Working at Yabonga—a non-governmental organization focused on “children, HIV and AIDS” (www.yabonga.com) in the Khayelitsha township—has been a wonderful experience this summer. On the first day of work, I arrived at Yabonga’s youth center with my JHU colleagues Carolyn, Arlene and Rachel excited and ready to help. Because all of the students on our program arrived in Cape Town with an interest in public health, I was initially surprised to discover that most of our work at Yabonga would in fact be focused on education and career guidance rather than HIV/AIDS and health, at least explicitly.
Our work on career guidance workshops was rewarding for the youth and for us, but I want to focus this blog post on one health-related process we experienced at Yabonga: HIV testing. On a July afternoon after visiting one of Yabonga’s many OVC (orphans and vulnerable children) sites, we returned to the youth center to find that a makeshift HIV testing site had been set up in Yabonga’s new crate that sat next to the permanent youth center structure. Nonklay, one of the many woman who works at the youth center, sat in the corner of the crate with a small table covered in materials used for testing. Upon entering we saw one of the Yabonga youth leaving after he had completed his test. After studying HIV at UCT for a month up to that point, the four of us realized that we had never been tested. One by one, each of us sat down next to Nonklay and took the test.
After all we had learned about HIV, it was eye opening to experience testing first-hand. HIV is much less prevalent in the US than it is in South Africa, and I had never even considered testing at home. The test we took at Yabonga was a finger prick blood test. The testing apparatus was small, approximately the size of a thumb. After submitting a blood sample, we each waited five minutes for the results to appear. One line on the test indicated a negative test, while two lines indicated a positive result. I took the test and found myself surprisingly nervous. While I had no reason to believe I was ever exposed to HIV, the anticipation made me jumpy. Despite my low-risk status, I could feel the anticipation of the test and imagined what it was like to be in the same place as someone who may be at a higher risk of contracting HIV, including some of the youth and staff at Yabonga. And while everyone tested negative that day, the process of testing gave us a small glimpse into the process of handling HIV in South Africa.
The four Yabonga interns getting tested for HIV by Nonklay. Clockwise from the top left: Carolyn, Rachel, me (looking squeamish) and Arlene.
Moving forward, the day we got tested wasn’t our last encounter with HIV testing at Yabonga. Towards the end of our time at the site, we sat in on a staff meeting during which the staff discussed the recent HIV testing drive that occurred at six of Yabonga’s eight sites in and around Khayelitsha. Yabonga is understaffed with trained HCT (HIV counseling and testing) practitioners, but they understand the importance of their effort. Nonklay also told us that she would be moving from site to site soon to continue testing youth and gathering data.
While Yabonga has admittedly shifted its focus more towards education in recent years, it has been intriguing to see how the organization addresses health both explicitly—such as through the testing drive described above—and implicitly.
The HIV testing drive is an important initiative considering the magnitude of the HIV crisis in South Africa. The Yabonga youth seem aware of the issue, and testing helps reinforce it and also instills a sense of responsibility in taking care of their own health. Nonklay mentioned to us that many of the youth at the various sites want to get tested, an encouraging sign that they understand how important it is to remain aware and remain cautious. Even without any explicit health education on HIV (at least during our time at Yabonga), providing access to testing is helpful to youth who may not know where to go or may not have access otherwise.
|Me at Yabonga's youth center.|
Moreover, Yabonga’s focus on education also implicitly impacts the health of the youth. Teaching them lessons about education, independence and career/life planning affect their decision-making ability and awareness. By providing them resources that hopefully allow for socioeconomic upward mobility, their health will improve simply through greater access to care and educational resources.
So while career guidance and education were major focuses of our work at Yabonga, health always remained an underlying concern. My experience with HIV testing helped me realize that and consider more how health can be addressed within a community or organization to help improve the lives of community members.