Tue | May 23, 2017

Making a difference Peace Corps, again?

Published:Wednesday | March 2, 2011 | 3:00 AM

The following is the first of a four-part series. See Part Two next week.

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps' inception as a worldwide organisation.

Hermence Matsotsa, Contributor

"AGAIN MOUTOUKI? You just came back from Jamaica and the Peace Corps. You promised you'd stay. I remember!" my 12-year-old niece exclaimed as I pulled out my suitcases in the living room and began to pack. This was a scene she had witnessed several times before - me preparing for another journey - and, like three previous times, with the US Peace Corps.

"The last time I was in Jamaica was for vacation, Skye. This time it's to work."

"Ok, Moutouki. I'll help you pack again, tomorrow."

She then walked away, leaving me staring into space while holding the Peace Corps volunteer welcome package in my hands. Like the rest of my family and friends, for my niece it was unclear why I would leave a good-paying job as an executive director for a stipend as a volunteer - again. Maybe one day she will understand, I told myself, maybe she will follow in my footsteps and those of my father's. If not, then, hopefully, she wouldn't get tired of my stories and pictures of strangers she'll never meet. Either way, I was leaving again.

August 9, 2010, I arrived in Kingston, Jamaica as a Peace Corps response volunteer/HIV and sexual reproductive health advisor, and a week later I was assigned to the Ministry of Education's HIV/AIDS Education programme and Jamaica AIDS Support for Life.

My integration into my work environments happened fast and my knowledge and expertise were quickly utilised. For the Ministry of Education, I was not a volunteer, but its senior technical advisor who was now part of an energetic, passionate and fierce team of experts in their field, and a strong contributor to the success of its HIV/AIDS education programme.

First assignments

One of my first assignments was to facilitate a HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STI) sexual and reproductive health sensitisation for reggae and dancehall artistes on the six-week Coke-Zero and RETV high-school 'Abstinence Mek Sense' tour across the island.

With glee, I embraced the opportunity to meet and educate some of Jamaica's best enter-tainers and show them how to use their fame and music to influence students and fans to practise abstinence and change their risky sexual behaviours.

The morning of the sensitisation - September 29, 2010 - like a star-struck fan who had just received unlimited backstage passes to any show of her choice, my sign-in sheets were my autographs. Approximately 20 artistes filled Devon House, St Andrew, ready to fulfill their duty; learn as much from the overjoyed African-American woman before rushing across town to their next photo shoot and studio recording. Quickly recognising that their presence and time were not to be wasted, I put my game face on and my colleague and I got down to the business of exposing the truth about HIV/AIDS, STI and the impact of risky sexual behaviours on Jamaican youth. Using games, discussions, skill-building exercises, personal stories and stomach-wrenching images of male and female genitalia overcome by STIs, made the sensitisation lively.

Essential knowledge

The artistes, armed with essential knowledge and skills, promised to deliver age-appropriate messages specific to the delay of sexual activity, safer sex, and life skills when they interface with students in the classrooms and during their performances.

On the first day of the tour, two male artistes approached me and, with urgency and excitement, proceeded to tell me how, after the sensitisation, they went for a complete STI check-up, including an HIV test. As they described their experience in earshot of other artistes, I could not help but remember my niece Skye and her question as to why I was leaving her again and joining the Peace Corps. At that moment, I knew it was for this feeling - the feeling of knowing you made a difference in someone's life.