Wednesday, 19 May 2010


I just spent the week chaperoning 50 high school-age boys in Maputo for the annual JOMA Conference. That said, this particular post is not for anyone under the age of 18. Period.
Allow me to explain.

JOMA, or Jovens para Mudança e Acção (Young People for Change and Action), is a Peace Corps-initiated national youth organization that aims to raise awareness in gender issues in general and HIV/AIDS prevention in specific through mediums such as theater, journalism, music and art. At the Instituto Agrario, I have a theater group of ten guys, and we perform short (largely what you might consider improv) pieces that tackle some pretty sticky topics (but my guys are pretty hilarious, so they make it fun, too. I can almost understand all their jokes. Sometimes.). For the conference, I took my co-sponsor and two of my top students, Aniceto and Jaime.

Following the organization’s theme, the conference focused on gender and sexual health. But not quite in the same way we receive sex ed in the states. Oh no. This is Moçambique. Sub-Saharan Africa. Where the average sexual debut is 14 (the age of many attendees) and the HIV/AIDS rate is 27 percent. (My province, Gaza, has the highest rate, with 40 percent of death attributed to AIDS.) A local health organization was at the conference to administer HIV/AIDS testing. All but one student (remember, these are high schoolers) took the test. We don’t know the results but given that statistics, in that room of 42 boys and 6 girls, you can’t help but wonder. And wonder who just took the test anyway.

I remember having sex education in health class. I also remember the kinds of things I was seriously worried about at the age of 14. Things like breaking up with that boyfriend I didn’t actually talk to and whether I wanted chili cheese fries or taquitos for lunch topped the list. Condom negotiation with boyfriend(s) and getting tested regularly for HIV/AIDS did not. Probably couldn’t have explained it to you if I’d tried, actually. That said, I also learned a lot and had discussions with people I’d just met about things that I probably wouldn’t discuss with my best friend.

The goal of the conference is not only to impress these issues on the students, of course, but to help them in their efforts to share this information in their schools and communities. The conference was the fun part; now the real work begins.

Of course, the conference also included strengths-building activities, leadership training, team building activities, and Trust Falls, Chubby Bunny, Spiderweb Crawl, relay races and pool time. They’re facing very adult topics, but they’re still very much kids.

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