing information has students confused about the importance of sex and what HIV/ AIDS is.

In some cases, students can go to church on Sunday where they might be told condoms are only for the unclean, after that go to school on Monday and receive notes about what Rwanda is doing to stop HIV/AIDS while not teaching what HIV/ AIDS is. Then they round out the week with an NGO giving a structured workshop on the ABCs (abstinence, be faithful, use a condom) and a well-organized quiz at the end of the workshop to make sure all the students understand what they learned. This combination of goodwill and differing approaches has created great misfortune for the students’ understanding of HIV/AIDs.

I decided to teach the ABCs to my students, and as we moved through the lesson, I felt that the tides of emotion significantly shifted with each phrase I used. The students were very split on how they felt about the ABCs and as I started to unravel the sea of feelings, I found that all this wound up passion had been completely misguided. You can’t be passionately for or against something if you have completely misconstrued what it means. For example, the term abstinence was completely misunderstood with some students believing abstinence was when someone is physically unable to have sex to others believing abstinence just meant you shouldn’t have play sex. Which begs the question, what other types of sex are there if there is such thing as play sex? It appears my students have been thrown the terms of safe sex on multiple occasions: Almost all of them know what AIDS and HIV stand for as well as the ABCs, but when you get down to asking them the implications of the terms, almost all had incorrect information.

As I spend time trying to dismantle these misguided feelings and move beyond getting answers correct for a quiz, my heart weeps for these children. The unwillingness of both churches and NGOs to compromise on their differing opinions and present a clear image of HIV/AIDS has done more harm than the amount of good they are intending to do. What can we do to bridge this gap besides agree to disagree? These students need a clear picture, and they’re not receiving it right now. What can we do to work together to give students an accurate depiction of sex and the implications of HIV/ AIDS?

I can see that there are huge strides being made by both sides from free HIV/AIDS testing at my school to free distribution of condoms in town,but if we truly want to stop the spread of HIV/ AIDS, we have to come together and give kids a clear picture. I hope and pray that this can become a reality and bring heaven one step closer to earth by eliminating this unforgiving virus.