His fingers dance across in his open palms and his flickering pupils betray the nerves he claims not to feel. It’s an uneasy moment and though I know statistics are firmly on his side, I can’t help but share in his angst. In just a couple of minutes this 17 year old boy is to learn his HIV status.
It’s half past two, pick up time at the Desmond Tutu Youth Clinic opposite Masiphumelele high school. A small group of boys stand clad in their navy and turquoise uniforms in eager anticipation of what is fast becoming a highlight of their afterschool timetable: surfing with the Isiqalo Foundation.
They are mostly matric students and the ages range wildly with some members obviously in their early twenties and sprouting thin moustaches and pin line beards. They are all participants in the Isiqalo ‘Waves for Change’ course, a pioneering surfing program that uses the positive draw of surfing to encourage young adults to engage with and discuss the issue of HIV amongst youth. This is their fifth session of eight and the messages seem to be sticking. Today we will be delayed as two other members of the course have also decided to learn their status.
I stand with Shaun as we wait for his results, making idle chitchat about the waves. It’s cold outside and a brisk North West rattles the windows. Even so, Shaun’s amped. Where once the North West bought the rains that inundated his shack, he now knows the North West will also bring the waves that fill up False Bay; Waves that he can now ride.
As he chats I reflect on the previous four sessions we’ve had. Waves for Change is an educational course rooted in surfing. While we spend all our time in the water, half if not more of this is dedicated to exercises that use surfing as a wider metaphor, a tool to make the information we are passing on more tangible and hopefully encourage participants to consider their actions and appreciate the consequences. That some of these exercises could have informed Shaun’s decision to know his status weighs on my mind.
At just 17 the statistics are still on his side. A 2008 National HIV Survey showed an infection rate of just 5% amongst South Africans of Shaun’s age and gender, thanks largely to effective treatment and control of mother – baby transmission. The complications comes later in life, as young men and women become more promiscuous, taking on multiple and often older partners. By the age of 25 the infection rate amongst men climbs to 15%. By the age of 30, the same survey indicates an infection rate of 25% amongst men. 30% amongst women.
The nurse beckons Shaun over. He disappears for a moment before emerging back into view. ‘Ok’ he grins. ‘Let’s go surfing now’.
That afternoon we conduct a session about stigma and the various issues and myths that keep so many young people out of HIV clinics across the country. Shaun speaks positively about his testing experience and the role his new-found surfing community had in informing his decision. Knowing he had a community behind him that would support him no matter what made his choice easier.
That is the goal of Waves for Change. If we can play a part in debunking the myths that surround HIV and encourage more young people to know their status, we can play a part in pushing HIV to the fringes over time. Discrimination towards those that are HIV positive still lingers and is compounded by misinformation and fear. But if we can champion community spirit and mutual respect we can begin to unravel these stigma that keep HIV/AIDS in the shadows and people from testing or receiving treatment.
There is a younger, more informed generation pushing through. If we can use surfing to encourage these young adults to see the value in knowing their status, whether they test positive or negative, we can help them on a long and successful ride through life.
The waves are small and plentiful, fanned by a not so moderate winter offshore chilling the water till our feet go numb. Even so, Shaun exits the water wearing a large grin. ‘Hay, too fun today neh?’ he enthuses. ‘Too nice waves and I know my status, the most fun day of my life’.