Into the Final Strech

Sorry its been the longest since you’ve seen a new post on here. Trust me I have excuses! My best one is that lightning hit my hut and fried all my cords. So, I had no way of charging my computer for 2+ months until one arrived in the mail from my sweet mother. Thanks mom!

I’ll start with all the cliche messages of my past blogs posts about how I’m feeling… “time is flying, I love it here & I’m just so sick of peeing in a bucket” because all apply to my life still. Just so I don’t go over board with this post I’m limiting myself to three, no four topics of choice. Enjoy!

1. Projects & Future Sustainability.

  • (Girl’s empowerment club at my local High School)
    Last year I started creating a girls empowerment club with a high school teacher & student. We met once a week at the high school and talked about all things girls empowerment! We learned about setting goals, healthy relationships and “our changing bodies”. It was successful and was being well sustained by the teacher when I was unable to be there. At the beginning of this year I went back to the High School to start the club back up, but when I got there another organisation was at the school using the time slot that we used for the girls empowerment club. The organisation that was taking our place is called compassionate Swaziland, its an NGO that teaches girls life skill classes all over Swaziland. After looking over Compassionate Swaziland’s syllabus for the year we realised we went over most of the same topics. Since this was a Swazi lead NGO, I was more than happy to let them take over our teaching time & continue the good work. The girls are enjoying the new club. They give them cookies every week to keep them coming to the club. Now, the only project I have with the high school is a small pen pal operation with Hannah Vanderhorst’s class back in Denver, CO!
  • (The HIV support group garden)
    I think last time I posted I was in the process of applying for the garden grant. So- update! We got the grant approved and the project has been a success.
    RECAP— I met an HIV support group that had a successful garden three years ago, but within recent years the fencing to the garden had large gapping holes that was letting chickens, goats and even cows into their crops. I started meeting with them every week and developing a plan to try and get them new fencing. The HIV support group and I applied for a grant and it was successfully approved! We received fencing, water harvesting equipment, water storage in the form of a jojo tank, gardening tools, cement, and seedlings! Part of the grant was to have a garden workshop to learn about new gardening techniques that these women could use in the new garden. On the second weekend of December, thirty women attended the workshop. The workshop was taught by a retired agriculture university professor that stays in my community! Rain fall has been good this year & they will be reaping their first harvest in a couple of weeks!! Successful and sustainable!

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  • (Playground Completion)
    I may not know how to change a tire on a car, but I do know how to build (from scratch) a sturdy *safe* playground! It took about three months to complete my playground at my primary school, when it really should only take a couple of days. — Again a few excuses; the drill broke, then after we got that back a month later the only drill bit to make the pilot holes also broke. BUT now it is finished with children gallivanting on it everyday with the force of a hurricane. Which makes me smile a lot!

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  • (Kids can raise money for a Library!)
  • 95% of our donations for our library have come from the children who are going to be directly impacted by this library. How?! We charge very little money for a long period of time for things like movies, talent shows, concerts, and the option to not wear your uniform for the day. With this type of fundraising it takes a longggggg time, BUT shows my community that its possible to still fundraise when there is still an overwhelming amount of poverty. We have had two fundraising events a week for the past year and have about 50% of the funding for the shelves we need in the library. I’m so proud to be on the library committee with teachers who didn’t mind adding one more thing on their plate to make this library happen. To these three teachers I am extremely grateful. We are still fundraising and if your interested in helping please read forward.

2. If you want to donate to directly impact children in my community please click the link below 🙂 We are making the FIRST ever library in Velezizweni Primary School.
Click here!

 

3. Expectations of joining the Peace Corps– my thoughts

When you are deciding if you want to commit 2.5 years of your life to something, a smart person would research the hell out of it before making that choice. Common questions to come up would be “What would a normal day in the life look like?” “Where will I live?, What will I eat? Will I have electricity or running water?” Obviously moving your life to a foreign country deploys a lot of questions. PUN INTENDED. For peace corps, a lot of those questions cannot be answered as specifically as you would want them to be. This is because in Peace Corps service each continent, country, and site is VERY different from on another.

If I were to give advice to anybody wanting to join the peace corps I would say that you need to be okay with the reality of your life being one of these two different scenarios— or anywhere in-between.

