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Today has been one of those days, where everything just seems to be working against me. Ok the start might have been me being too sensitive – we’re women, these things happen – but when I asked my office to send a driver to pick me up from my house (my car is in the shop), no one bothered to inform me that there wasn’t a driver around to pick me up… Until I called back 30 minutes later. So the lack of communication cheesed me off – it was one of my co-directors, that’s all I’m saying.

Then I finally get into the office to find my key staff out of the office when we have client deliverables to meet, and with most of our clients we only get paid when we deliver, and I’m not happy when cash is not coming in – why run a business just to spend money?

And as the day progressed it just all snowballed. Then suddenly just after lunch, it was like everything was well in the world again. I was starting to feel at ease and ready to start promoting episode 2 of Love Games for tomorrow’s broadcast.

censure

Then my phone starts ringing from the client, despite not knowing what she could possibly want – I like to have an idea of what a client will want before answering the call, so I’m prepared lol – but this time, I had no clue, we are on top of everything that needs to be done.

She hits me with the national broadcaster, ZNBC, won’t air episode 2 in the way it currently it is, because of a kissing scene they think goes on too long.

Erm, is that the most ridiculous thing you have ever heard?

I call ZNBC to find out what they’re on about and I get this explanation about broadcast boards, viewer comments etc. So would I be willing to go to them to supervise the edit? It’s not like I have a choice right?

As I hung up – feeling beaten yet again – I realised how fundamentally flawed this country is. Every day in the papers is a case of gender based violence, of a clergy man having an affair, of young girls being defiled, and then the not so public stories of Ministers and their extra-marital affairs, of women using their body for material gain and all sorts.

And this makes me angry. Nationally we have an HIV prevalence rate of about 14%, but new trends suggest HIV can be on the rise again. And what is driving our epidemic is things like multiple and concurrent sexual partners, and low and inconsistent condom use. Further more evidence suggests that HIV education and prevention works!

But we don’t want to call a spade a spade. If a kiss is shown on national TV – after 8pm – that is considered pornographic and corrupting the morals of our youth! Are you kidding me?

Do these same people read the papers? Walk through the townships to see babies having babies?

When are we going to stop being ashamed of sex and our sexuality and embrace it for what it can be, a positive part of who we are?

And in the case of HIV, how can we address prevention if we can’t openly and honestly talk about sex? ZNBC is the gateway to the masses. It is the only broadcaster that reaches the majority of Zambians, across socio-economic barriers and yet their own self-censure is what is a barrier to addressing some very real issues.

You won’t really feel my pain until you watch episode 2 (will put it online tomorrow night) and see what they want to censor, but right now, I had to have my say.

Time for me to end this day and hope for a better one tomorrow.

One Love

My younger brother was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome when he was born – 22 years ago. At the time we were living in London and he was able to access services to help improve his quality of life.

When he was three years old we moved back to Zambia, and that was pretty much the end of services to improve his life.

There was a school at a local hospital which was for kids with special needs, but whether it was understaffed or not properly skilled workers, Kwangu (my young brother) seemed miserable there. Though he couldn’t (and still doesn’t) speak, there were way we could tell that he was not thrilled to go to that school.

It was also a challenge for my mum, as it was soon clear that he couldn’t be left at the school alone. This meant that she had to spend her day there, making it difficult for her to have a job – at the time we were all kids, so was necessary for my mum to work so both my parents could provide for us five kids that were home at the time.

Sooner rather than later Kwangu left that school. My mum and other concerned parents formed the Parent’s Partnership for Children with Special Needs (PPCSN) in an attempt to provide the necessary services that were missing for their children, all with varying special needs.

It was admiral, but really it was a bunch of (mainly) women, older women, who had no real clue of what to do. They decided they wanted a school that could properly serve the needs of their kids and that of the community, especially as reports would suggest, the policy to provide education to children with special needs was only reaching approximately 10% of the kids that needed it.

PPCSN actually did research, funded by Save The Children Sweden, that was quite astounding, regarding the numbers of kids that had a mental disability. At the time (circa 2003), they found 1,334 children in the nine wards of Lusaka district that had a disability and 96.4% of them received no assistance from government or any other social institution. Slightly over 50% of those eligible to go to school were not in any school. Further to that, it was found that within their own communities:

87% had no access to special education
89% had no access to skills training
63% had no access to rehabilitation
69% had no access to assessment
69% had no access to special care
70% had no access to recreation
46% had no access to health care

That may have been nine years ago, but I doubt very much that a lot of that has changed. If anything there might be more kids living with special needs.

However, my mother and her group, despite those statistics and virtually no source of funding soldiered on. I remember some of the stories my mum would tell us, about parents in the townships who had to chain their child to a tree to ensure they didn’t wander off, while they went to work as they couldn’t find anyone to care for the child. Chain a child like a dog!

It didn’t help that mental disabilities is not a well understood illness and people felt that it was related to witchcraft, which scared them even more to have anything to do with children with special needs. I felt that first hand when my brother had to go into hospital and my parents were out of town at my uncle’s funeral. The nurses were even too scared to give him his medication. My sister and I ended up providing the care that the nurses were supposed to provide.

Eventually PPCSN were to have their school! After some fundraising walks, a fundraising premiere of GI Joe (thanks to the folks over at Paramount Studios), and some goodwill from private citizens, a small community school – Hidden Voice – was established in one of the high density areas of Lusaka.

The school still can’t provide enough for its students, let alone the vast number of kids that could benefit from the services, but it’s a start.

