In the Tanzanian city of Dodoma, many young people come from families impoverished by AIDS and have to take care of affected relatives. A serious lack of opportunities for first-time job seekers deepens widespread poverty and could heighten the HIV risk for young people.
It didn’t take Boniface Okumu long to learn this from young people who go to the Jesuit youth centre, Kituo cha Vijana, in Dodoma. Boniface is doing his regency, a placement that is part of his formation as a Jesuit.
“In my first months here, I met many youth who, through their sharing, made me realize the impact the AIDS epidemic has had and continues to have in their lives,” says Boniface. “Some have family members, friends and neighbours who are HIV-positive and whom they have to care for.”
But this is not what struck him most: “The unity, openness and desire of the young people to share their challenges, and their determination to help each other, impress me. I find it a good sign of hope that some are ready to share their stories and challenges regarding AIDS.”
Young people come every day to the centre that has computer classes, tailoring classes, a library for secondary and college level students and sports grounds. When another young Jesuit, Ernesto Graciano from Mozambique, visited the centre late last year, he was intrigued to see the youth finish a basketball game and then sit down in a group to talk in earnest.
“Watching this dynamic was an enriching experience for me. Elizabeth, one of the youth leaders, explained that when a sports activity is over, they gather to discuss a topic of their choosing, including sexual violence, how to tackle poverty or what it means to be a youth in a time of HIV/AIDS,” said Ernesto. “Most of the young people end up sharing concrete experiences, such as caring for people in their families who have AIDS, and the impact this has on their lives.”
Something else Ernesto learned from the group he met that day was that “there is a huge need to reach out to other youth in the city because many are not well informed about AIDS-related issues.”
Sensing the eagerness of the young people to know and to do more, Boniface prompted them to read and reflect on literature in the centre’s library on HIV & AIDS. “We also encourage those who have read to share the information with others,” he said.
Boniface also proposed a formal discussion, specifically about the “challenges of upholding morality in our contemporary society” – “The response was positive and we discussed a lot, which I believe was of benefit to the group of about 30 people who attended.”
The heavy burden of poverty worsened by AIDS reared its head. “Anne (not her real name), who lives with her HIV-positive mother, shared with us how difficult life is. She said her mother has to struggle to find her college fees and to take care of her other children in secondary school. Anne told us that many are the times she had to resist the temptation to get into relationships with older men who could help her financially. Her experience reminded the others of the risk of contracting HIV due to social and economic challenges.”
Participants of the discussion readily agreed that the biggest problem they face is joblessness. “Even graduates find it difficult to get jobs. This state of unemployment, which in most cases leads to poverty and insecurity, is indeed a disturbing reality,” said Boniface.
On the other hand, he continued: “I’m always encouraged by the young people’s determination to live morally upright and sexually responsible lives despite their day-to-day challenges of poverty and unemployment.”
The youth had plenty of ideas to redress the situation, including the provision of capital to start their own modest businesses and the need for more awareness on morality, sexuality and AIDS.
But the energy and enthusiasm of the group that frequents the centre is far from limited to their own interests. They visit people with HIV who need support in Airport Parish – which is linked to the centre –and try to console them. Here too, economic support remains a big challenge.
Ernesto came away from his one-off meeting with the young people convinced that they are “fertile ground” for any initiative to encourage youth development and HIV prevention in Dodoma and that they deserve support: “I found that the youth of the parish have a very rich initiative and they intend to support and educate others to have a better future together.”
Interacting with the youth on a daily basis, Boniface is determined to do all he can to help despite the limitations posed by lacking resources. “Accompanying the young people and being there to listen to their stories has enabled me to acknowledge how much the Church still needs to do in terms of human development education for them,” he says. “Perhaps we may not be able to help many or do much, but I believe that the few we help will in turn be of help to many others, and the little we do now will yield greater results in future.”