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The last few months have been rather intense, both personally and professionally. Change is always a difficult thing to go through, but sometimes you just have to embrace it and hold on.

With less than a month to go before World AIDS Day, we’re full steam ahead to deliver one of our most integrated campaigns yet – if all goes according to plan. It’s also a new programming format for us, mixing reality style with documentary type story lines. I wish I could say it’s an obs-doc, but it’s not quite, not yet…

Coupled with this one hour special is a dedicated website, which we hope will be a one-stop destination for young people needing to find out all they need about testing and/or living with HIV.

I have to admit this format and indeed this website has been a goal of mine for awhile. When I first lost my brother in 2006, a change started in me, regarding the type of messages I thought we should be communicating to the audience, yes putting across the use the condom message was still important but it wasn’t enough (and I’m simplifying the messages we put across, it was more than just use a condom).

In 2009 when I lost my other brother, I knew it was time to change things up.

I still believe it’s important to put across the more positive, inclusive message of you can live a healthy, productive life with HIV, but I also think we can’t shy away from some of the more negative aspects of living with HIV. Like with any terminal illness there are good and bad days. And with the bad times, it affects everyone who loves you. Never before did the saying ‘if you’re not infected, you’re affected’ resonate with me than when I lost my brother. And even now, as I watch other relatives battling with the virus.

And so the process to tell the real stories of young people living with HIV began earlier this year. Do I think we’ve got it right? Well, I’ll let you guys be the judge of that, come December 1st.

I think there are so many stories to be told that what we’ve started is just the tip of the iceberg and it shouldn’t end here. Ultimately Me, Myself and HIV, should resonate with young people already living with the virus, but also give an opportunity for someone to walk in the shoes of one of these kids (they’re early 20s, hardly kids I suppose), for just one day. It’s not about pity, it’s not about differences, it’s much more about similarities, with that extra layer of HIV to complicate some things.

Look out for it – coming to a screen near you – on December 1st.

Another interesting day in the office that led to the topic of masturbation. It actually started by talking about women in their late 20s never experiencing an orgasm and how possible that was. Which led to the debate about how believable (or not, as the case might be) that some women don’t masturbate.

I personally am a big advocate for masturbation. I think that it teaches people to appreciate their bodies – you have to touch yourself, which some people find weird – and it’s also a great form of safe sex. It’s also something that you can do on your own or with a partner.

In many countries around the world it is still so taboo, but I think if we encouraged more young people to masturbate they might not feel the need to have sex, and can hold out until marriage, or whenever parents and/or society deem it to be the appropriate time or age to do so.

And if you’re sexually active it teaches you what you like and what you don’t like, and therefore have a more pleasurable sexual experience with your partner. Or at least that’s what people say, I haven’t actually figured out how this works.

But that last point actually took the conversation in the office in a different direction when someone suggested that they learnt what they liked and didn’t like from porn. Well, not literally. They used porn to educate themselves on what they should be doing sexually and then tried it on their partner, and those experiences taught them more about what turned them on and off.

Well I don’t know about that, but I guess people get ‘sex education’ from many different sources, so we need to be educating through those different sources. It’s nice to see that there are some porn films (programmes?) that use condoms, because those is another way of normalising using condoms – for the people who get their sex education from porn.

But I’d still encourage masturbation – you get comfortable with your body, it’s pretty safe (unless you’re sharing toys), and allows experimentation without actually having sex. It’s interesting that people are still uncomfortable talking about it though.

I actually mean the global south and north here. Over the last few months (for some reason I’ve been more mentally aware of my surrounds in this period) I’ve realised how different cultures can be and the impact this must have on young people split between them.

I was born in Zambia and spent my formative years split between London and Stockholm. I moved back to Zambia as a teenager and then relocated to London in my early twenties. So I’ve moved around a fair bit and I’ve always been grateful for this because it opened my mind. As a teenager, my sexual education was influenced by living in the liberal city of Stockholm, this actually made it easier for my sisters and I to launch the sexual educating magazine, Trendsetters, in Zambia.

But the respect and values I came with to the UK were from my Zambian culture. So sometimes I still recoil when I hear a child talking back to their parents (disrespectfully I mean). It also affects my perception of ‘appropriate attire’ – I was going to say covering your modesty, but hey who am I kidding, I used to love my mini-skirts! Though I was erm, ok not really 18, I may have had some suspect outfits at 16! Still, I find it disturbing to see some of the clothes people leave their houses in, during the day or even going to work in.

