Action: How We Engage & Initiate Change Via Writing

17 Service Learning Abroad: Helping the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in South Africa

by Elisa Stone

In summer of 2015, I was invited by Westminster College’s Professor Rulon (Ru) Wood to help his team of professional communication students create an anti-stigma campaign for the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. South Africa has the largest, most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world. As of 2013, approximately 6.3 million people there were living with HIV, including 330,000 newly infected people (avert.org). Although the Foundation has substantial support and resources, they still need marketing assistance.

Our service-learning team met weekly at Westminster and held early-morning Skype meetings with the Foundation. During fall break, Ru and I journeyed to South Africa to meet with Foundation leaders at the University of Cape Town to finalize the anti-stigma campaign. They loved my “Love Don’t Judge” slogan, which was made into bracelets, t-shirts, and debuted at the 21st International AIDS Conference in summer of 2016. We then headed to Gugulethu Township to attend a community workshop for youth living with HIV/AIDS and to film video interviews with a pioneering doctor in the HIV clinic as well as counselors and kids who were born HIV positive, with the goal of helping erase stigma around those needing diagnosis and treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Here is a video our communications team made for the anti-stigma campaign:

While in Cape Town, Ru and I visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and tortured for 18 years. We met several Freedom Fighters, including Mr. Visumsi Mcongo, who had dinner with us and allowed us to record his story of being a political prisoner with Mandela for 14 years. Mr. Mcongo accepted my gift of love beads that had been given to me by a stranger in SLC to wish me luck on my journey. Ru hopes to bring Mr. Mcongo, who has never been to America and would very much like to visit, to Westminster College as a guest lecturer.

We also learned about Apartheid and visited non-profit organizations on a philanthropic cultural tour with an organization called Uthando, a Xhosa word for “Love.” It was gratifying to support an animal shelter, children’s daycare center, and seniors’ recreation center while honoring the personal histories of those who endured Apartheid and continue to suffer its aftermath.

The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation requested I return in 2016 with Ru and a cohort of Westminster’s professional communication students to film and produce additional videos for the DTHF Youth Centre in Masephumelele, an under-resourced community south of Cape Town. We did return in April of 2016. I was especially motivated to make an impact if we could, because a young man named Atti, with whom we had formed a friendship when he debuted in our initial video, passed away on February 9, 2016 due to not taking his medications for HIV/AIDS because of the stigma around his illness. He did not take his medications because he would have had to transfer to the adult clinic and thought during that process people would judge him for being sick. When I learned of Atti’s passing, my heart broke. I dedicate all of my service-learning endeavors to his memory; he wanted to be a doctor and help people.

During our second trip, I facilitated poetry workshops for Xhosa tribal members in both Gugulethu and Masephumele townships. I had to figure out a way to gain rapport and trust before asking people who are already stigmatized to write poems about HIV/AIDS and other topics, such as teen pregnancy, that the Foundation wanted us to cover. I used a formulaic poem where each person filled in the same information about themselves, and we all wrote poems together about our names, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our parents, places we’ve always wanted to visit, and how we would describe ourselves. As each person shared, we learned we had a great deal in common.

Listen to a sample of our poetry:

Our initial sharing allowed people to have enough rapport with one another to write more in-depth poetry about stigma. I was surprised to learn one of my fellow travelers had been wounded by AIDS as well. Here is a clip of our freestyle poetry:

I had to be careful about certain privileged assumptions I made. For example, I assumed that the young people we were working with in the townships would know and recognize places like Robben Island and the famous Table Mountain, a vista in Cape Town that is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world. As it turned out, life in the townships is far too limited for folks to have traveled very far. The young people we worked with said they had never been to either Robben Island or Table Mountain. I changed my references in our anti-stigma campaign and in the poetry workshops to reflect only the places that would feel familiar to them.

We also had to combat the fact that many people turn to tribal healers to address the outward symptoms of HIV/AIDS, but they don’t want to be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or disclose that they have it due to stigma, and therefore, they don’t get the free life-saving pills available to them through medical clinics. We didn’t want to disrespect tribal customs, but at the same time, we wanted to help save lives. I came up with the idea of the Tutu Tribe. We would honor that each young person we met was loyal to their own tribe, whether it was Xhosa, Zulu, or another. But in addition, we told them, they could belong to the Tutu Tribe. This would involve continuing to earn Tutu points by meeting their medical obligations at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation’s Youth Centre, and by thinking of themselves as having dual tribal memberships, so that in the Tutu Tribe they would take their pills and get regular checkups to live out a normal lifespan despite being infected with HIV/AIDS. I wasn’t sure if the Foundation would like this idea, but they loved it! Thus, we developed materials around it and started using the hashtag #TutuTribe. We conducted crash courses in public service announcements and helped the young people we met write and produce their own anti-stigma materials including poetry, video public service announcements, and print materials. We also had t-shirts and bracelets made. We shot as much film as we could, and the crew from Westminster took the raw materials back to Salt Lake City for editing.

Here is one of the PSAs created by my team, Aviwe and Ace, on the subject of myths about STDs:

The highlight of this second trip was that I was invited by Lavinia Browne, who was Desmond Tutu’s Personal Assistant for 20 years, to have coffee with Tutu and attend a service he was overseeing. This was too exciting to pass up, so through a series of complicated travel maneuvers and nearly hitchhiking my way out of Kruger National Park, I flew alone to Johannesburg, then back to Cape Town. They said there would be riots that weekend, as the people were (and remain) extremely displeased with President Jacob Zuma. “Don’t worry,” my cab driver told me. “There may be riots and shooting like the last protest, but just stay with your group and you’ll be fine.” There was no group. I was alone. I nodded. The next morning I ventured to St. George’s Cathedral and was surprised to secure both a front row seat and the attention of international media; Archbishop Tutu and his wife, Mama Leah Tutu, were receiving a Peace with Justice Award. I took my first communion from Desmond Tutu, and when he moved down the aisles to greet people, he unexpectedly gave me a hug! Without knowing who they were, I had befriended the world-famous photographers sitting next to me; they captured my moments with Tutu. After the services, I entered the reception area to share coffee with Tutu and present him with my “Love, Don’t Judge” bracelets for himself and his wife. To my surprise, he put his bracelet on immediately; he seemed genuinely pleased to hear of our anti-stigma work with HIV+ young people in the townships. Since Desmond Tutu is the man whom I admire most in the world, I was elated by my time in his presence. Paying my own way to South Africa twice was more than worth it as I considered the magnitude of fulfillment and joy I received in return for my choice to serve.

As a devoted practitioner of service-learning, I am elated and humbled by the opportunity to work toward social justice on a global scale. Lifelong friends from Africa and beyond, plus getting to meet a Nobel Prize–winning social-justice icon are my greatest gifts from this affirming experience. If you are thinking of trying service-learning, do it! Start small and don’t obsess over obstacles; you never know where the path of civic engagement will take you!

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