We all think we know everything there is about HIV/AIDS. So did I. But I was sorely mistaken. It is not until you come up, close and personal with the virus and its effects on the human body, that the truth of the virus actually dawns on you.
After my second year college, we were required to intern with an NGO to gain social experience, wherein we could practice our communication skills. A friend, S, and I landed up in Daman, a union territory in India, a coastal town near Gujarat. At first we were just too thrilled to be travelling to and discovering a new place, but little did we know that the memories we were to gain were worth so much more.
The organisation, Swami Vivekanand Yuvak Mandal (SVYM) has been in operation for over a decade now by a highly spirited leader, Umeshbhai Patel. A resident of Daman, he took it upon himself to mobilise the youth force in various local activities and events. SVYM works in affiliation with NACO – National Aids Control Organisation, a government body that carries out the AIDS programme with the help of local bodies.
Our first few days were spent at the office trying to understand the project that came under DDSACS, i.e., Daman and Diu State Aids Control Society. Various NGOs are a part of DDSACS and they all work in different field areas with the same united purpose of fighting and the spread of HIV/AIDS, while educating the masses.
I was given a list of acronyms to memorise that were used in their day-to-day working. Such as – STI: Sexually Transmitted Infection; and ICTC: Integrated Counseling and Testing Centre.
Daman has cheap electricity and other resources have resulted in numerous factories being set up here. This attracts many male migrants from far off places, like Nepal, West Bengal, for work. The NGO had only male members, and S and I were the only female workers in their squad. SVYM generally educates the Single Men Migrants, while other organisations work with homosexual men (MSM or Men having Sex with Men) or IDU (Injecting Drug Users).
One major aspect of the project was to increase the use of condoms by all. It was on one hot and sultry afternoon, when the office was empty save one male colleague, who had pulled the short straw to demonstrate to us how a condom is used, and its many benefits. We were roped in to educate the women who lived in the chauls with their families. It made perfect sense. But the lesson that day was stupendously embarrassing for both parties. Our colleague fumbled along the way, we were creeped out in touching the condom, our colleague explained how the government standard condoms were very good, the lubricant as good as Vaseline… and, at that precise moment, he promptly ripped a packet, dabbed his fingers with some and applied it on his lips and hands. Needless to say we were quite aghast. Eeks.
But a greater embarrassment was a plastic red model of an erect penis, can’t call it a dildo I guess – it wasn’t bendable. While demonstrating, we were supposed to whip it out and wrap a condom over it. Easy-peasy. However, when facing a room filled with giggling ladies, women who’ve given birth to hordes of children but still blushed at the talk of sex, men and condoms, it gets very difficult to maintain a poker face and rattle off the demo. But we did. Yes, I do count this as an achievement.
We spent days out in the hot summer sun, soaked to our bones, moving from colony to colony where the migrants lived in pitiful conditions. One tiny room had an entire family living in it, zero privacy, no separate cooking quarters, and we managed to talk to many women, telling them of the virus, how one could get infected, the many ways to stay protected, how to get oneself checked, what programmes were introduced by the government, and so much more.
And later, we got so adept at the demo, we even goofed off with the condoms. No no… not what you’re thinking. When our colleague wanted to dispel some myths guys resort to when they don’t want to wear one, they claim that a condom cannot ‘hold’ so much ‘fluid’. So we filled condoms with at least half a bucket of water each. Though the pictures aren’t pretty, it made a very good lesson.
Having worked at grass-root level was very heartening. SVYM and its members never held us back and let us work with as much space as we needed. We weren’t just interns, but colleagues and spent many time cooking our own lunches. I must add – the workers would daily chop, peel and cook their own meals, with oodles of ghee. I put on so much weight despite having a rigorous schedule, it was unthinkable. But then again, I blame the salty sea air. There’s too much happiness near the sea, it shows on me.