Though my point comes when I think about how some things are so much more acceptable here than they are for our cultures back home – or at least people make it seem like it is. One one hand young people are encouraged to embrace their sexuality and that it’s ok to sexually experiment. Hell, babies having babies are ok. When my other Zambian friends and I get together we do joke about how if this was Africa, such and such wouldn’t be happening – and brush it off.

The other day as I was recounting an incident where I thought a man was having a relationship with a very young girl because he was touching her, what my African upbringing would suggest inappropriately, turned out it was his daughter, I realised just how different these cultures are. Most of my western colleagues didn’t think there was anything wrong with a father putting his hand on his teenage daughter’s thigh while they were talking, whereas that would be a huge no no in Zambia.

All this got me thinking – how do teenagers, more specifically the African youth in the diaspora bridge these gaps? How do they manage to choose the good from their cultures back home – because let’s be honest, there are some parts of the African culture that really undervalue women and we don’t need that – with the good part of the western culture (back chat not included)?

My friend and I laugh at our different experiences of wearing shorts in front of our fathers – another no no after a certain age – hers was her aunt telling her off (though she pointed out that if her dad bought them in the first place, why shouldn’t she wear them), mine was my father actually telling me it was inappropriate – I always forgot though, I’m sure on some occasions he just walked out of the room (Lol). Then I think of a visit to my aunt’s house (here in the UK) and finding her son’s girlfriend sitting on his lap and kissing him in front of her – shock horror! And they shared a bedroom the whole weekend I was there. It sounds ridiculous when I write it – because I’m thinking of it from a Western perspective, but I’m not sure that even at my age I’m having my boyfriend sleep in my room at my parents house… maybe if we’re engaged it would be ok, maybe.

This is something we sometimes forget when we’re educating young people – how various cultures influence their lives. Be it because of where they go to school, where they live or even because of the TV programmes they watch. If you don’t speak to them with those cultural influences in mind, how can you expect the message to sink in? You may not agree with it, you may even want to mock it, but if you want to make a difference, try to understand where they’re coming from.

In the early days of HIV prevention messaging in Zambia, the US agencies came in pouring money into the ‘talk to your parents about sex’ message. Because they didn’t ask (or maybe they didn’t do the right research) it took them awhile to realise that the reason that message never worked was because in our culture, you don’t talk to your parents about sex, you talk to your aunt – as a girl, or your uncle, if you’re a boy.

People know this in commercial advertising, I have no idea why it’s taken so long in public health. Ok I know a lot of campaigns do do this now, but there are still a few that make me say hmmmm.

After all of two hours sleep (if that), I landed in Vienna for the International AIDS Conference, where supposedly 25,000 people were going to be attending. Straight from the airport, I changed as I had to meet Bill Roedy, my chief exec to do a formal session on the New Generation Leadership with Michel Sidebe and the Crown Princess of Norway, and a bunch of other leaders, young and old.

He loved it – i was dreaming of my bed the whole time but had to stay. UNAIDS were launching this mentorship hub and programme to support youth leaders with established leaders (whatever that really means). And Bill does have a long history of supporting young people, and more so with the Staying Alive Foundation, so made sense for us to participate.

Luckily enough my dear friend Mark Connolly was also at the meeting, so we hung out and chilled – we got kicked out of the room because we weren’t on the list of established leaders, and i’m guessing I’m too old to pass as a youth leader (though some of the ages of those youth were questionable). By this point, I’m not only exhausted, I’m starving too. Lack of food and sleep deprivation is not a good combination for me, I’m seriously irritated.

By the time we’re invited back for the less formal session, I just want to go home (i.e. the hotel), but Bill wants a debrief, so I have to stay. About 90minutes later as I’m close to the end of my tether, I realise what was also irritating me about the meeting. I wasn’t hearing anything new.

I’ve been a ‘youth’ (love that term) in this field and the things I was hearing in the room was the same things I’ve heard years before – there was nothing new. Young people need to stop thinking that they can’t get anything done without the adult partnership in place – or they’ll be waiting for ever. But more than that, they have to act like young people and not adult clones in the UN system. Being young is what differentiates them from adults – this is their USP. I understand that it helps to talk their language, but if you try to behave like an adult (and i mean this in the HIV field) you won’t get very far, because the real adults have years of experience on you. Besides, why can’t the adults be the ones to adapt to young people’s way of thinking and behaviour?

