Pupils are helped to avoid AIDS, plan for future

June 20, 2008

Pupils are helped to avoid AIDS, plan for future

17 June 2008
Sue Blaine

THREE years ago, KwaZulu-Natal principal Langa Nxumalo presided over a school in a community ravaged by HIV, and had no clue what to do about it.

This month the school-based AIDS prevention project Star Schools, which was started at Nxumalos Siphosabadletshe High School near Hluhluwe in the north of the province, was the runner-up in the Global Business Coalitions (GBCs) annual business excellence awards ceremony in New York.

It really made a difference and it came at a time when we were ravaged by HIV and teachers had no clue about how to approach the learners. The programme empowered us (teachers), it helped us talk about it openly. It became a topic to be discussed, Nxumalo says.

While reducing childrens vulnerability to HIV/AIDS is the Star Schools projects main aim, it is the way in which it tackles the problem that impressed the GBC, a group of more than 220 companies, from Anglo American to Unilever and Yahoo , which have come together to keep the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria a global priority.

It honoured nine companies and organisations, including the South African companies Standard Bank, Telkom, Xtrata Coal South Africa, for their work in this arena.

We definitely like the approach. Its holistic, its not just about AIDS prevention, its about how to make better choices in your whole life and to build self-esteem. As someone said, its mental vaccination, says David Stearns, GBC spokesman in New York.

Star Schools is operated under the auspices of the Thanda Foundation, the social investment arm of a luxury game lodge called Thanda, 23km north of Hluhluwe.

What is special about the project is that instead of just urging youths to abstain from, or practise safe sex, the programme attempts to inspire pupils at the 62 Star Schools in KwaZulu-Natal and Namibia to set personal goals driven by a vision of a bright future, and to understand that the choices they make now, such as avoiding behaviour which will expose them to HIV, will help them attain these goals.

Using the symbol of a five-pointed star, the project focuses teenagers attention on five goals to work as hard as possible to achieve personal goals, to remain AIDS-free, to understand that one can make ones own life-affirming decisions, that reaching goals takes commitment and that I can make it possible.

Participants are given a dream book in which to record their thoughts, insights and feelings. Research by consulting company Health and Development Africa (HDA) shows that more than two-thirds of the pupils use their dream books at least three times a week.

The project has a three-year implementation period, during which workshops are held with the pupils and teachers in a Star School, and pupils have access to a trained counsellor. HDA found that more than half the pupils had had at least one one-on-one session with the counsellor assigned to their school .

After three years the school takes ownership of the project, although Thanda Lodges Jobs, AIDS, Conservation Initiative (JAC Initiative), which runs the Star School project, continues to provide support for another two years.

While the aim was to reduce AIDS prevalence, the project has shown drops in pupil absenteeism (Star School pupils are 9% more likely than those not in a Star School to attend school daily), an improvement in marks (5,7% of pupils reported their marks had improved), and a drop in teenage pregnancy, says Magnus Karlberg, director of the JAC Initiative.

Also, the schools are cleaner and the teachers say it is easier to motivate the children. The kids realise that the future depends on themselves, that they have to take responsibility for their education. The project is very much about making them understand this, and its not an easy thing for them. They live in a harsh environment with this illness, high unemployment and crime. We try to convince them there is another life out there and they can reach it. They can do so by going to school, he says.

The project was the brainchild of Swedish information technology specialist Dan Olofsson, who bought what has become Thanda Game Lodge a few years back so that he could have a farm in Africa, says Karlberg.

First he thought it should be private, for his family, then he developed it into a lodge, nine villas and a tented camp, for tourism, says Karlberg.

It was while Olofsson was overseeing the building of Thandas tourist facilities that he realised something was wrong in the local community.

He noticed that people didnt come to work and the construction took a long time. This one was at a funeral, that one was ill, or their parents were ill, or their children; or they died, says Karlberg.

Olofsson realised that HIV/AIDS was ravaging the community KwaZulu-Natal has the highest HIV prevalence in SA, with a Human Sciences Research Council 2005 report estimating it at 16,5% of the population.

He had the idea to change the behaviour of the school children and the method goes back to a very successful one used in Sweden to help people give up smoking. It had a 70% success rate, says Karlberg.

Participants in the anti-smoking programme were encouraged to visualise a life without being dependent on cigarettes, and, in the same way, Star Schools pupils are encouraged to visualise a life beyond thgrinding poverty and apparent hopelessness of their situation.

For Nxumalo and his staff the project has been liberating.

Besides teaching (curriculum) content we bring HIV/AIDS in everywhere, because it is everywhere. The teachers are happier now because they feel able to talk to their pupils about HIV/AIDS and it is good for them too teachers are also vulnerable, he says.

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