Houston Award Winner Plans Program in Nigeria

Houston Award Winner Plans Program in Nigeria

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Growing up in Nigeria, Rhoda N. Nafziger, '01, saw first-hand the tragic aftermath of the West African rainy season: epidemics of cholera and meningitis, long lines outside local health centers and, inevitably, too many victims who never got medical treatment they so desperately needed.

It is a memory she still finds equally mystifying and horrifying.

"People die unnecessarily and no one knows why. It's just accepted," said Nafziger, who was born in Boston but raised in the Nigerian city of Jos. "So I finally started noticing that it was happening every year and asked, 'Why don't we do something about this beforehand?'"


Rhoda Nafziger, '01 speaks after receiving the Amanda Houston Fellowship Award.

Later, as a high school student, she became aware of another, even more bewildering tragedy: Nigeria's astronomically high rate of HIV and AIDS. But many Nigerians seemed unaware - or refused to acknowledge - that there was a serious health crisis in their country, and once again Nafziger was prompted to ask "Why?"

That line of questioning has led Nafziger down a path she hopes will take her to medical school and a career aimed at solving some of Nigeria's most pressing health problems. As the winner of this year's Amanda V. Houston Fellowship, Nafziger says she has a means to begin exploring that path in earnest.

Named in honor of Boston College's first Black Studies Program director, the fellowship is awarded annually to prepare BC undergraduates of African descent for leadership by enriching their educational development through travel-study experiences. University President William Leahy, SJ, presented Nafziger with the award at an April 11 ceremony in Burns Library.

Nafziger plans to use the fellowship this summer to develop a community-based HIV/AIDS curriculum under the tutelage of the University of Jos. Her proposal focuses on reaching out to youth and young adults, the population that has been hardest-hit by AIDS. When she returns to BC in the fall, Nafziger hopes to have left behind an organization of trained young people and a curriculum that can be put in place across Nigeria.

Nafziger's parents met in Jos and moved to Boston so that her mother could complete her education, returning to Nigeria when Nafziger was 3 years old. As she grew older, Nafziger kept her ties to her native land through reading the American press, and found their reporting of Nigeria's AIDS crisis contrasted sharply with the perceptions of those around her.

"There was a huge disparity between what people were saying in the US about how one in 10 people in Nigeria have HIV," she said, "and people in Nigeria saying it didn't exist."

Nafziger conducted her own research to examine the complex cultural and sociological issues that have exacerbated the pandemic, and discussed her findings in her application for the Houston Fellowship. She points out, for example, that HIV education programs from the United States and Europe have been available in some parts of Africa for a decade, yet have had little apparent effect.

Part of the explanation for this failure, according to Nafziger, is that Western medicine and health programs have a "long history of miscommunication in the Third World." Those programs mean well but fail, she said, because the native population ignores messages that they "distrust, do not understand or can't relate to."

She hopes to help build an AIDS education-prevention program that is based on grassroots organizing through the assistance of non-governmental organizations.

"Many of the success stories in Africa have come from the bottom up," she said. "People need to feel like they belong to something, like they are playing a role in the future of their lives... and not having some death sentence passed upon them."

Nafziger's many supporters at Boston College believe she will complete her mission.

"She is the kind of student that you only have to throw stepping stones in front of. She will take the lead herself," said her faculty advisor, Asst. Prof. William Harris (Sociology). "She is a role model for her generation and for generations to come."  

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