They complained that they need jobs. Well I’ve seen enough youth consultants who aren’t youth, why not become a youth consultant – like a real life one? Sell your skills that way. And as for the whole money issue? That’s always going to be an issue, we’ve got to figure a way to be creative.

(shrug) I guess i just felt there were more excuses than solutions in that room. Though Paul Farmer did say something that made sense… If only I could remember what it was (it’s been a long week – and it’s only Tuesday).

After that Mark and I went for some Weiner Schnitzel (sp). I loved it! Even though it was deep fried…

That ended around 6pm and I still went on to have more dinner with my colleagues Julie and Siobhan! We got kicked off the terrace of our hotel for making too much noise… aaah that was a nice night.

Sunday was interesting. I had scheduled an hour long meeting between Bill and some young positives representing different parts of the world (strangely enough no one from Africa). My girl Jessica was there and she’s always cool – love her to bits.

Kenneth Cole joined the meeting with his daughter, which was cool. The conversation was really informal and it was just to get some insight into what it means to be young and HIV+ and what we should be doing more of and less of to support them. It was a really interesting conversation, it’s true what Michel Sidebe says, no one will know more about HIV/AIDS than a person living with the virus.

The rest of the team along with two cast members from Shuga arrived that day so the next part of my work began. Promoting Shuga. Because I’m getting tired again, I’ll summarise.

We had a press conference today with Bill, Ambassador Goosby and Jimmy Kolker, with Dr Dina Borzekowski presenting the results from the impact evaluation of the Ignite project. Shuga’s results were extradordinary. 60% of young people in Kenya had seen it! and over 80% of them had had their thinking affected by Shuga, with increased intentions to get tested, decreased intentions to have multiple concurrent partners and increased positive attitudes towards people living with HIV. You can get the full results from the staying alive site. Or i can send you a copy if you want.

So what does this all mean? We’re doing Shuga 2!

Ok I’m off, have to go and organise tonight’s screening and cocktail party. Catch me on twitter, I finally succumbed…. @cathyphiri

A year ago I tried everything to get out of going to the AIDS conference. I’ve been to every AIDS Conference since Durban (2000) bar Bangkok and I’ve just been feeling the AIDS fatigue bug myself. So when it was decided that I was leading our initiatives at this year’s conference in Vienna, I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy.

Technically I should have been. I knew before we even saw the results, that we’d be announcing the impact evaluation results from our multi-country study of the Ignite project – which I led – and there was the Viacom initiatives as part of the HIV/AIDS sub-committe that I co-chair, so technically it made sense that I should lead our involvement. I still wasn’t jumping for joy.

The results from our programming are worth going to Vienna for. And in true MTV style we’ve made it a bit of an event (on a budget). Viacom isn’t scaling back either, we’re having our biggest booth, therefore presence, than ever before, and we’re aiming to top our Mexico party (hard to do, but I’m feeling our leadership in action theme). Today I saw the remaining artwork for the signage and I’m actually excited about going to Vienna.

I’m excited because we’re showing that we do care. As a company we could just pay lip-service, but with the presence of the senior executives attending as well as our investment in these events, I think we are saying, we care, we matter, and we want to keep being involved.

And somewhere along the line I hope to learn a lot, but not get information overload. I was actually looking at the new UNAIDS report and was glad to see that it was in an easy to digest format, and with a decent number of pages that didn’t make me have to put aside too much time to go through it. I like the fact that UNAIDS is prioritising youth leadership – as I’ve always had a problem with tokenism but also with youth thinking they’re entitled to Lord knows what – but to have them meaningfully engaged, that’s what matters. As long as they know that they too have to put the work in. Leadership is a huge responsibility. As I say, great leaders are born, but anyone can learn to be a leader, as long as they take up the challenge themselves.

But I’ll also be glad when the conference is over – so I can get some sleep. Going to bed at 2am two nights in a row is no fun. Today, I had to give in and attempt to go to bed early – I should hit my usual 11ish bed time. Though when I get back from Vienna, I’m in London for like two days before I jet off to Joburg for a planning meeting with the base Africa team. Happy days.

Anyway look out for my blogs while in Vienna, I’ll keep you posted.

