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Zimbabwe: Farewell to the remarkable Jesuit AIDS Project

Time Baluwa

In 2014, we celebrated the Jesuit AIDS Project (JAP), an initiative that reached more than 24,000 young people in 18 years of service. We celebrated because this year, the Jesuit Province of Zimbabwe took the decision to close JAP, and we could not let the occasion pass without marking its truly considerable achievements. These are seen mostly not in what JAP actually did but in the way it transformed young people and their quality of life. So much so, although JAP is no more, the Jesuit province is carrying on some of its key activities.

Fr Edward Rogers SJ founded JAP in 1997 – after doing some groundwork in 1996 –as a response to the steep HIV incidence rates among young people in Zimbabwe. A dynamic, keen and skilled social worker, Fr Ted believed strongly in the inherent power and ability of young people to change the disastrous trends of the epidemic back then. He was convinced of the power of peer-to-peer education, a strategy informed by empirical data that young people get most of their operational knowledge from their peers. These two notions became the inspiring forces of JAP and led to the development of several initiatives over the years.

The backbone of JAP was Youth Against AIDS (YAA) clubs that were initially set up in Catholic schools. The clubs formed young people by enabling them to share, to reflect on AIDS and on risk behaviours and to empower one another with life-skills. JAP soon got invitations to set up YAA clubs in government and private schools too.

Building on the clubs, JAP devised several programs that yielded tremendous results, among them a six-day peer educators’ workshop. This process-based formation, conducted in a residential setting, gave young people the information, skills and technical competence they needed to transmit positive information to their peers. Other equally successful programs included Training in Facilitation, Training in Performance Arts, HIV and AIDS Quiz Competition and The Young People Making a Difference Campaign and Festival.

From 2000 onwards (the date from which statistics were kept), more than 24,000 young Zimbabweans benefited from the YAA clubs and training programs run by JAP. Stories of change collected by the project indicate that young people were motivated to be keenly aware about HIV and other health risks, to keep positive values and to be responsible and compassionate citizens.

Tatenda Gondo was inspired to pursue studies in HIV and AIDS management and has received an award in Ghana for being the most hardworking advocate in this field. She wrote to JAP: “I was a member of a YAA club. I was motivated by the Jesuit AIDS Project to purse a career in the field of AIDS. I knew that every Wednesday I would meet professionals from JAP and admire their passion and zeal.” Edgar Pakamisa, an outstanding AIDS counsellor at Nazareth Hospital, is another example. Edgar used to be a JAP youth program facilitator who felt called to keep reaching out to others.

JAP networked with local, regional and international institutions. Locally the project worked in liaison with the National AIDS Council of Zimbabwe, the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture, SafAIDS, AIDS Counselling Trust, Restless Development (then Student Partnership Worldwide) and the Zimbabwe AIDS Network. Through this collaboration, the project managed to bring about real transformation in the lives of young people, both those living with HIV and not.

Regionally and internationally, JAP collaborated with AJAN, making an indispensable contribution to the professional development of Jesuit AIDS ministry in other African countries too. JAP personnel were instrumental in the creation of the popular AJAN HIV & AIDS Prevention Program for Youth (AHAPPY) program. They also contributed to Youth Movies for Life and Love, an AJAN initiative that produced short movies for prevention-education. JAP also lent its expertise to the Jesuit Chikuni Mission in Zambia, conducting training in peer education there.

Happily, when the Jesuits in Zimbabwe decided to close JAP in March 2014, they realized the impact of its programs and decided to carry on with some of its core works. A project called Integral Youth Development (IYD) was put in place to focus on adolescent reproductive health, a broader thematic area that HIV falls into. IYD will continue the sterling work of JAP, not least in YAA clubs and the AHAPPY program, to arrest the spread of HIV among Zimbabwean young people and to mitigate the consequences of AIDS.

Time Baluwa was the program coordinator of JAP for many years. He continues this work with IYD.

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