BY SOFIA LAPIDES-WILSON
The alarm went off at 6, and I dragged myself out of bed, ate the three pieces of white bread that constituted breakfast, and headed out to school. The walk to get there took about twenty minutes. I treked over a brook, through corn, banana and coffee fields, past small shops and even smaller mud houses. The children yelled mnzungu (white person in Swahili) as I walked past, and I greeted everyone I met with a smile and the appropriate greeting. Throughout it all, Mount Meru hovered above in the hazy background.
I took a gap year between high school and college, and spent the fall semester living in a village outside of Arusha, Tanzania through a Global Routes gap year program. While in Arusha, I taught 10th grade math. I had four classes of 60 students, about half of whom spoke English. Only 20% of the 10th graders would pass the National Exam to enter their final years of high school. After school, my American partner and I ran a girls group, where we discussed sex education and emotional wellbeing.
This girls group was similar to what I’d done since middle school, when the teachers would separate the boys and girls, and then would give the girls the period talk. None of my Tanzanian students had ever had a talk of this kind with their teachers. Most of their information on health and wellness comes from their families or impersonal lectures in school. On the first day, we had the girls write an anonymous question on a notecard. Here were some of them:
“What happen to me because I am sick every day head?”
“I am 15 years I live at —–. Why peoples likes to do the sex?
“Why the women can cry on the sex?”
“There is a boy that I love, but he never love me back. I try to forget him but my heart cannot stop think about him and sometimes he make me jealous, angry, but I still love him. I need to get him out of my heart. What do I do? Please help me.”
“When mother have pregnancy and she suffers from HIV/AIDS, what things can she do to prevent her baby from this disease?”
“I’m 16 years old do I allowed to have a boyfriend?”
“Why is sexual between male and female?”
“If I’ve my boyfriend and he promised me that he will marry me and he staying away from me, should I wait for him or should I search another boy?
“There are some girls which are affected by HIV/AIDS what can I advise them?”
“How do I get my family out of poverty?”
We spent the next hour talking through them. How do you know when a boyfriend is being abusive? What should someone do when they are diagnosed with AIDS? We even said that sex does not have to be between a man and a woman, which is controversial and illegal in Tanzania. Moreover, many of the girls shared the misconception that if a boy says he loves you, that you have to love them back. We received six or seven notecards with the question, “what do you do if you don’t want a boyfriend and a boy says he loves you?” Questions like this reveal that there was little conception of the idea that these girls’ have a right to autonomy in their emotional lives. To follow up on this conversation, we talked through what it means to take care of yourself in a relationship, and how to self-advocate.
The conversation echoed any health class in the United States. Though, for some questions, the stakes were higher. For example, homosexuality is illegal in Tanzania. The question, “how do I get my family out of poverty?” can be one of life and death. But, all the questions had the same essential teenage quality – how do I navigate relationships with my parents, friends, and boyfriends? What does it mean to grow up? What is sex? And how do I believe in myself, and navigate the world before me as I move away from my parents and create a family of my own?
In its essence, global health focuses on promoting the wellbeing of people around the world. But often, this statistically driven field ignores the individuals themselves. Tanzania desperately needs assistance to fight issues of malnutrition, malaria, and others; these efforts will improve the overall wellbeing of the society. Yet, I think some focus on the day-to-day sexual and mental wellbeing of students and individuals is essential to creating a healthy populace. Major depressive disorder is one of the leading causes of disability in the world, and is on the rise in low-income countries.
Addressing more simple issues, such as sex education and mental wellbeing, not only improves the overall wellbeing of a population, but also prevents sexually transmitted diseases and combats depression.1 While we continue to look at the big picture of health, we should also notice the small-scale aspects of health that can make a huge impact in young people’s lives.
Sofia Lapides-Wilson is a junior in Davenport College. She is a history major from Massachusetts, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Depression Factsheet. (2012). World Health Organization. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/.