I’m tired. I’m working hard and long hours, all in the run up to the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, in a couple of weeks. But I’m excited too. Yes in the past Staying Alive has done major events at the conference – The Bill Clinton Forum in 2002, 48 Fest Toronto in 2006, Sex Uncovered in 2008 (though that wasn’t too major), but I actually feel like this is a major year for us. We announce the results of our multi-country evaluation (Trinidad & Tobago, Kenya and Zambia) for the Ignite campaign. I’ve heard them so I’m pretty stoked and can’t wait to make them public!

We’re having a massive booth where we’ll be doing some pretty cool stuff – can’t say what yet – not that it’s top secretive but the woman responsible for it, likes to think it is. And then there’s is the Viacom Leadership in Action party – can’t wait for that either! I don’t know how we can top the 2008 party in Mexico, which was held on the roof of a stunning boutique hotel – but hey, it was Mexico, can you really compete? We will have top leaders like Michel Sidebe and my girl Marvelyn Brown share their thoughts on leadership in the response to HIV/AIDS.

Because I’ve made it a personal challenge to make HIV more accessible to young people, I worked closely with Ben (a coordinator in the team), who I’ve made responsible for community engagement, to come up with a theme for our online space to bring the theme of the conference to our audience. So last Monday, we kicked off a campaign called ‘The Right to Be Me’, it’s a series of empowering articles from ordinary people who’ve overcome adversity. The idea is to formulate what rights mean to each person, but also to encourage, inspire and empower our audience as we campaign for universal access to prevention. Check out the site to see what’s up there. We’ll also be putting up celebrity interviews on their perspective of their right to be themselves.

So it’s busy times over at staying alive HQ but I’m really excited, as I’m leading the efforts on our presence at Vienna and so far it’s been good, even if there are a lot of late nights and stress – is it weird that I enjoy the pressure? Well it’s because I know it will be worth it in the end.

Though I have to admit, I’m very curious to see the impact of our evaluation – for years people have talked about the importance of result proven strategies (though I’m very much of the school of trust your instincts, as long as you know your audience), so let’s see how this will be received. I’m excited – who needs sleep?!

Our office really can be a fun place to work, especially because so much of what we do revolves around sex. Sometimes I don’t even know how the conversations come up but I do worry about the poor emerging markets team hearing our rather graphic conversations – hmmm surely there’s an HR policy that goes against sexually inappropriate conversations? But of course it’s not inappropriate, it’s work related!

So the masturbation one came up … actually I have no idea how that one came up think it was from our fans on facebook discussing it. It was interesting to see the comments! People still believe that masturbation can make you blind because it’s some great sin from God. Hmmm ok.

Then it was that women don’t masturbate, only men do… hmmm ok. And then my personal favourite, normal people don’t masturbate.

I did like the woman who then said, but it was good for relaxation because you really shouldn’t have your body all tense. Interesting that no one said that it was a good method of safer sex!

Today was more fun, my colleague Julie Allen, has been asked to sit on a panel during the International AIDS Conference to discuss how you can make the female condom more appealing to men. Our response was, ‘surely you should make it more appealing to women first?’

We discussed who had ever tried using one – no one and who was willing to try one – to help give Julie some first hand research to use for her panel – no one. Finally someone admitted having tried it once. The downside, it sounded like shagging a plastic bag (heard that one before). The merits? Well, ‘as a guy, you don’t have to use a condom, what’s better than that?’

We decided to put it to the fb fans. Wow, shock, wow.

Mainly women responded – not that many but still – and pretty much all of them said that they didn’t think it was safe! Interesting.

So back to my point – how do you make it more appealing to women? Seriously have you seen it? Nothing is sexy about it. At least get the packaging to a sexy point like most male condoms. And can it not be easier to insert? Well maybe it is easy to use, but the instructional graphics on the pack seem quite complicated…
Anyway maybe the second generation female condoms (creatively titled FC2) are more sexy and less noisy (they claim this at least). Funnily enough, think i’ll stick to the male condoms for now.

