Photo Essays

Community Health: A Society in Transition (South Africa)

Photos and Captions by Araceli Curiel

In the summer of 2007, I participated with 15 other students in a graduate study abroad program to South Africa that focused on community health issues, including chronic and infectious diseases, reproductive health, and HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. The first three weeks were in Cape Town, and included lectures, seminars, township tours and a one week mini-internship with a local organization. The lectures were organized by the University of Cape Town, Medical School, while the program was lead by Steinhardt Professor Sally Guttmacher. We had the opportunity to visits clinics in the township areas and interact with the health professionals that run the clinics. The last week of the program, we traveled to the Western Cape, Kwazulu-Natal region. This region has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world. During our township tour of Nyanga and Langa, outside Cape Town, we visited the interior of a cluster of homes as part of our introduction to township living. We saw children playing jump rope in the courtyard. These three boys were waiting on the sidelines as they watched others play.

On the last day of our internships with a local non-governmental organization called Sonke Gender Justice, we visited the Drakenstein Juvenile Correctional Facility and conducted a focus group with inmates about the One Man Can Campaign. This is a program to empower men in the fight against gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS. A group of inmate leaders teaches others about gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS. The purpose of the focus group was to evaluate how the one Man Can Campaign was working and to find out what additional resources they need to mentor and educate others. Here they are enjoying a break with visitors from a British Christian Group. Sonke is a non-governmental organization, working in the townships of Cape Town. Their vision is a Southern African region in which men, women, youth and children can enjoy equitable, healthy, and happy relationships that contribute to the development of a just and democratic society.

We had the opportunity to visit a school in a rural town in the Kwazulu-Natal region in the Eastern Cape, where some of us stayed the night with families. I stayed with one of the teachers and her granddaughter who goes to this school. The family stay gave me the opportunity to converse one-on-one with the mother, her sister, and the young girl about gender issues, violence, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. The conversations uncovered cultural contexts and peculiarities which made the lectures and other formal educational experiences from the program more real. For example, I learned that men must pay 11 cows for a wife, and they can marry as many women as they can afford cows. I also learned that the multiple wives find this practice acceptable and even look forward to becoming friends with each other. The family had the chance to also ask me questions and we giggled over our incredible cultural differences. This photo captures a moment when the children presented us with a beautiful cultural program including singing and dancing.

During our visits and interactions with health organizations, officials, and school faculty, we found out many people prefer going to a traditional healer than to go to a clinic. Much of this behavior is due to cultural and spiritual beliefs about health care and diseases. For example, we heard young men do not find women health workers acceptable or appropriate, especially with regard to sexual health and so refuse to go to a clinic. It is also viewed as unmanly to seek modern medicine. This photo shows the consultation room used by this traditional healer. On the right we see the different "medicines" he uses, including indigenous herbs, and brightly colored powders he makes with the help of a chemist. The healer affirmed he receives his talent from his ancestors who speak to him while he prays.

By far the most rewarding interaction was with the children -- reminding us there is hope for a better future for them, for Africa, and for the world. Here, two NYU students share a tickling moment with a toddler.