Fighting AIDS and Attitudes

Fighting AIDS and Attitudes

Senior finds education a key weapon in Nigeria's battle against the disease

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Traveling through Nigerian schools, Rhoda N. Nafziger, '01, heard lies, myths and old wives' tales that saddened and exasperated her. But to the teenage girls she met, they were indisputable facts.

For example, they told her, everybody knew that men have a special time of the month.

Confused by this assertion, Nafziger asked them to explain.

Men, they told her again, "went into heat" once a month and needed to have sex or "something terrible" would happen - although just what this terrible thing was the girls would not, or could not, fully explain.

"That is what they all believed," recalled Nafziger in a recent interview, her voice punctuated by a hint of anger. "They didn't know who told them that, they just accepted it."

Teenagers even in the most prosperous, highly educated countries often display such ignorance about the basics of sex. But as Nafziger found, the lack of reliable information can have devastating consequences in a country like Nigeria, which has astronomically high rates of HIV and AIDS.

A Boston native raised in the Nigerian city of Jos, Nafziger returned home this past summer to begin a project aimed at combating the country's foremost public health problem. She spent 10 weeks conducting focus groups, holding interviews and collecting data on Nigerian teens' attitudes toward sex and AIDS. She is now compiling her findings into a report she hopes will be useful to the Nigerian medical and public health communities.

Nafziger said she was struck by how young Nigerians easily fall prey to myths, lies, half-truths and rumors about sex and AIDS, thus increasing their chances of contracting the virus through unsafe sexual practices. While sexual education and disease prevention programs often stir up controversy, Nafziger said the absence of any outreach creates far more ominous issues.

"One thing I quickly realized was that no one had ever talked to the students about sex," said Nafziger, a sociology major. "They had so many questions. They were excited to have someone to talk to about it."

Nafziger's work was aided in part by the Amanda V. Houston Fellowship, which she received last April as she prepared for her summer in Nigeria. Named in honor of Boston College's first Black Studies Program director, the award is given annually to prepare BC undergraduates of African descent for leadership by enriching their educational development through travel-study experiences.
Rhoda Nafziger, '01 (center), with some of the teenagers she met while working on a public health project this summer in Nigeria: "One thing I quickly realized was that no one had ever talked to the students about sex. They had so many questions. They were excited to have someone to talk to about it."

Originally, she planned to develop and implement an AIDS education curriculum, but upon her arrival in Jos she learned that a partnership of non-governmental organizations and religious groups had already begun a similar project.

"It was good to see that a lot of people were already at work on this with a common goal," she said.

Public health officials told Nafziger that she could make a valuable contribution by doing research on young Nigerians' attitudes toward sexuality. Since this had been a component of her original plan, she quickly set out to talk with boys and girls in their middle and late teens in four schools throughout Jos.

While there, Nafziger also was asked by health officials to pilot a sex education curriculum they had developed, a resource she learned was badly needed.

Nafziger explained that the modernization of Nigerian culture is partly to blame for the lack of sex education. What was once left to tribal tradition and marriage custom was lost when people moved to the cities, she said.

"Nothing was put in its place and now people don't know how to talk about it," Nafziger said.

In this vacuum, Nafziger said, girls and boys fall back on misinformation, such as the supposed need of men to have regular sex, that ultimately serves to lessen or obviate concerns about AIDS.

Many students Nafziger met were eager to discuss stories of a local "medicine man" who was making his way through the country claiming he had developed a cure for AIDS through secret remedies. According to the rumor, HIV positive people would go to visit him and return cured, but had to swear not to reveal his secret.

"They kept asking me about it," recounted Nafziger, who said she expressed skepticism about the story but did not automatically discount it to the students. "There's always a possibility that he was on to something, but it goes to show that when people want to believe things they will."

During the group discussions, Nafziger said, some teens would hold back their feelings and attitudes until she turned off the video camera she was using to document the sessions.

"When the camera went off they really opened up," she said, laughing as she recalled their enthusiasm.

Nafziger keeps a scrapbook containing notes that students wrote to her reflecting on their discussions. One 15-year-old girl said she realized that the sessions had helped elevate her sense of self-worth: "I will be ever grateful to you for this experience," she wrote.

"That's really what it's all about," said Nafziger. "Talking to students about AIDS is important and to hear them say that they learned something from it was important to me."

The BC senior said that too many people in positions of leadership concern themselves with publishing their findings or analyzing data while ignoring the people whose lives they could help change.

"I think that it has helped me to reassess some of my own goals," said Nafziger, who, prior to the summer, had her eyes on medical school. "Now I think that maybe a career in public health could better put my talents to use.

"Helping people live healthier lives is more important than cut and dried research," she said. "That's why we do this work."


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