After turning to drink to cope with the loss of his parents to HIV, musician Alfred Mwiza has got his life back on track – by using his creative skills to teach young people about the need for safe sex.
Things are changing on the tiny, sandy island of Mbabala.
Cut off from time by Lake Bangweulu, Zambia’s largest body of water, this small fishing community of 2,000 people isn’t quite the paradise it looks like from the outside.
According to UNICEF, three in ten Zambian teenage girls have given birth already or are currently pregnant. 16,000 adolescent girls are dropping out of school after becoming pregnant, and HIV prevalence sits at 8% for girls and 6% for boys.
"My parents died of the HIV and AIDS pandemic," says 30-year-old musician Alfred Kunda Mwiza. "First it was my mum. She had all the signs that showed HIV was taking control of her body – the way she lost weight, the fatigue she complained of. She died in 2004. My dad followed in 2007."
"It’s been 15 years since her death and when I look back to that time, it wasn’t easy for families to sit and talk about sexual health. There were many taboos. But thanks to VSO’s work, that’s all changed. When I visit families, schools and clinics now, I see these issues being discussed openly."
"I can now accept that our inability to talk about safe sex contributed to my parents' deaths."
Responding to a sexual health crisis
We launched Adolescent TALK!, a project enhancing the sexual and reproductive health knowledge and services for 7,610 girls and boys aged 10-19 in the local district of Samfya.
From increasing access to contraceptives for young people in remote and rural areas like Mbabala to tackling taboos around sexual health so medical facilities can become more ‘youth-friendly’, the project has also trained local community members like Alfred to become ‘peer educators’.
“After I lost my mother, I just sat and thought – what can I do with my life?” said Alfred. “I found that I could express the struggles I was going through best when I sang. I discovered I was good – and when people enjoyed my music I quickly understood the power songs have to educate.
“But before the project began I didn’t have that chance. I had turned to drink to get over my loss. I was having sex with multiple partners and the kind of music I was recording was just the kind people listen to in clubs. Now, that’s changed. I’ve learnt about how to teach safe sex through my music.”
As a peer educator, Alfred runs outreach or ‘sensitisation’ sessions, gathering the community together to talk about taboo topics, helping normalise conversations about sexual health – both in group sessions and through his own compositions, which have aired on local radio.
“Just come in guys, I tell them. Let’s avoid HIV and AIDS. Let’s stay away from early marriages. Let’s use condoms - let’s condomise.
Alfred's work hasn't just benefited the community: in his own words, Alfred hasn’t just learnt how to sensitise others – but also himself.
“Next year I’ll celebrate my fifth wedding anniversary. Thanks to the family planning advice I learnt from VSO, my wife now has the implant. Contraception is helping us plan better financially for the future so we can focus on our three-year-old daughter to give her the support she deserves.
“This project has shown me that even if I lost my parents, I could still pull through in life. It has shown me that spending time writing songs instead of drinking alcohol could help me escape that past life. And it’s shown me that I can survive through my talent of singing.”
It wasn’t easy for families to sit and talk about sexual health. There were many taboos. But thanks to VSO’s work, that’s all changed. When I visit families, schools and clinics now, I see these issues being discussed openly.