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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bantu and Braai

I haven’t been able to update the blog at all because our internet went down on Thursday afternoon and remained down until yesterday (Monday) afternoon. As I write it’s down again, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’ll be back before the end of work today.
            We had our first game for Bantu on Saturday (my first, Frisch’s third), and we won 2-1. The team played well in the first half to take a 2-0 lead into half time but we let the other team claw their way back into the game a bit in the second half and they made it 2-1 with about 15 minutes to go. They didn’t threaten too much for the rest of the game but we still didn’t have the same level of play as we’d had in the first half because they were flying around, desperate for a 2nd goal. We head to Hwange this weekend for a match on Saturday so we’re leaving Friday night with the team to stay over because it’s over 200mi northwest of here, near Vic Falls. We might try to stay an extra night to check out a game preserve up there before returning to Bulawayo on our own on Sunday.
            After our game Saturday we went to Luveve, a suburb of Bulwayo, to check out a Zim Premier League match between FC Platinum and Chicken Inn. The teams are named after their sponsors, so Chicken Inn is sponsored by a local fast food restaurant and FC Platinum is owned by a platinum mine (yes, seriously) up near Harare. Understandably, FC Platinum is the wealthiest team in the league so they buy all the best players (locals say they’re the Real Madrid of the Zimbabwean premier league). We drove 20 minutes outside Bulawayo to reach the stadium and when we parked we found the line for tickets was very long. We were with Shep, Wonder, Dube, Nkeke, and Msasa, and the guys decided we should try to sneak in through the gate rather than wait in line. Shep and Dube managed to squeeze through but the rest of us were driven back by an angry Zimbabwean police officer with riot shield and baton. He was swinging the baton furiously and we had to jump out the way. It was pretty wild but effective for clearing the gate so they could let another car through without any spectators sneaking in.
            Since Shep was through he went to the backside of the ticket booth inside the fence, bought 5 tickets, and passed them through the fence. We presented these at the same gate and held onto each other as a mass of people pressed through when the gate opened again, ducking to avoid the police officer’s baton. Once inside the stadium I quickly realized how crazy Zimbabweans are about their soccer. Stadium is a relative term. The seats were built of concrete over 25-foot high berms that enclosed the field. There was a 10-foot fence surrounding the field and fences with barbed wire to separate supporters for different teams. Platinum had a huge group of supporters that the mine had paid to bus down on 3 big coach buses. The score ended with a 1-1 tie but when each team scored, its supporters ran through the stands blowing vuvuzelas and screaming. Nearly all were dressed in their team’s colors and they shouted insults at each other in Ndebele or Shona through fences separating different seating sections. The game itself was not the best display for the premier league. Too many fouls and resulting stoppages killed the flow of the game and made it a pretty boring one. Both teams, but especially Platinum, played a real kick-and-run style. It would be interesting to see a match between two top teams like Highlanders or Caps Utd because the level would probably be better.
            When we returned to our neighborhood we headed to the Kudu Bar for a braai. A braai is an outdoor grilling spot where the business provides the meat, the grill, and the sadza and you cook your own meat. We selected our raw meat – pork, beef, and sausage – at the bar and took it outside to the grills. Wonder and Nkeke grilled the meat to perfection and we had an awesome meal with sadza, meat, and tomatoes and onions. After the meal we went into Bulawayo to catch the Liverpool match at Wonder’s favorite bar, La Gondola. It was our first time out in the city (again, city is a relative term), and the social life revolves around soccer. All Zimbabweans seem to have an EPL team they support passionately and the result is a fun game atmosphere every time.
            Sunday we had some work to do so we took it easy in the morning but in the afternoon Doc came by to pick us up. He took us to his house to watch ManU demolish Arsenal and to “do some work” on our proposal. His wife Linda cooked a delicious meal and it was great to hang out with our boss in his own home for the first time. His family was wonderful and incredibly welcoming. We actually did get some work done on our proposal and set ourselves to finish it up and submit the next day.
