Direct, honest and respectful – ingredients of AJAN’s youth program
25 March 2013 – I recently participated in a workshop with teachers and administrators from the high school located in the Kibera slums of Nairobi – St Aloysius Gonzaga. This was an opportunity to pilot the new AHAPPY workbook. AHAPPY is a tool designed to promote the integral development of young people. It addresses the essential topics needed to fully appreciate our humanity and sexuality and the knowledge of God’s love for each one of us.
Topics including self-awareness, the presence of God in our lives, our relationship with others and the biology and epidemiology of HIV are all addressed in a direct and empathetic approach. This was the second piloting of this material. The teachers will be facilitating this program with their students over the course of this year and providing feedback to AJAN on their experiences.
Honesty and straightforwardness: keys to success
I admire the choice of language and images used throughout the workbook: direct, honest and clear. It can be tempting for adults to talk down to adolescents and be only directive. This can be a real barrier to supporting growth and change. The program’s respectful tone demonstrates an understanding of the reality and challenges faced by adolescents in Africa.
Catholic Church teaching is presented in an understandable, supportive way, which recognizes that, like all human beings, young people are called to make their own choices. The program focuses on helping them make healthy, informed ones – appreciating that they can’t be told what to do at every step of their lives but that they must ultimately become discerning and responsible themselves.
This is an approach teachers participating in the workshop felt would help young people to develop the necessary critical thinking skills. It is only through the development of these skills that we can be sure adolescents will not only be knowledgeable but will also cultivate healthy values and desires for their future.
The image of God in the midst of the HIV epidemic
A discussion during the workshop that was particularly eye opening was the one focused on images of God. Every student at St Aloysius is affected by AIDS – one or both parents have died from the disease. It is so important that they come to know God loves them deeply – we are all beloved by God. The workbook helps the participant foster this kind of image. If God is seen to be angry and spiteful, it would be particularly damaging. HIV could be seen as a punishment, a judgment made upon their parents and them. The young people must first learn to see, despite their many challenges and obstacles, that God loves them wholly and has a specific plan for them. Their challenge – like all of ours – is to trust in this love and work to discover God’s call in their lives.
Sex vs sexuality – a holistic approach
So often we focus on a very narrow component of our sexuality – that of genital sexual expression. Obviously, in discussing HIV prevention and transmission, this is an important element but we must challenge ourselves to go beyond it. The AHAPPY program does this in a variety of ways. It expands our sometimes narrow definition of love to include passionate love (Eros), affectionate love (Philia) and the unconditional love like that of God for us (Agape). It also encourages young people to express in healthy ways the passionate desires that make each of us unique, an approach that is counter-cultural to the pressures placed on us by the media and the world around us. Our sexuality is one of the greatest gifts we have from God – we must work to disassociate it from the fear and tragedies of HIV and to live it in an integrated and cherished way.
I am so thankful to have the opportunity to work with this dedicated and engaged group of educators and to better understand the approach this program takes to support those most vulnerable to HIV– adolescents and young adults.
I know the program will have a tremendous impact on every student who has the opportunity to participate in it. It is not just a tool that will increase awareness and prevention of HIV but will also help young people to better understand and value their sexuality and its importance in their lives. It reaches far beyond the realities of this pandemic to assist them in tackling head-on the challenges they face, as they grow into adulthood, and encourages them to integrate these struggles into a trusting, open dialogue with our Creator.