I’m addicted to shopping. There I said it. In the last month or so I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on handbags, clothes, electronics and other personal items. I am an emotional shopper; frustration, anger, sadness all lead me to the nearest shop in sight. And you know you’re an addict when you hide your purchases from friends and family, and even colleagues at work! Or make excuse, ‘no, I didn’t buy it, so and so gave it to me, aren’t they nice?’ I’ve been doing that for years.
But I’ve noticed that my purchases have become a little bit more expensive, a Marc Jacobs handbag, a Michael Kors clutch, a MacBook, a professional straightener (erm my 3rd one!) and I’m beginning to wonder if its influenced by what I see around me. In fact I know it is – that and the fact that I can now actually afford it. I see these products in my favourite magazines, with women I admire and maybe even someone talking about it being a must have. And then I feel I must have it!
So what if I change my environment would that help? I don’t know. Ok maybe if I’d never been in the environment in the first place, then I’d still have the shopping addiction but for less pricey stuff.
I was actually going to relate this to HIV messaging and how messaging to the individual is no doubt crucial, but equally so is messaging to the community. How the community dictates what is acceptable and what is not, making it a healthy environment to talk about sex without shame or discrimination, allowing it to be a good thing to use protection (condoms) in relationships (including marriage) etc.
And that in turn would make people within the communities have better, safer behaviours and create enabling environments for those already living with the virus. A win win situation right?
But then I thought back to my original statement; I have an addictive personality and I’m addicted to shopping. That’s within me, it’s not a product of my environment.
Maybe the whole nature vs nurture argument is just a cop out, an enabling argument for people who don’t want to take responsibility for their behaviour? If it was socially unacceptable to be a shopaholic, I’d lie about my sprees. Oh wait, I already said that I occasionally do that too, though Lord knows why. But my point is, this is the same thing that people who don’t want to change their behaviour will do.
It’s funny – and now I’m completely going off on a tangent (as I usually do) – I was having this discussion with a friend and talking about the sexual risks my friends (ok myself included) took back in Zambia. Using condoms or not, we’d still have sex. Russian roulette with our lives right? Some of those friends regrettably did end up with the bullet. It didn’t stop us.
Then I moved to London. Now, I’m not particularly a fan of the media (ironic i know), but I just see how this can be manipulated, and I do take everything I see on TV or hear on radio with a pinch of salt (if i wasn’t there myself, not sure it happened, or certainly the way the media said it did). But anyway, there was something about the way AIDS in Africa was reported and depicted or the way people talked about it that scared the crap out of me. Now, if I have sex, when I go back home for holidays or whatever, it’s always protected! – oh wait, so wasn’t that as a result of my environment?
Point is, we need to do both – change the individual and change the community.

I love winning awards. Shuga and Travis McCoy’s Unbeaten Track have won Gold in their respective categories at the World Media Festival. I’m obviously very proud, being that I was an executive producer on Shuga. Hoping this is the start to many more awards!

Here is a reminder of why they won!

All we need now is funding to do Season 2 of Shuga – let me know if you have $1million you want to give!

And Travis McCoy’s Unbeaten Track

I’m trying not to feel jaded. It’s hard not to when I try to think of the good tv programming on HIV/AIDS – that isn’t a predictable, done before format.

Is it because HIV/AIDS is such a difficult issue with loads of political ramifications? Is it because people don’t care? Or people are too scared to offend some people?

I really don’t know what it is, but sometimes, I wonder what the end goal is with some programming ideas. I’m not talking about any shows in particular, just generally thinking of what I’ve seen in the last few years.
I did like the story line in Greys Anatomy which was set back in the day when AIDS was called GRID. That was good because it looked at it from the stigma point of view, but then brought into perspective other discrimination/stigma from the day i.e. inter-racial dating, black and female doctors being the first of their kind etc. (not first, but you know what i mean). And I thought that was good because it put it into a context that people could relate to. It just made HIV/AIDS more accessible i think.

That’s one of the things I struggle with – definitely for the audience I have to reach – how do you make HIV/AIDS accessible? The reality is, that while there are millions of people living with the virus, and countless other affected by it, there are even more who are not infect and seemingly unaffected. That’s the audience I want to reach, because in this day and age, in the global world we live in, how can you think you’re unaffected?

I want to re-establish the African thinking of ‘it takes a community’. We, as a people, inhabiting this planet are the community. Call me the eternal optimist (in all my cyniscm), but I do believe that if humanity comes together we can stop the spread of HIV and at the same time create an environment that protects and supports those already living with the virus. But people have to want to do this, people have to be moved to do this. We need a new generation of people who care about us and not about me – the ‘we, not me’ generation (as coined by someone in the office). And I do think that media has a big role to play in making this happening. Aaaah if only had had loads of cash myself, the programming i’d make! one day…