Oh the People You’ll Meet
I reflected on my first day at the International AIDS Conference in Durban. Surrounded by a flurry of curious thinkers, I began to feel at home amongst the excitement as large groups of people walked between the various seminars and plenary sessions. It was between one of these treks that I had an opportunity to spend some time with an incredible man – Mr. G.
Mr. G is the Director of a thriving company based in Johannesburg, South Africa, called PinPoint Solution Specialists. Through his company and by working closely with his team, Mr. G has pioneered ways to increase voluntary medical male circumcisions (MMCs) in remote townships in and around the Free State province in South Africa. One such township is Botshabelo - the 2nd largest township in South Africa after Soweto.
Mr. G and I met at a food truck in the Global Village at the Conference and sat down with gourmet burgers, grilled on a true South African ‘braai.’ We chatted about our most recent experience in Botshabelo…
It was a beautiful winter’s afternoon when we drove into the township. I was a passenger seated in Mr. G’s silver Ford truck – a strong and intimidating chariot. I could not help but feel distanced from the children who played on the street with rubber tires. “This definitely reinforces the stereotype of impoverish children in South Africa,” I smiled to myself. I acknowledge people standing at ‘robots’ (traffic lights) but I don’t think they saw me through the tinted windows.
Mr. G had offered to drive me to Botshabelo. I was working with him to carry out the bulk of my research on masculinity and peer communication amongst men at risk for HIV. He drove the Ford to the Love Life Youth Center, a considerable building that stood opposite a municipal hospital. The Youth Center was buzzing with excitement. There was a kind of organized chaos surrounding me at the Youth Center. Everyone seemed to be energetic, moving around seamlessly. Yet no one was lost or wandering.
There were a number of teenagers sitting inside the building, protected from the biting winter chill by the brightly colored orange and purple walls. But what drew my attention were the 20 young women, probably 16-19 years old, who were standing outside on the Netball court waiting to warm up. A tall girl wearing a black Netball skirt walked onto the court, and everyone sprang into action. The women ran to the Base Line and began lunges – a warm-up routine I was familiar with after playing Netball for 8 years. I caught myself smiling as I watched the women start their Netball game, the familiar feeling of excitement going through my blood.
Mr. G stood at the periphery of the court with me, his back facing the women. He seemed as though he was talking to the building. “The thing that no one will tell you,” he began, “is that you have appeal to people on their level. It is not about what you say, but how you say it. You see, Sasheenie, I love this job! I love coming to this township, and working with my staff. I am always happy to see them – and I never let them know if I am stressed or not. I want to see what they need and how they are doing – I want to serve them because I know it’s hard. Working with them is awesome for me. It makes me feel alive,” he concluded.
I could appreciate the wisdom Mr. G was offering me because I felt the same way about working with people on their level. I believe that interacting with people is a privilege: to be able to learn about someone else’s life and the truths they find in the world is a joy for me whether I am speaking with a peer in Charlottesville or a nurse in Botshabelo. If someone is willing to share their life with me, then I will do whatever it takes to meet them halfway. This is particularly important in the research realm, as I realize that I am learning far more than I aim to share. A lot of the time, meeting someone halfway means making the effort to travel 500km to a township just to spend 5 hours in a township before driving home in the evening traffic. Other times, it means listening to someone who has not had someone to talk to in a while. “If you can truly listen, without interrupting or talking over someone, then you have learned the secret to life,” Mr. G emphasized.
Working with Mr. G has been the highlight of my trip, as I have had the opportunity to shadow him whilst we worked in the township and be his shadow at board meetings in ivory towers. His commitment to reducing HIV transmission through MMCs and improve community health by bolstering men’s health is commendable. His passion for the multiple projects he is involved with is extraordinary. Whether he is on the phone with a colleague, or in a meeting with a competitor, Mr. G treats the people around him with respect and dignity, all while exuding confidence and positive energy as he walks into every room. He inspires me and I am so grateful to have this opportunity to learn from him.
I snapped out of my reminiscing as my phone buzzed – I had set a reminder for the next Conference seminar: “UNAIDS 90-90-90 Targets and where are we going.” I realized Mr. G had taken a call so I did not miss too much of the conversation. After we wished each other farewell, I made my way back to the Conference center, feeling as though anything was possible - especially in the Youth Center – regarding the fight against HIV. Of course, there are many challenges (there always will be) yet I felt a renewed energy that came from knowing that people like Mr. G were companions in the fight.
Perhaps my feeling came from the scintillating conversations I overheard in the café or while walking past Conference delegates. Walking into various seminars, I received smiles from volunteers eager to show-off a beautiful South Africa. Perhaps my feeling came from the youth at the Conference, filling rooms with high ceilings with laughter and cheers. Perhaps the energy I felt was a reflection of their energy – the energy radiated to redefine HIV and what it means to have the virus or live with its syndrome counterpart.
Whatever it is, my feeling gives me hope, exciting me - growing my desire to affect change in my small corner of the world.