Sunday, June 1, 2008

Biking through the Borgou...or, “Sex Talks in Barriba”)

I recently participated in a 150 km AIDS bike tournée with about 20 American and Béninese volunteers. Over four days we stopped at 13 towns and villages in the Borgou (a North East Commune of Bénin) to lead HIV/AIDS “sensibilizations.” These basically consisted of breaking any given village into groups based on sex and age, and talking about the realities of HIV/AIDS.

Align CenterGiving a sensibilization in the secondary school of one of our bigger stops, Perere.

According to the most recent statistics I have seen (for 2005), Bénin has a surprisingly low HIV prevalence rate, around 2% as the national average. The Borgou Commune’s estimated prevalence rate is estimated even lower, at .3-.5%. Due to the extreme difficulty of collecting comprehensive and accurate data, these rates most likey are signigi Nevertheless, they might still indicate a real improvement from Bénin’s historical rates and a better rate than some surrounding African countries, it could be also that testing methods and difficulties (especially in more rural parts, as in the North) contribute to such low rates.

There are a number of cultural patterns that are likely to contribute to HIV prevalence in Bénin, among them prostitution and polygamy. But the most overt problems I observed during our sensibilizations had to do with behavioral patterns, mostly (among the guys) to do with views of sexual relationships, condom stigmas and the general kind of short-sighted decision-making that doesn’t take consequences into proper consideration.

Barriba woman at a water pump, Filani woman in the background.

For our tournée, the majority of stops were Barriba communities which seemed to have good grasps on the nuts and bolts of HIV/AIDS and how it’s contracted—these were not extremely isolated communities, and it seemed clear that at this point their people had been hit many times over by NGOs and government groups giving AIDS talks. In short, the “sensibilization” phase (not actually even a word in English) of the fight against HIV/AIDS seems very much over with for many of the populations that we talked to. An exception to this seemed to be villages consisting mostly of Peuhl and Gondo minorities. These folks, perhaps because they live somewhat outside the mainstream Barriba society, and speak another language, understood surprisingly less about AIDS.

For all stops, especially in those villages that were well-informed, the talks (at least with the “young men” group that I was with) were geared mostly towards reviewing and clarifying facts and encouraging certain sexual behavioral changes. This latter task is obviously not accomplished over the course of a 1-hour “sex talk and so it is most realistic to conceive of our efforts as a contribution to and continuance of an already-begun community conversation about AIDS. Hopefully in the long run such a conversation yields a positive change in community norms, individual behavior, and overall quality of life.

Brief respite before our final leg into Nikki.

To see all photos taken on the bike tour, link here.