1. You wake up every morning to a lot to do. You live near a town and have access to services for people in your community. You are working with NGO’s and have a strict schedule to adhere to. This “you have a lot of free time in the peace corps” does not apply to you. You work very hard for two years, just like you did in the states but the only difference maybe you may not have a shower at the end of the day. By the end of your service you can look back and see the changes and impact that you have made.

2. You wake up to no alarm, look at your iPhone calendar app and there is nothing planned for the next two weeks. The two community meetings you set up fell through because it was raining and people were feeling “too lazy” to come. You have thoughts like “I have no idea what I’m doing here & what good impact I will make”. You feel guilty when people back home say you’re “saving the world” when in reality all you did today was watch a season of the office and hung out with your host family. What you will take away from your 27 MONTHS of service is the fact that your 12 year old sister comes in your house every night to complete her homework. Her english has gotten dramatically better since you arrived. Her grades have gone up & you reward her with sweets every time she comes back home with a grade higher than 70%. You changed one Childs life for the better and thats an okay way to spend two years of your life.

A harsh reality of Peace Corps service is that you very well could make more of an “impact” with your knowledge and skill set back in the US than in your Peace Corps service.

4. The close of my Peace Corps Service & the future ahead.

It has been confirmed that my site will be replaced. This means a new volunteer will move in with my family in September and work as I did in the community of Velezizweni. Weird thought, but excited for the next person that gets to experience the love of my Gogo & the beautiful landscapes every morning.

On to the next; I close my peace corps service on August 11th, 2017! Party! This is a serious accomplishment for me these coming months will defiantly be a bitter sweet time closing up projects and saying goodbye to my Swazi home. I hope, aspire, want to come back in about 10 years. After service I will be traveling throughout south east Asia for four months until mid-December. THEN hey y’all, I’ll be home for christmas with a tan of course 🙂 From there I will be attending grad school starting in June 2018. Super excited for what the future holds and to be eating good food from August forward.

P.S. I have been enjoying writing letters as of recently, so please send me some mail! (its super cheep and a fun way to old school communicate)

Ally Young, PCV
P.O. Box 2729
Mbabane H100, Swaziland, Africa

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Loss

Timing is everything sometimes.
On a Monday my (Swazi) grandmother tells me her granddaughter passed away.

That Friday my Grandfather from America passed away. On Saturday, just a day later, my Swazi family and I attended the funeral for the granddaughter. We were all, together, grieving a loss of a loved one. Losing a family member from the states while abroad is a very isolating feeling. Hearing my mom on the phone, hearing her pain, made me want to get on a plane back home. Fortunately, I was surrounded by my Swazi family, where there was love, laughter and a place to feel safe. 

The story- I arrived home after a night away from my community, when my gogo came up to me and told me “Nobuhle, Tuliele has died” in SiSwati. I was caught off guard and didn’t know the appropriate response other than, I’m sorry gogo. Tuliele is my gogo’s grand daughter and a semi-frequent visitor on our homestead. The few moments after gogo told me the news, I remember that she just visited us all last week. Neighbors, family members from all around came to our homestead that week to sit and sing SiSwati mourning songs with my gogo. It was a somber time, and later that week I learned that the lady who passed had taken her own life. She left behind four children and a husband. My make told me the funeral was on Saturday and that I could join if I wanted. This was my first traditional Swazi funeral. The funeral was at another family member’s homestead, still in the community where I stay. We arrived, by car, at about 8am Saturday morning to start cooking. Over all, the aunties and I cooked four meals for over 60 people that were attending the funeral. Cooking was my main job for the entirety of the funeral that lasted for the whole day on Saturday, all night and until twelve noon on Sunday.

 When I wasn’t cooking, I spent most of the free time I had talking to this enthusiastic girl. She really wanted to understand what it was like for me to live in the United States. Her big 12 year old eyes stared at me and asked, “No really tell me what a “normal” day was like for you there?”. I was shock because that is the first time I was asked a concrete question like that; instead of the normal, “do you know Obama?” or “One day I wish to go to America, so that I will be rich”. This 12- year old girl was asking me (I think) more eye-opening questions about my life from the USA than I have been asked in my whole service here. She asked other things like, “What were classes in college like?”, “How much does a person get paid?”. I talked to her for about an hour and was so impressed by her English and her poise as a young women. My make told me a few minutes after I began my cooking job again, that this 12 year old girl was one of the children who just lost her mother to suicide. Her mom didn’t die from cancer, or a car accident, she made the decision to end her own life. I thought, How is a girl, just starting to develop into a women going to handle that? All the aunties at the funeral kept saying “she will bounce back, she’s still young”. I hope the light and curiosity stays within her, and never stops asking those good questions.