My kid brother is now too old to attend the school, and we have tried to improve his quality of life as much as possible, but he is an example of how bad things can get for kids with special needs when the services just aren’t there. There’s very little we can do for Kwangu now that will improve his educational and skills needs, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop championing for the services for other kids like him.

I just hope that sooner rather than later people will understand the need to include children with special needs when they refer to access to education for all.

The last week (oh it’s only wednesday) has been very interesting as I’m in the planning stages of a new production I’m working on (can’t wait to announce it), but after conversations with several people, I realise there are some very serious problems in prevention initiatives and no surprises that people are still getting infected.

Ok, I’m obviously simplifying the issues, but some of the things I see or hear really does make me think hmmmm.

I was looking at the messaging we’re focusing on for this show and it struck me that none of it is new. Not the messages of use a condom, or you can live long, healthy, productive lives if you test positive, or don’t have sex or don’t exchange sex for gifts blah blah blah. So my question to the people debriefing us was, why aren’t these messages working? I don’t want to flog a dead horse and make no impact by focussing on the same messages.

It made me think about the paper my sister wrote for her thesis (ok I didn’t read the whole paper – don’t hate me Tasha!), but I know it was along the lines of how our interpersonal relationships and emotions affect the risks we take. In other words, we know on a rational level the risks involved, but when you’re emotionally invested, you might do something stupid.

Yet rarely in HIV prevention campaigns do we talk about the emotional side of risk taking. I think there are other dynamics as well, such as low self-esteem, lack of personality personal identity and lack of a level of selfishness that puts ourselves first. Some of these are learnt as children and also developed as you mature (but usually post your early 20s). So if the foundation is weak, how can we try and rebuild from the middle of the structure?

And we can’t forget the environments we live in, if we can change the society then maybe we can find a way to get through these messages. But we also have to be honest and not judge people. For example, we need to be clear about the you can live a long and productive life if you test positive, as long as you take care of your health and have the healthcare infrastructure to support this, because let’s be honest, we’ve seen some people who have died within a few years of testing positive. Of course these can be explained, in most cases, but too often we want to gloss over any potentially uncomfortable or ‘sad’ information that might scare people or make them question what you’re telling them. But people aren’t stupid. If you give them all the information they can process it and make informed decisions or understand what happens when things don’t go as planned.

Or if you’re involved in multiple concurrent relationships, don’t tell people they are bad people for being in the relationship – make them safe, not ashamed.

If you tell them the nice, comfortable message and gloss over some of the facts, they don’t trust you – because it doesn’t add up. I’m losing my trail of thought here…

Anyway my point was that when it comes to HIV messaging, we’ve got to look beneath the layers and keep asking why until we get to the core. We need to stop jumping on the bandwagon of what the west powers that be in the HIV field say is the problem, or is the silver bullet. And there are some things that statistics can’t answer or capture – those are the issues of feelings and emotions that we need to learn to incorporate in everything we do. That is if we want to have impact and start making a difference in the HIV/AIDS response.

You always hear about celebrities having to be responsible role models, but is that fair? If you have a talent and enjoy using that talent to entertain and make a living out of it, is it then fair to pass judgement if you don’t ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to being a role model? After all, does the fine print to celebrity status say that you have to be a positive influence and give back to your community?

This was the predicament I found myself in a couple of weeks ago when two popular, black, personalities refused to take an HIV test to support a testing campaign I’ve been helping on. At first I was really angry. Our community is disproportionally affected by HIV/AIDS and they wouldn’t take a test to encourage young black (males) people know their status. Knowing them personally I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to see them and give them my opinion on their action, or lack of.

Once I calmed down, about a week later, I started questioning the responsibilities we place on celebrities to be role models and to promote good behaviour. Is this fair? Because you’re good at singing or acting, does that mean that you also need to be a perfect person, or indeed care about the community you live in, when so many others don’t?

My honest opinion on this is yes, you do. You have been blessed with an ability to reach people in ways no one else can. ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’: where is your true relevance or value on earth if you do nothing more than sing and dance to enrich your personal bank account, and don’t leave the world in a better place than you found it?

I think that we all, celebrities and normal citizens alike, have a role in bettering our community. Call me foolish or naive but I do think that if you do nothing to help the world you live in, then you may as well be irrelevant. And if you think that talking about safe sex and promoting responsible sexual decision-making might negatively impact your reputation then you really are lame. You don’t deserve the platform you’ve been given. So yes, they might never speak to me again, but the next time I do see those two, I will explain how I feel about their decision.

Do look out for our World AIDS Day campaign, and spread the word in your community, taking an HIV test is just the start of taking control of your sexual health.

Peace

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.

With less than two months to go until World AIDS Day, the department has been focussing all our efforts on what is going to be one of our biggest collaborative effort between online and linear TV. It’s always great to have the entire team working towards one goal and getting everyone engaged and on message.

This year is going to be interesting as there’s a lot we haven’t done before, including the TV show, which has taken on a reality style look to it – so it’s going to be exciting.

But I can’t get into it, don’t want to give anything away just yet. Watch this space and I’ll keep you updated.

Oh and I’m no longer on twitter – seems twitter brings way more drama than I ever thought possible 🙂 Oh well, guess you’ll just have to keep up with what’s going on with me here!

I’ll try and not leave it too long for my next post – though I have recurring pharyngitis so have to get lots of rest. I’ll be back real soon though. Until next time – take care of you

I will write about the MDGs soon but I’m super busy with final reports for our donors and partners, in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a CNN interview with a dear friend Sandra Buffington from the Hollywood, Health and Society

Let me know your thoughts on using health related messages in entertainment programming.

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.

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.