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I’ve been back in the office for two days and I already feel like another holiday is needed! I have report after report to do and then back to writing funding proposals. Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t more to my job? Of course there is, it’s just that time of the year.

Speaking of that time of the year, it is MTV award season. The only real award show I get a tiny little bit involved in is the MAMAs – the MTV Africa Music Awards. Because I work so closely with the Africa team, I nag (they call it nagging it, I call it consistent pressure) them to include more social responsibility stuff in it. To be fair, most of the MTV award shows do, i.e. the Free Your Mind award for the Europe Music Awards – and Africa has something to, I forget what though…

This year the award show will be held in Lagos in December. On one hand I’m excited about this – because I love the Africa award show and the Nigerian music scene is so buzzing at the moment. But on the other hand, it’s Lagos! Hectic.

Still it’s an opportunity not to be missed, so while I’m writing all these reports, I’ll get the chance to brainstorm with the Africa team about how we can incorporate Shuga and/or other Staying Alive messaging into the MAMAs. That will be fun!

Also filming for the Zambia segment of our World AIDS Day programme has been completed. I’m looking forward to seeing what they got as I hear it went really well. I’m very excited about this programme. While it uses a well known MTV format, it’s still a first for us and fingers crossed it will work so hopefully we can turn it into a series. Oh that reminds me, it’s time to start brainstorming what we to mark 30 years of HIV/AIDS next year. Actually scary to think that this virus has been around for pretty much all my life.

Last night I watched this documentary about Zimbabwe’s lost children, it really could have been the story of so many kids in pretty much any country across Africa. Was heartbreaking. HIV/AIDS can be a manageable disease, but only when you’re in the right situation i.e. you can get treatment – including basic medication for opportunistic diseases and other illnesses – you can get proper nutrition, sometimes these kids went without food the whole day – and just decent sanitation.

There’s still so much to be done, and watching that programme really highlighted how HIV/AIDS is not something that can or should be addressed alone. HIV/AIDS exacerbates existing problems, certainly ones dealing with poverty. We have to do more.

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.

Still exhausted from Vienna, I boarded a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa to meet with the MTV Networks Africa team to start talking about Shuga 2 – some meetings you can’t do any other way, but face to face.

The idea was to go through the evaluation and lessons learnt to do even better – hard, but there’s always ways to do better. In true MTV style the meeting was done in less than three hours and we have a plan.

The evaluation results for Shuga were good – really good, actually they were good for all our programmes. So the problem became, how do you top something so good?

The results from the evaluation weren’t enough to answer this question, so we looked at the lessons learnt from the campaign – and boy were there lessons! And then we said if money wasn’t a factor, what would we do?

We had a great conversation about the digital side of it. One of the things that came out strong in the evaluation was the need to integrate social networking and mobile. Dina, the lead evaluation professor from Johns Hopkins threw out the idea of us capitalising on the ‘next’ big thing in technology – I tried not to laugh when Richard said that VOD was the next big thing for the continent. His point was that Africa is moving fast with digital media, but not that fast. What’s big in the west now, can still be adapted and be big for Africa. But realistically, for our audience, what’s bigger than facebook right now?

We discussed the parameters of our work. Dina and the Hopkins team had some great ideas on reaching rural areas, health workers and parents, but that’s not our primary work and I don’t believe we should be doing more than our core competence or we’ll be doing a disservice to our audience, the campaign and even our partners.

After the meeting Chris Torline (my go to man in the team) and I went to catch up and discuss work and life on a rooftop sushi bar in Hyde Park – it really was such a relaxing moment – why don’t I work in Africa, I thought to myself.

But as I boarded the plane back to London, I realised we’d forgotten the biggest part to all of this – what is it that our partners want? What are their objectives? We’re really good at making these programmes, but if our partners and others don’t use them, then what’s the point? There’s only so much a broadcaster can do, the rest is up to the implementing partners on the ground.

While I guess that will be figured out in planning meeting two in Nairobi. Unfortunately, or not, I’ll be sunning myself on a beach in Cancun, followed by some more sun in sin city!

Oh and I’m now on Twitter – finally caved, follow me @cathyphiri

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?!

My brother died a year ago – 29th June 2009, we buried him on the 2nd of July 2009. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year, in fact it feels like it was just yesterday when I got the call that he was dead.

Because we’re split across continents and with my other brother getting married next year, we’re going to do the proper memorial next year. So I spent the day at home, doing some quiet reflection, my sister sent me some Bible passages to read and I spoke to my mum – to make sure she was ok. Like a true African woman, she was being strong, more worried about everyone else, then allowing herself to publicly mourn. I’m not good with emotions, so I played along with her, and talked about other things – like the birth of two calves at the farm.

Everyone in the family is dealing in their own way, though it is difficult for all of us. I think it’s always difficult to lose someone in your family because you feel like you lose a part of yourself. For me, it’s been even more difficult because my brother and I fell out. His drinking made me ashamed of him. He was extremely intelligent but he’d become an alcoholic, who roamed the farm area with the local farm hands – and I was embarrassed. It never occurred to me that he felt comfortable with him because they never judged him. Whereas I was just worried about what everyone else thought (Zambia is a classist society). We never seemed to connect after that. For that I feel the most sad.