            This proposal for the VCT is our first and it’s for our most important project for the year – too bad we didn’t have one proposal to practice on! It will be a gradual process gaining support from multiple donors as we scale up VCT in Bulawayo this year. I wrote a little about it before, but VCT stands for Voluntary Counseling and Testing, and GRS has successfully combined the VCT model with soccer events in Zambia over the last year or so. Our job in our new department under Doc (The department is Health and Local Relations; I am the Health and Research intern, Ale is the Marketing and Business Development Intern) will be to scale up the GRS VCT model in Zimbabwe.
            The GRS VCT model essentially links the normal GRS prevention curriculum to testing and treatment services by holding a soccer tournament at program graduation. GRS brings in community partners to provide HIV testing and other health services at the tournament and make a whole-day community event out of it, with entertainment, soccer games, and workshops. Testing takes place in tents near the field and teams are awarded extra points for testing. Data from Zambia suggest that 60% of GRS curriculum graduates get tested for HIV at these events, which is a great rate because at large in Sub-Saharan Africa it was estimated that only 14% of men and 17% of women were tested and knew their HIV status between 2005-2009. If we can use soccer as a hook and link testing to the prevention curriculum we can complete the loop from education to treatment and more effectively prevent new infections. Preventing new infections is a two-fold process. The first part involves treatment for prevention: by identifying HIV-positive individuals and linking them to treatment and counseling we can not only help them live longer lives but also reduce their chances of passing the virus on to others (ARVs [anti-retroviral medications] lower an individual’s viral load and make them less infectious). The second component involves keeping the HIV-negative individuals negative by connecting them with the health resources they need to protect themselves (family planning, PMTCT [Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission], maternal health, and others).
            The GRS VCT events allow us to address prevention on both fronts by bringing testing and other health services to the communities around Bulawayo and by encouraging GRS graduates to get HIV tested. GRS coaches are trained to do home visits to deliver test results and follow up with HIV-positive individuals through their treatment regimen. We’re calling the Zim VCT program “Linking for Life” and we’ll be linking a new GRS curriculum, Generation SKILLZ, with our VCT tournaments in the hopes of testing nearly 1000 youth for HIV during the next year alone. It’s exciting stuff because we’ve seen the model work very well in Zambia and now we have the chance to help get it up and running in Zimbabwe. We had no internet last Friday so we asked for an extension on the proposal and worked all day yesterday to finish and submit by the end of the day. We’re asking for $15,000 for the first quarter alone from our international partner working out of Bulawayo so let’s hope they liked our proposal!
            Overall it’s been a busy first week or so in Africa and though I miss home, we’ve got a lot going on between our work for GRS and training for Bantu. Thank you again to everyone who has supported my work here. GRS is going to have a tangible impact on HIV transmission and treatment in Bulawayo this year. Thank you for supporting my efforts to be a part of making a difference here.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sadza, Soccer, and VCTs (oh, and power outages)

The last few days have been busy. Yesterday Ale and I went to breakfast with Methembe, Executive Director of GRS Zimbabwe, Doc, team doctor for Bantu and second in charge at GRS here, and Prim, who manages the finances. Breakfast was great and though we began the morning discussing our roles in the organization and how our internships will be structured, talk later turned to bashing each others' Premier League teams, of course. GRS Zimbabwe is at an exciting juncture; we have recently received grants from Barclay's Bank, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Comic Relief, and a few other international organizations. The staff here in Bulawayo has been working hard to hire new coaches as the programs in Bulawayo expand, and they have increased their numbers from around 30 trained coaches to over 100, and we now hiring and training 70 more.
