Gaborone Teen Club Explores Love, Sex and Dating

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The following post is courtesy of Molly Waite, a  Gaborone Teen Club Volunteer:

Teen Club Ya Chesa!  Teen Club Rocks!
Teen Club Ya Chesa! Teen Club Rocks!

Gaborone Teen Club Explores Love, Sex and Dating!

The morning was very cold, even for July in Botswana. Most teenagers I know would not venture out of bed early in morning on a Saturday, especially during their mid- term break, for any reason, so I was not expecting to see many teens when I rose early to catch a bus for the capital city to arrive in time for the monthly Teen Club where I have been volunteering. I too was reluctant to wake up early again since I had been away in the bush on vacation for the week and had to awaken very early to catch a bus to Gaborone.

When I arrived at the Baylor Clinic around 9:00am, there was a large number of teens already there. As I predicted, more teens arrived within the next hour or so as the weather warmed up. (This is very understandable since many of the teens have no heat in their homes and no funds to buy warm clothes. Instead they usually rely on standing in the sun whenever possible to keep warm.)

The chilly morning started off with some aptly-named “ice-breakers.” Most teens are very shy so these circle activities that are fun and require lots of movement literally warm everyone up. Then, because Teen Club has grown to now over 100 regular participants with attendance growing each month, the members are divided into two groups. This day the younger teens (13-15 year olds) walked over to the very elegant Gaborone Sun Hotel, where a wonderful Kenyan performer, Momo, plays Afro-Caribbean music regularly. Momo, a renowned musician, had arranged with the hotel owner for his band to play for the group outside on the lawn where weddings are usually held. He taught them some dance steps while the band played with loud amplifiers, just like they perform for wealthy hotel guests in the evenings.

However, on this day, I stayed behind with the older teens (16-19 year olds) to begin a new life skills series on sex, love and dating. I was teamed with a Setswana-speaking Motswana who taught English in the schools. This topic was a personal one and needed to be addressed in Setswana to make teens feel at ease. We started off with an introduction of the topic by two well-spoken Teen Leaders who had most of us laughing while introducing this sensitive subject close to their hearts. Then we broke-up into small groups. My group had both boys and girls. Some were confident; others were shy. One had been suspended from Teen Club for several months for improper behavior (perhaps drinking, using illegal drugs or not taking his anti-retroviral medications (ARVs)). Nevertheless, we all worked together.

First, our group was told to map their village and indicate where the boys and girls hang out together. Some of the teens in the group were students from my village and I learned a lot. I’ve been working at the senior secondary school for the past year yet I had not previously known where the boys and girls hung out after school. We discussed the good and bad activities that are engaged in at these places. Both male and female teens participated freely which is amazing since in school they are basically taught to listen to what is said without questioning since anything otherwise could be seen as a sign of disrespect.

We then moved on to an exercise called “defining the ideal partner.” The boys listed the qualities they wanted in a girlfriend and wife, while the girls listed those for a boyfriend and husband. The discussion during this activity proved easier for me to understand than expected. At school, students speak in Setswana and take notes in English. They then read the English and translate it into Setswana for the discussion. This bilingual process totally amazes me and I cannot imagine American students doing the same. The Teen Club members followed the same procedure, writing their preferred qualities in English on a large piece of flipchart paper, which helped me understand the discussion.

The girls wanted a boyfriend who was good looking, entertaining, faithful, trustworthy, caring, and would give gifts on special days like Valentines. In terms of a husband they wanted an honest, loyal, loving and caring man who would be a good father. The boys wanted a girlfriend who was sexy, curvy, a good dresser, faithful and fun. For wives they wanted homemakers, good mothers and excellent cooks, who were both independent and obedient. We read and discussed these characteristics which were elaborated with examples and many jokes to relieve the tension. We then asked them if they wanted to marry some day. Most said yes, but one girl said no and would not elaborate. A boy also said no, because he was HIV-positive. He did agree, however, that he would if he could marry someone else who was HIV-positive or someone who accepted him for who he was regardless of “the disease” (as HIV/AIDS is often referred to in Botswana).

We then moved on to a more difficult task for the teens: an activity dealing with the topic of “romantic relationships.” The teens had to decide not only their positions on the given issues but move to a given part of the room if they agreed with a statement or another designated area if they disagreed. The statements were hard. For example, “It is too difficult for youth to abstain from sex.” The teens were divided. One or two defended their stance. Another issue was whether “A person should always tell his/her boyfriend or girlfriend their HIV status.” Most teens disagreed because they thought it would end their relationship since the stigma surrounding HIV is so great here in Botswana. Furthermore, they were convinced that their partner would tell others since there is very little confidentiality here, especially in the small villages. None of the teen members in my group have gone public with their status because the risks of ostracism are so great. Likewise, when someone dies due to complications with HIV or AIDS, the death is never publicly associated with HIV/AIDS. Also, most teachers do not know the status of their students so kids are often beaten for poor school attendance or when not performing as expected, even though it might be for medical reasons. The burden of secrecy is great. Only in Teen Club where they know they are all HIV-positive can the teens talk freely about their feelings and HIV-status.

Another query required the teens to decide whether today’s youth should follow traditional marriage practices such as paying lobola, or bride price. Most did not want to follow the old practices of having the elder uncles of the two families decide on the marriages even though most were willing to pay/accept lobola. The hardest question was “If two married HIV-positive adults want to have a child, is it okay for them to have unprotected sex?“ Most of the teens were stumped and stayed in the middle confused by what they should say. To say the least, these statements and responses had the teens literally thinking on their feet.

At the end, the groups met back together to report on their group discussions. Both teens and adults reported on what they had learned. This gave everyone an opportunity to reflect on what they had been discussing for the last few hours and to speak their minds. Some teens echoed the message that the best way to ensure good health was abstinence from alcohol, drugs and unprotected sex. Others left conflicted about their choices. Everyone seemed to understand that they had to decide for themselves which paths to take and how to behave regardless of all the peer pressure they might encounter.

My reaction to the whole process was one of amazement. Although I had taught for many decades, rarely had I seen a lesson so well designed and implemented to change behavior. The various activities required youth involvement each step of the way. It was not rote learning or moralizing as practiced in most schools. Classroom teaching in Botswana tends to be one-sided and teacher-oriented. Youth are rarely given the facts and encouraged to decide for themselves. Clearly, the teens felt safe within Teen Club to participate freely with their peers. Some were more outspoken than others as is always the case. Most important, however, the teens had ownership of the process and the content. The lesson was designed for and carried out by the teens.

Finally, in the Setswana culture, children are not supposed to talk to their parents about personal relationships and problems. It would be disrespectful. Children can, however, feel free to talk to an uncle or aunt about these matters. This can be a challenge because many family clans no longer live in one area. Many people now are government employees who are transferred all over the country under a policy to insure national unity and defuse tribalism. Likewise, the Setswana culture has traditionally kept young men and young women separated until they were married. Today, in most schools, boys and girls are in the same classes. These practices are a total break from the past. As you might expect, teens like the “modern way” and often rebel against the “old way.” Teen Club is helping to bridge the divide in so many ways. Not only did I and others have a good time, but I learned some excellent activities that I can now implement in my guidance classes, school clubs or our local Teen Club in the village of Molepolole. Bravo, Teen Club!