 How this traditional Swazi funeral started: The close family members most effected from the loss come to the homestead a week or so before the funeral, sometimes right after the death occurs. They all sleep in one room together on sleeping pads, mourning together day and night, until the day of burial. The funeral is a weekend event, people arrive anywhere from Friday to late morning on Saturday. Early Saturday, the men set up the large tent for the all-night vigil to be held in and dig the hole for the casket. The women, cook, clean & are always tending to those who are mourning in the large room. The guests enter in the house to the large room to greet them, cry with them and sympathize their great loss. The body arrives in the afternoon on Saturday and is set in the middle of the room where everyone is staying. At traditional Swazi funeral’s people believe the deceased body must rest a full night at home, before it is buried. Thus, why the funeral service is all throughout the night. When the night comes, dinner is served to everybody. Late night, about 10pm, the casket is opened for viewing. I tried to stay back during this process and for most of the service, as I said my own thoughts and prayers to my Grandfather who just passed. 

 The night vigil consisted of singing, drinking tea, and staying warm. At about 5am the casket with the body is brought down to the burial site. Most burials happen on the homestead in which the person lived. More singing, praying, and mourning take place there. The casket is then lowered into the ground, as men pile dirt on it and stomp the dirt down. I think that was the weirdest part for me, watching people stomp on top of the grave to pack the dirt down. The men that were doing it actually seemed to be dancing as they stomped their boots to pack down the dirt. A final prayer was said, during this all the women sit down as the men stand up. I didn’t ask why, maybe too tired to do so. Another serving of food was distributed as the people left and went home the next morning. Exhausted after being up for over 27 hours I slept the rest of the day on Sunday. In a way I felt closer to my family back home, as they were mourning, I was doing the same thing half a world away.

My sisi & the girl I talked to at the funeral laying together, looking up at the stars at 3am

HIV Testing Soccer Tournament

A few months ago I was sitting outside on my homestead, next to me was my Swazi mother (make). She was cooking some pap and chicken on the fire for dinner that evening. We were discussing her immediate family and how more than a quarter of the people on the very homestead, where I stay now, have passed away. The majority have been men and had passed away from AIDS. 
My mother in Swaziland, “Make” pronounced (MA-GAY)

 This conversation about her family members led my make to express, in her experience, how males in Swaziland are very resistant to outside help. She explained to me that rarely, if ever, males will go to a hospital or a clinic. The males try to treat the illness or injury at home first. To treat an illness or disease in rural Swaziland some families will visit the local traditional healer. At the traditional healer they receive traditional medicine or sometimes even use black magic to cure an illness. Mostly women go to the clinic if these locally sourced medicines don’t work, while the males will not seek out further treatment. 

 I’ve been told one of the main reasons men choose to not go to the clinics is because this is not seen as being a very masculine act. Traditionally, Men in Swaziland (& in many other countries) are seen as the “bread winners” or providers and take pride in being seen as emotionally & physically strong at all times. Part of these men wanting to be seen as strong, is that they will rarely ask for outside help especially when they have an illness. The males will hide themselves and sometimes progress in that illness without many people knowing. My Swazi make explains, that Swazi males going to the clinic for a check-up or treatment is seen as a weakness, an un-masculine act, by their families & society. This can also explain why there are very low HIV testing rates for males in Swaziland.

 My Swazi make has seen this barrier to health care for men in a very personal way; she lost her husband to AIDS in 2007. She stated that her husband refused to go to the clinic and that he tried to use traditional medicine to “cure” himself of what she thought to be HIV. My make knows now that there is no “cure” for HIV. 