Even when he was diagnosed with HIV, I never wanted that to be the reason for us to patch up our differences, but now I wish I had. I just didn’t want him to think that the HIV made him a different person. I didn’t want it to define him. I thought we’d have more time.

And sometimes I feel like I’m a fake because my job requires that I push out messages of hope, but I worry that we don’t tell the complete truth. Maybe we need to start talking to the families of people living with HIV too, HIV doesn’t only affect the person living with the virus in their body. Sure HIV doesn’t define who a person is, but it is something that makes us realise that we are mortal, that life is short. HIV shouldn’t be a reason to mend bridges with your loved ones, but helps push you in the right direction. Otherwise you live with the pain of, ‘i wish i had…’.

It’s easy to be angry with the virus, but anger keeps you stuck, especially when you internalise that anger. My brother’s death has helped bring my family closer together and made us more aware of what is going on in each others lives. It’s also made me realise how important my family is to me, they drive me insane, but they are my first priority and I’ll do what it takes to make sure we’re ok.

The experience has changed me. I’d already lost a best friend to this virus, and that hurt, but losing family, that’s a lot to bear. In my case two brothers. Enough is enough. So it’s strengthened my resolve with my work. It’s not enough to have the most creative and visually arresting programme, it’s got to have an impact, even if the impact is getting people to talk. HIV is not something we should be ashamed of, but it’s not something we need to pretend is a virus that is even remotely easy to deal with.

In the meantime, I think I’ll stick to the gym to work out my internal struggles. Thanks for listening, I needed to get this off my chest.

With the International AIDS Conference just over a month away, we’ve decided our focus for the conference is going to be on leadership – yeah, we know the theme is rights, but hey, leadership is equally important.

And it got me thinking, leadership in the fight against HIV is crucial, it just is, but then again leadership in general is just as important. And i mean this in our every day life, yet few people are willing to take up that leadership position and I wonder why?

I don’t mean leadership in the sense of ruling over the masses, but much more about taking control of your life and responsibility for your actions and the decisions we make. I find this too often in the work place, people are generally afraid to make decisions. I would understand this predicament if they weren’t empowered to do so, though that begs the question of who is not empowering them to do so?

Maybe I’ve never worked for a controlling, tyranny of a boss (because that would be me), so I’ve always had a sense of getting on with the job and making decisions. It helps to have strong convictions that you’re right!

I don’t always get it right, but I learn, dust myself off and move on. I’m not sitting around waiting to be told, I just get on with it, freeing up time for my line manager who doesn’t need to micromanage me. I don’t understand why other people can’t do this. I believe when you are given responsibility for something, a project, an event, a business unit, or even just a title, you have been empowered to take the leadership role for that initiative. There isn’t any excuse not to be a leader.

Now leadership in my personal life? Ok, that one I’m still trying to figure out, in that case I’m much more of a reluctant leader – I find it easier to make a decision on a $1million project, than what I should eat for dinner (the healthy option or the one I really want to eat despite the pounds it will add to my waistline). My conviction in my sense of self isn’t quite as strong I suppose.

Focusing on personal leadership and responsibility is so important. We can’t expect the so called leaders to solve all our collective problems, and sitting around moaning about it isn’t going to help either, but personal responsibility and personal leadership might just tip the scales in our favour. Just saying…

Red in partnership with the Global Fund (I think) and HBO has produced this 30 minute documentary called the Lazarus Effect. If you’re not familiar with the Bible, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. The documentary shows the extraordinary effects treatment can have on people living with HIV. I have to admit, despite working in HIV prevention communication, I’ve never actually seen that happen, probably because most of the people I’ve seen that close to death, did die.

The documentary filmed in Zambia shows how in three months, people who looked skeletal and on the bring of death, when put on treatment, went back to putting on weight and looking healthy. The aim of the documentary is to show that treatment works and its needed. What the documentary didn’t talk about is how funding for treatment is running out. When you’re on treatment its for life, when you stop taking it, you can die – it’s as simple as that.

The fact that only a fraction of people who need treatment can afford it, or are on it with free meds is bad enough, but the fact that those already on treatment (through government or NGO programs), who knows how many more years treatment will be available – if governments continue to rely on foreign aid. Governments, especially African ones, need to be more responsible for their people without heavy reliance on foreign aid, because we need sustainable solutions.

And while they’re figuring out how to pay for treatment, they also need to figure out how to pay for intensive prevention campaigns, campaigns that work, campaigns that are relevant to its people. It’s cheaper to prevent HIV than put people on treatment for the rest of their lives.

First we need to understand why people are still getting infected. There is a lot of reasons or research published on this, but not so much on the socio-psychological dynamics. My sister – the Rhodes Scholar (yep I’m a proud sister) is doing her research project on how inter-personal relationships can affect people’s perception, and therefore taking, of risks. I can’t wait to read it.

There are obviously lots of ways to approach this, but without a significant investment of resources, prevention and treatment simply won’t be impactful enough to be successful – I know, I’m preaching to the choir.

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.