“Good morning, class. How was your weekend?” I greeted my students as I entered the room and began pulling out materials.
“It was interesting,” one boy said. This is a common answer with interesting a synonym for great, busy, awful.
When I asked why he said, “ I was cut. On the pen.” I stepped closer to him, trying to make out what he was saying because this didn’t make sense. His voice was a little quieter than usual, but I kept making him repeat it until I understood.
Then, I realized, a cut. On the pen. He had a circumcision.
In Lesotho it is not typical for boys, especially in villages, to be circumcised at birth. There may be a variety of reasons, but I think it partly has to do with babies being born in villages and at rural clinics. Sometimes it is done at a traditional initiation school, where boys and occasionally girls go into the mountains for several months at a time and come back as men and women. The activities of initiation schools are extremely secret, even to Basotho who have never been. I have heard that circumcision is done at these schools, for both boys and girls, but I don’t really know for sure.
In fairly recent studies, circumcisions are shown to greatly reduce HIV risks, as high as 60 percent in South African tested groups. (NPR’s “This American Life” did a really awesome piece on HIV/AIDs in Malawi in a 2011 episode titled, “Gossip.” One of the researchers they interviewed made a strong case for circumcision as way to slow the spread of HIV/AIDs in rural Africa.) In a country like Lesotho, and I am only talking about Lesotho,where the infection rate is 23 percent, mostly spread through vaginal sex, circumcision is a valid tool for prevention, but should certainly not be one’s only defense.
In my life skills class, we have spent months on HIV/AIDS. What is it? What does it do to the body? How does it differ between men and women? Can it be cured? Even by a traditional doctor? Is it more common in America? How is spread? How do you protect yourself?
I’ve mentioned circumcision to my students and, thanks to a very life-like model another volunteer let me borrow, was able to show them what the surgery physically does. I threw in the stats and told my students that this method should NOT be their only defense, but does have an impact.
Then I didn’t hear anything until the boy and another in class said they had the operation. The Ministry of Health in Lesotho is partnering with a few local hospitals to provide free circumcisions to boys older than 15 or younger if they are with a parent. My students are 18 and 19. Although they used their procedure to get out of class work and make me feel sorry for them, I was really proud that they took this initiative and did something that is scary and, I assume, quite painful.
That Saturday, I saw both students and another on a taxi. They were headed to the nearest to clinic and I to town. The boys who already had the procedure were going in for a check up while the third was getting the operation done that day. Like the others, I told him I was happy he was doing such a great thing.
Then the boy, who spoke in class, said to me, “Madam, we are doing this because of your life skills class. You taught us this.”
My heart was filled with joy. I nearly burst into tears. These are young men who understand what this disease is doing to their country. They see it rip a part families and communities. They know they are at risk. And they want to do something about it.
I share this story not to pump up my own ego, because they may have gotten the operation without my class, but to remind myself that good things do happen. Even if the kid lied to me, I will still take it as a tick in the win column. Working in the third world is devastating. You can’t always make the changes or bring the help you intended to. There is too much heartbreak and not enough infrastructure. But you can make small differences and those are what you hang your hat on after two years.
I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I am not going to be the volunteer who builds a school. I am not going to be the one who starts a great income-generating project or builds a playground out of recycled materials. My contributions will likely be small for reasons beyond and within my control. But when something as sparkling as these boys taking an initiative for their health based on a little of my prodding happens, I need to stop and appreciate it. Recognize it, congratulate myself and use it to get me up the next mountain.
That mere statement was justification. It was a reminder of why I am here and why I wanted to come. I can’t change the world but I can do something to improve someone else’s world. And in this great big world full of wars, sickness and unfair playing fields, that really is enough.
*I have been told by adult males that infant circumcision is a choice taken away from them. I have no opinions about the issue at this point, but may when I am mother. All I know is that circumcision has been proven to be enough of an impact in Lesotho in the fight against HIV that the government is willing to do the procedure for free. It is certainly not 100 percent and doesn’t prevent HIV, but has greatly reduced infection rate in varying African countries.