 After being tested a positive for HIV a patient will receive anti-viral medication that works as a wonder drug to fight the virus. Taking anti-viral’s properly & consistently put’s HIV at undetectable levels in a patient. To be able to get this wonder drug one must go to the hospital or mobile clinic to first get tested, then they receive a prescription of anti-viral medication each month. Therein lies the problem, if men never go to the clinic, there is a good chance that they would never get tested & treated. Testing positive for HIV = anti-viral’s which is needed to live a long healthy life with HIV.

 Sometimes seen as a worse consequence of these men not getting tested, when positive, is the problem of spread HIV to their partners or whomever they are sleeping with. Men that don’t know their status and have HIV virus are at risk to pass it onto their partners without even knowing they are doing so. WhatsWhat’s the difference between HIV & AIDS? -Simply put a person who is HIV+ has the virus, and AIDS is when a person gets so sick that you could die from the virus . virus. From the time HIV is contracted to when it becomes AIDS is about a 10 year cycle, on average. This 10 year window is a large amount of time for males or females to pass on HIV to whom everwhomever they are having sex with. This is a sad reality in Swaziland and across the world that men’s ego gets in the way of them living a healthy life and in the long-term having a HIV free generation. —Okay, enough with the rant, but the this was the inspiration for my first project that has been completed from start to finish in Peace Corps. 

 Inspired by the discussion I had with my make, I talked with a leader in my community about bringing HIV testing to males in Velezizweni. We came up with the idea of trying to attract specifically the men to get tested with soccer! In many Aafrican countries, or world wide, football or soccer in aamerican terms is the most popular sport. In my large rural community alone we have over 12 local teams that play semi-regularly for fun. Community leadership and I came up with the idea of having a soccer tournament between four teams on Saturday’s with the focus of the event being on HIV testing. We would reciprocate this event three different Saturdays, three different locations and four new teams each weekend. The location would change, making the testing more assessableaccessible to my community at large. The men would be playing for the first prize of a goat (donated by the community leadership) & a second place prize of a brand new soccer ball. 

 I wanted this event to be easily reciprocated, so that my community was able to do this again when I am not present aka; a sustainable project! For this reason we decide to not do a grant and use all resources already found here in Swaziland. All three events were on three separate Saturdays in June. An organization called PSI (population services international) helped out immensely with this event. They provided free HIV testing, counselling, DJ & gave away over 10,000 condoms. I got the diabetes association of Swaziland abroad as well to do diabetes testing for adults and children. Many frustrations were involvked in the process of creating, maintaining, and follow-thru with the events. I tried to keep things in perspective and telling myself “all that matters is that people (especially males) get tested”. Keeping that in my mind, most of the problems I were took with a grain of salt and overall the project was a success!

  

*112 People tested for HIV in Velezizweni*

92 Males, 20 Females

8 People were Positive for HIV

82% of the people who were tested were Male

Males 10-17 = 12 Males (11% of the people who tested)

Males 17-25 = 50 Males (45% of the people who tested)

Males 25+ = 30 males (27% of the people who tested)

Females consisted of 17% of the people who tested
I couldn’t choose one, so here are my conclusions of the HIV testing events:

A Goat can encourages youth males to “Know their status”

“Bahhh know your status bro”

-Goat

My counterparts & I at the first event.
Diabetes testing!
Counterpart speaking to the crowd about the importance of HIV testing
Playing some musical chairs on the sidelines!
Group of people watching a condom demonstration
The famous prizes;
Coach of a winning team!
Final game ended in a kickoff!

Month Six in Peace Corps

It’s officially been 6 months since I left for the Peace Corps, so here is six random things that are going on in my life here in Swaziland!

#1. The Inner Council is in jail  

One problem I have been having in my community is that the elected inner council members were unavailable for the past 2 weeks. The inner council are the people who I need to report before I start my projects. So you can see this has been a problem. For these past two weeks the eight inner council members were in jail for tearing down a building that was not approved by them. This has proved to be a challenge for me, as I wanted to start some projects before the holiday season was among us. Now, Christmas is two days away and still no progress.

