Last Thursday I had the opportunity to participate in the Treatment Action Campaign's condom distribution program in the Khayelitsha township. TAC is an organization that advocates for increased access to treatment, care, and support services for individuals living with HIV. It has been said that Khayelitsha has one of the highest incidence rates of HIV, with around 28% of their population having tested positive. During this distribution, I was tasked with the job of interviewing community members in order to gauge their perceptions on the effectiveness of the program, their thoughts regarding condom usage, and any issues or concerns they wanted to raise.
The aim of the program is, of course, to get condoms into the community. At times this is easier than at others, because the stock diminishes quickly and TAC is not always able to restock. I asked one member if the organization tried to target certain high-need areas for distribution, and was told that they do have certain locations they try to help stock more often when their supply allows. That morning in particular we were distributing mostly to the local shebeens, or informal drinking establishments. In addition, we were able to distribute condoms to barber shops and hair salons, public restrooms, and individual community members. As we drove through Khayelitsha, a number of individuals flagged down our bus to request that we stock their particular establishment with condoms.
While there has been some resistance in the past surrounding the use of condoms, I was glad to hear from the people I interviewed that perceptions appear to be changing. People understand the need to protect themselves, and are eager to take the condoms whenever they're available. There still appears to be some sense of shame or embarrassment surrounding their use for some people, but the shebeen owners I spoke to discussed how they attempt to combat this by placing the condoms in more private locations, such as restrooms, so that people can take them without fear of being seen. It seems that the real problem for the people in Khayelitsha is not with knowing that condom usage is important, but rather with having those resources available to them.
I was expecting that people might be resistant to my presence in the community, but was surprised and relieved to find that they weren't at all. Even though I was the only white person in the area, almost everyone seemed happily willing to greet me warmly, invite me into their establishments, and answer my questions. Still, it was an eye-opening experience for me to be openly stared at by large groups of people everywhere I went. At one of our stops, a group of small children shouted over to me, "Hey umlungu!" which I immediately recognized as the term for a white person. I turned around and gave the group awave, which made them all break out into giggles and disperse immediately.
Being given the opportunity to aid in the condom distribution and to gather the personal stories of people living in Khayelitsha was an incredibly powerful experience. It really helped bring some of the concepts that I've been learning about in abstract into reality. They were given a face and a voice through the individuals living in the township, and I was able to see firsthand the important work that the Treatment Action Campaign is doing.