- I may be interrupted here because as I was writing the power went out and wireless internet failed; it appears we've run out of gas for the backup generator. Our neighborhood in Bulawayo has some real issues with electricity. The guard at our lodge, Mattias, says that Zimbabwe has a power shortage and that within the city we must share with other neighborhoods. For example, power was out yesterday when we woke up so we had peanut butter and banana sandwiches with avocado for breakfast. When we got home from soccer practice the power was back on and we even had internet. I was about to update the blog but power failed around 6:30pm and remained off until we wandered downstairs to inquire about dinner around 8:30pm. The housekeeper at our lodge, Esneth, makes some mean sadza and beef, and we've been buying the ingredients so she cooks for us and eats with us along with Mattias. She had almost managed to cook the entire dinner before power went out, but she hadn't yet cooked the sadza, a main ingredient (sadza is a Zimbabwean staple. Made out of cornmeal or "mealie-meal," it is a white and starchy and almost looks like mashed potatoes. However, it's much stickier and tastes like cornmeal. Zimabweans use their right hands to make a ball of sadza and then scoop up the other food on their plate with it- no utensils.) Anyways, there was no sadza so Esneth talked to Mattias and he cooked the sadza over a fire he made out of cardboard boxes, wood, and several plastic bottles. Luckily the cover was on the pot (almost) the whole time. It tasted fine, anyways. The power didn't come back on until I was woken out of a dead sleep by the flourescent lightbulb over my head zapping to life at 1:21am. I turned off the lights and went back to bed, but by morning we had no power again. More peanut butter and bananas and off to training because the coaches decided to train in the morning today to avoid conflict with a social game happening on our training pitch at 3 this afternoon. -
Perfect timing, power's back. As I was saying, GRS Zimbabwe is really expanding and we're bringing in a consultant from the US to oversee everything and be part of our team. She arrives in September, and Ale and I are now part of a new department under Doc. We'll basically be his assistants. Our jobs started almost immediately - after breakfast yesterday we headed across the street to the offices of Children First, an international NGO that works in Zimbabwe to support local organizations working to ease the burden of HIV and AIDS on orphans here. We have partnered with them before on our Gen Skillz curriculum and Doc's job was to broker a new deal and gain their support for our VCT initiative.
VCT stands for Voluntary Counseling and Testing, and it's a GRS initiative that has been extremely successful in Zambia. VCT tournaments link the GRS curriculum to HIV testing by bringing in local partners with HIV testing capacity. In Zambia they have successfully tested up to 1200 people in a single day through VCT tournaments and they managed to test a total of 11,300 just last year.
The concept of VCT tournaments is a novel but very important and effective one. They bring communities together using the power of soccer and GRS implements some of its HIV awareness curriculum for youth at the tournaments throughout the day. Youth teams will go and get HIV tested together, along with their GRS coaches. This helps to combat stigma and most importantly it gives kids, and any other community members who attend the tournament, access to health services they may not normally have. Therefore the tournaments increase access to as well as uptake of the services. The tournaments are often held in poorer areas of town or townships, so that kids who don't have access to the services will now be HIV-tested for the first time.
Once tested, the program doesn't end there - this is a crucial feature of GRS VCT tournaments. The testing partners provide pre- and post- test counseling and then GRS works with other partners such as Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo to link the kids to treatment and youth support groups. Kids who test positive will be enrolled in programs at the hospital which provide ARVs (Anti-Retro Virals, the medicines needed to combat AIDS by combating the HIV virus and keeping viral load low in infected persons) and youth support groups and counseling programs. GRS coaches who have established trust with their students and have also been trained in counseling through another partner organization (Child Line - I got to go to a training session 2 days ago) will follow up on their positive students to make sure they're adjusting okay and taking their medications.
Therefore the VCT tournaments help kids who are negative by combating stigma (making it okay or even cool to test) and hopefully preventing infection through education. They also serve the community by providing access to health services even beyond testing ( community health organization will also provide condoms at these events or hold workshops), and through treatment through prevention (studies show that when infected persons are taking ARVs they are over half as likely to transmit the disease to others because their viral load is maintained at a low level; they will also be healthier and live longer lives, of course!). So VCTs are a win-win and our job was to convince Children First to join us in this venture. They already know about GRS' great work in Bulawayo so they were amenable to the idea and we parted ways yesterday hopeful that the partnership would go through. However, the CF representatives asked for a proposal by Friday so we could get moving on this and it fell to Ale and I to write it - our first assignment! We need to get back to work on it, actually.