#2. Three (NCP) Neighborhood Care Point visits

About a week ago, I got to visit three care points located in my community. It took me and my site support agent 3 hours to walk each way, so even though they are in my community they are not a close walk! These care points serve over 150 orphaned and vulnerable children. These children receive a free hot meal at 10am every day except for Sundays. Usually there are 5 adult present at the NCP who are the volunteer caregivers. Four of the adults cook the food, while the one teaches the children an educational lesson in SiSwati. Two out of the three care points I visited have no shelter and cook literally in an open field with a cast-iron pot under a small fire. The one with “shelter” has just a large overarching tree that can at least provide shade for the children and caregivers. I want to improve the conditions of these existing care points as well as create a care point in proximity to where I stay with a garden. I will complete this by writing a grants through Peace Corps to try and obtain funding. Visiting these care points was an eye opening experience for me that made me more determined than ever. The leaders in my community talk to me about how much people in Velezizweni especially the children are suffering and don’t have food or proper clothing. Going to these NCP’s was the just another one of the times I saw it firsthand. These kids that have no power over their unfortunate circumstances, yet always have so much joy inside of them. The happiness from the kids is contagious and I took so much joy home with me that day. I want to try and give some back by improving quality of shelter and food resources the care points.

NCP #1 with tree “shelter”

NCP #2
 
NCP #3
   

#3. Velezizweni Walking Group

Over the past years I found a love for running and I didn’t plan on stoppping when I arrived in Swaziland. So, when my Make on my homestead asked if I could go running with her one day I was devastated. I wanted to so badly, but on account of my ACL being torn I knew I had to say no. About a week after she asked me it occurred to me that I just told someone that wanted to exercise that “no I can’t”. As a health volunteer I was frustrated with myself, so I asked if she wanted to do the second best thing instead of running and that was to go on walk! At first it was just my Make and I. About four days into walking every day in the evening, people in my community started to notice us and ask what we were up to. As the days went on this walking group has grown to as high as 20 people! (15 of them being childrenJ) So, now every day at about 5:30pm when the air has cooled down we take an hour walk down the dirt road towards the river. Some days it dwindles down t only 3 of us walking, but if I can increase the physical activity of an adult of child for one day a week I am a happy volunteer! What has been even more exciting is when I leave for a night away my make says she still goes walking without me. It’s a small accomplishment, but I’m super proud of my small walking group!

     

The young kids take off running because we are too slow
  

#4. The Odd Opportunity of 45 days in Michigan!

I never knew my service in Peace Corps would include a 45-day all-expenses paid trip home complete with an ACL surgery, but I’m rolling with it. I arrive home on the 12th of January and within 27 hours of being home I will have had 2 pre-surgical appointments and my actual ACL surgery complete! So, the remaining 43 days of my medical evacuation can be used for physical therapy to guarantee my complete recovery. I am using this opportunity in the states to also share my experience thus far by doing presentations with Lowell High School, Grand Valley State University, and a soon to be peace corps volunteer coming to Swaziland in June! I will post dates and times as they are confirmed. I also hope to collect resources for my existing projects, like my walking group by getting pedometers so my group can track how much exercise they are getting on a daily basis. If you would like to donate pedometers any other health related item please message me below. Also I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends A LOT! Bring on the white snow and people I’m coming to Michigan!

#5. The Swaziland Drought Crisis

**WARNING graphic image below

About three weeks ago I went to visit my fellow PCV, Allyn who is in the low-veld of the country in a village called Nkameni. Living in the low-veld she experiences less rain and hotter temperatures than I do in the middle-veld. While visiting her we took a walk through her community; not only did I notice how hot it was (because I couldn’t stop sweating), but I also noticed how there was plainly no green grass. She said she didn’t remember the last time it has rained in her village and explained how the people and animals are suffering. Continuing on our walk around the village we made a discovery that showed both of us just how truly bad the drought was. We walked into a large hole in the ground where it looked like a lake would have been. It was full of crusty drying mud and two cows fighting for their lives. Their ribs protruded from their bodies. I was shocked when I saw these cow and thought for sure they were dead, but upon getting closer there were signs of life was from the slight movement of the cow breathing. We ran over to the closest bobhuti who were playing soccer and they explained to us that the cows were simply starving to death and there was nothing we could do. 

