Peace Corps gets chiefs to undergo HIV tests

In Molepolole, a village 50 kilometres outside Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, Chief Sechele enthusiastically accepted when a group of United States Peace Corp volunteers broke with tradition last week and asked the Bakwena Paramount Chief, Kgosi Kgari Sechele III, to publicly take an HIV test.

"It was not necessary for me to think deeply about the decision to be tested for HIV because it will encourage men to know their status. If leaders can take such bold steps, their families will do the same," said the chief.

For fear of being perceived as disrespectful, it is not customary for members of the community to go to the local meeting place (kgotla) where the chief presides over issues relating to customary law, which functions alongside Roman Dutch Law, to request that he undertake certain actions.

The Peace Corp group said they felt it didn't make sense for leaders to stand on stages telling people to get tested and know their status while they were not leading by example.

The group approached local headmen with the idea and were pleasantly surprised when about 30 immediately offered to take an HIV test.

Not three days later the Tebelopele Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre conducted the 'high profile' tests, hoping to encourage others to be tested to know their status "because their traditional leaders knew theirs".

"I think there is an assumption that leaders will not take a test, but leaders themselves are enthusiastic," said Michael Gillete, a 24-year-old volunteer from Texas. "They needed a catalyst - we did not pressure them, nor did we cajole them."

The Peace Corps volunteers are part of a group who graduated from a 10-week orientation programme in Setswana language and culture. Armed with their new knowledge, they will tour the country in an effort to help short-staffed local health care workers fight the debilitating HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"We live with host families but we purchase our own groceries, so we are not perceived as outsiders," said Michael Gillete, Professor of Music at Hartt School. "People approach us on the streets of their community to ask us who we are and what we're doing. This provides us with an opportunity to interact with community members face to face."

Another volunteer credited the willingness of the traditional leaders to be tested to a growing awareness that men need to be more involved in issues relating to HIV/AIDS.

"Women are getting messages of prevention of mother-to-child transmission, but men are not as informed," said Renata Rutman, a 22-year-old from New York, who specialises in women's reproductive health.

Rutman is excited about her posting to Selibi-Phikwe, a small mining town in northern Botswana, where she will go because she has done research on HIV/AIDS in South African gold mines.

"Men simply must be targeted in discussions on HIV/AIDS because of the power they have in relationships," said Rutman.