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Peace Corps opens young men to complexities of cultures

Peace Corps volunteers Kevin Carlson and Connor Radkey returned to Spokane in the fall of 2010 attuned to the complexities of how relationships, traditions, communities, churches, poverty and lack of infrastructure complicate HIV and AIDS education and prevention efforts in Swaziland.

The smallest African country’s 1.1 million people have the world’s highest rate of HIV and AIDS, said Kevin, a 2001 Lewis and Clark High graduate.

Kevin and Connor
Kevin Carlson and Connor Radkey

From the 1960s to 1995, Peace Corps projects there focused on rural education.  It withdrew from Swaziland in 1996.  In 2003, an AIDS epidemic led the Swazi queen mother and king to ask the Peace Corps to return.

Kevin and Connor had to find creative ways to use community development skills to integrate HIV and AIDS education.  For example, they helped people plant and tend small gardens to improve their nutrition and health.

Connor, a 2002 Ferris High School graduate, first met Kevin in 2008, during training in Philadelphia and orientation to language and culture in Swaziland.

 Kevin, a 2006 graduate in psychology from Pacific Lutheran University, had worked a year with developmentally disabled youth in Spokane, and spent a summer as a camp counselor with Croatian war orphans from different ethnic and religious backgrounds before joining the Peace Corps. 

In Swaziland, which is 80 percent Christian, religion, families and elders sustain communities,” said Kevin, who grew up attending Methodist churches where his mother, the Rev. Brenda Tudor, served as pastor. 

Connor, a 2007 University of Washington graduate in international studies, went into the Peace Corps to gain practical experience in international studies and development.  He had previously volunteered with the AIDS Alliance in Seattle.

They were assigned to different communities: Kevin in Nereha in Central Swaziland and Connor in Herefords in North Central Swaziland.  In their first year, they were immersed in their communities to establish relationships and evaluate needs.  In their second year, they built community, started small businesses, trained peer teachers to prevent HIV and formed HIV support groups.

They soon learned that with 90 percent unemployment, the high co-occurrence of HIV and poverty made it “hard to talk about a disease that would kill people in years,” when people needed to do subsistence farming or leave the village to work just to survive, said Connor. 

Kevin and Connor had to learn about community gatherings, government systems and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

In Nereha, the hub of a chiefdom of 4,000 people, Kevin helped the National Emergency Response Council for HIV and AIDS, working through a Gogo House—grandmother’s place or place where the community gathers to discuss issues.

In Herefords, Connor worked in a 10-square-mile area with 300 to 500 homesteads for grazing and farming.  People were mobile.  Many went every other week to work in South African mines.

The district of three chiefdoms, which had many orphans and young people, sends a representative to parliament. The system mixes indigenous and western government styles.

We introduced HIV topics as they related to economics, nutrition and education,” he said.  “Communities were at different stages of accepting HIV programs.”

Because many white foreigners funded development projects—without evaluating local needs—Kevin and Connor had to overcome expectations that they, too, might have deep pockets. 

Despite development reports depicting villagers as passive recipients, Connor found that contrary to reality.

If education was the sole solution, HIV and AIDS would be cured,” said Kevin, as he and Connor discussed barriers they encountered.

Transmission is by men and women, because people have multiple concurrent polygamous relationships, said Connor.  “A husband may have two wives in his homestead.  Boys and girls have multiple relationships.”

Both found that religion sometimes inhibits efforts to prevent HIV and AIDS in some of the following ways:

• Some think God will save them from AIDS, and they don’t need to use condoms, said Kevin.

• Churches gave different messages on condom use.  Some require abstinence; others knew condoms stop transmission.

• One pastor opened a “clinic” and sold an herbal drink he claimed could cure HIV and AIDS.  It didn’t work, so people infected others and became sicker.

Their educational efforts also had to be sensitive to other cultural dynamics.  For example:

• Stigma about the diseases was a barrier to people being tested.

Kevin and Connor urged people to test for HIV so those who were positive could be put on medicine.  When tests showed a certain cell count, a person could receive antiretroviral treatment.  For pregnant women, treatment could prevent transmission during birth or breastfeeding.

People didn’t want others to know they had HIV, Connor said, because men blame women, and people some laugh at or bully people with HIV, not considering the person whole.

Many who test keep results from family, so transmission continues.

•  The Swazi pride themselves in being peaceful and non-confrontational, so they do not challenge when someone presents false information at a community meeting, Connor said.

For example, one chief with multiple partners said HIV was fabricated by white men. 

• Few would come to workshops, lectures, events and groups. 

“Peace Corps volunteers were not the first to talk about it, so some have HIV and AIDS fatigue,” Connor said.

• In a monarchy, people are discouraged by how long it takes to accomplish anything, so they are less engaged in politics.  Members of Parliament are elected as “cash cows” to bring money to the community, he added.

The two continually had to find different approaches to counteract these cultural dynamics.

The experience sheds light on the complexities of communities and infrastructure,” said Kevin, who returned to the United States in September. “While education did not solve all problems, it added a ‘but’ to debates.”

Kevin found Swazi jovial, throwing their hands up even if they can’t make a difference, saying they’ll just be happy. Despite high unemployment and high HIV and AIDS rates, they live life joyfully.

Both hope to keep the openness and friendliness they found—people stopping to talk to each other, knowing neighbors and knowing each other’s business.

They lived in huts on family homesteads and were treated like sons.  Although they found it hard to say goodbye to the children, they knew the children could go to town and contact them on the internet, which Kevin and Connor used to communicate with their families.  They know technology will change the people’s lives.

Both return aware of similarities in the United States and Swaziland in that people face similar problems of poverty, corruption and homelessness.

“I return with new ways to see problems and new values,” said Connor. 

For information, call Kevin at 220-4783 or Connor at 599-0114, or email Kevin at carlsonkm@hotmail.com or Conner at radkey@gmail.com