Cow in Swaziland starving to dealth because of the drought
  I was so shocked and thought how have I not heard of how bad this drought really was until I had to see it for myself? After researching I learned, over 50,000 cattle have died in Swaziland this year because of the drought. The heavy rain that is expected around this time of year has still not started. Main cities here are down to less than 3 weeks water supply and Peace Corps have described to us volunteers a plan of consolidation if this drought continues to get worse. The rainy season in Swaziland usually lasts from mid-October until January, and the country didn’t get start heavy rain until about a week ago and it is mid-December. This drought is heavily hurting the 70% of families here who rely on their own crops for food to survive. Without rain families cannot plant their maize. My family was able to plow their fields this week, but unable to plant because more rain is needed to do so. I’m just hoping the rain will come and be able to feed all the families in Swaziland, that’s what I’m praying for.

 #6. Thoughts Six-Months into Service

“No matter how wide you stretch your fingers, your hands will always be too small to catch all the hurt you want to heal” – “If I Should Have a Daughter”  (Poem by Sarah Kay)

I see projects I want to start every day, I have grand ideas of HIV testing concerts that will get people to know their status, and maybe that will happen, but one thing I have learned in my six months here is to start small. I have started by building strong relationships that are going to help people in my community.  In learning who people are you also learn what strengths they have to give. Someone who you think is sluggish and unmotivated at first greeting could later be asking for your assistance in starting a girl’s empowerment club. People seem to show interest when you also want to listen to them. Volunteers can bring a new idea, or a work-ethic that a Swaziland might not have seen before. I know I have a purpose here when I see a person who is unmotivated become motivated towards a cause or project that they may not have had curiosity towards before. When I can truly show someone in Velezizweni that my sole purpose here is to better their community, they usually also want to help me in that process. In all as a volunteer it is frustrating, embarrassing and transportation always tests your patience, but what you get from this experience is so much more than what you give.

  

So happy 🙂

World AIDS Day

  
28 million people in Africa have been infected with HIV. Think about that for a second… 28 MILLION! Today is “World AIDS Day”. Before this year I paid little if any attention to this day or the effect of HIV/ AIDS in the world in general. Not until I lived among people who are HIV positive did I really see the impact in front of my face. This ugly disease has engulfed continent of Africa. Focusing it’s attention on sub-Saharan where the poverty rate is high and unprotected sex was common. HIV/AIDS has been reported in every country in the world and has left 39 million people dead in it’s tracks.

The oldest confirmed case of AIDS was in 1959 in a Congolese men found from a frozen blood sample. The first recorded history did not show up until 1981 where many cases were found in New York and San Francisco. 

HIV/ AIDS is still a problem and people around the world are contracting HIV to this day. HIV can be transmitted in several forms, but the most common ones being heterosexual sex, anal sex. Living in Swaziland where 50% of the pregnant women are HIV+, a high presence of HIV prevention is on stopping mother to child transmission. Safe sex practices including condom usage is also highly encouraged (free condoms are available in most public places in Swaziland).

HIV/AIDS has torn apart families, left a large amount of children without their parents, and has left the median age of the Swazi people at mere 15 years old. 

It has almost been a year since I even heard of the small country of Swaziland that I live in today. One of the first facts I learned about this country was that it had the highest percentage of people living with HIV; close to 31%. Hearing this statistic when I was in America, I felt shocked and didn’t really know what the impact was in the lives of Swazi’s.

Now, in Swaziland my heart becomes frustrated and devastated when confronted with the topic, because it hits so close to home. On my homestead alone, 4 people in the last 10 years have died from AIDS. There is always a soreness in my heart when people tell me how their loved one “passed away from being very ill”, the word AIDS is very little if ever used in explaining how someone died.

 I just wanted to share some of my story as I am “on the ground” in sub-Saharan, in Swaziland learning peoples stories. The HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa has been over looked when it came to the nonexistent medications in the first part of the epidemic. People in the USA had life saving ARV’s for many years before they made their way to Africa. I’m happy to say it has gotten a lot better since the first days of HIV. ARV’s are free to all Swazi’s and are highly encouraged for pregnant women to take. Swaziland has a brighter future than it did in the past, yet still a lot of work needs to be done!

If your more interested in HIV/ AIDS in Africa I’m currently reading a book called “28 stories of AIDS in Africa” by Stephanie Nolen. This book is really fantastic and paints a realistic picture of the history HIV and how it has impacted Africa. This is also where I got all my statistics from!

Also another great resource for y’all who don’t like books:

https://www.aids.gov/federal-resources/around-the-world/global-aids-overview

Educate yourself on world AIDS day!