But first a quick update on Bantu - Ale and I are playing for a professional team called Bantu Rovers which plays in the Zimbabwean Division 1 league. The league is right below their premier league, and Bantu are currently in 3rd place and fighting for promotion back to the premier league (they were just demoted last year). I trained with the team for the first time on Tuesday and though young, they're very talented, fit, and fast. They had a game on Sunday before I got here and lost 3-1 to the top team in the division which hurt our hopes of promotion this year. However, we have another game this Saturday and Ale and I were both selected to the squad of 18 to dress for the game. I talked to Shepard, our coach, on Tuesday before he saw me play and he said they'd give me two weeks to get fit. However, I had a few decent sessions and he selected me for the game and told me, "you can't start but you need to be ready," so I think there's a chance I'll see the field already. He told us we're playing a big, bruising team with a bunch of policemen on it, so we'll have to play hard to win and keep our promotion hopes alive. Need to get back to work on the proposal! If power allows, I will dutifully update tomorrow. Bantu info:

Monday, August 22, 2011


Finally arrived in Bulawayo! The second-largest city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo is sprawling and dusty and poverty is rampant. The people are incredibly friendly though. I landed in South Africa this morning at 8am (2am Boston time) and hung out in the Johannesburg airport until 10:30am when we boarded a bus (not a plane) at gate A29 and were driven out on the tarmac to our Airlink jet. The smaller jet made it to Bulawayo in less than an hour and a half, and we boarded another bus on the tarmac which drove to a large warehouse - customs!
My immigration went off without a hitch and my bags were even waiting for me at baggage claim (a guy heaving them off the back of a truck). I caught a glimpse of Ale waiting for me outside customs and he and Alfa, one of the guys from GRS, welcomed me to Zimbabwe with helping hands were scrub brush and extremely hot and dusty with taller trees lining the road. People were walking alongside the road carrying things on their heads or driving cattle and there were no buildings in sight for a while.
Once we entered the outskirts of the city there were some mud houses with thatched roofs and then more sturdy structures of concrete block with corrugated iron roofs like I'm used to seeing in central America.
We arrived at the airport road lodge where Ale has a room with adjoining bathroom and shower...not too shabby. The place is clean and it's right around the corner from the GRS offices (literally next door and Ale says he gets the wireless from the office in his room sometimes, it's so close.)
Alfa and Ale introduced me to everyone on the staff and we walked around the corner to get my first Zimbabwean meal - delicious beef stew with sadza (corn meal they use as a utensil by making balls of it and eating the other things with their hand) and covo which is like spinach or kale I guess.
We've spent the afternoon sorting out all our paperwork to apply for business permits to allow us to stay in country long-term so they won't kick us out. Now heading to check out the Bantu training grounds - first practice for me tomorrow at 3:15pm.
Sorry for a boring entry about logistics but it's a start. Great story about Ale buying an ear of corn and eating it solely in order to use the cob as a loofa. He swore the women on the side of the road were selling corn cobs wrapped in plastic mesh to be used for this purpose. He decided he didn't want to scrub with someone else's saliva, so he figured he'd make his own Zimbabwean loofa. Fortune and Kwinji, two girls in the office, just died laughing when he confessed and they explained that the women were selling sponges but they weren't made out of corn cobs. Two weeks and Ale just wants to dive right into the local culture. Way to go. He's been washing himself with a corn cob for a week. Thank goodness I'm here to straighten him out.I only hope I can get off to just as good a start.
I'm going to end it there because the internet is so slow, I type entire paragraphs and then watch my computer type it out over the course of a minute while I watch. Huge delay. That's why I'm not correcting any typos either. Thank you for all the support!