NKOLE NKOLE, Ndola
IT IS mid-morning on a sunny Saturday when a small group of men walk into a dimly lit council hall in Garden township and arrange themselves on concrete seats.
The men are all resident in the area and meet regularly on Saturdays as part of a programme dubbed ‘Insaka’ which is run by the local NGO, Afya Mzuri.
Some are nursing hangovers from the previous night of alcohol consumption, while others have been fished out of bars to attend the meeting and some are present out of personal interest.
This particular meeting has drawn 30 men from within the community with the youngest being 18 years old, and the oldest, 70 years.
The men are being addressed by DREAMS (Determined, resilient, empowered, Mentored and Safe) project manager at Afya Mzuri, Gershom Kapalaula who is painstakingly informing his audience about the correct meaning of the term ‘sexual reproductive health.’
He is emphasising to them that their focus as men is to be healthy, happy and safe in their sexual lives and to understand their responsibility to themselves, their partners and their families.
“When we say sexual reproductive health, we are talking about the importance of being in a healthy state to have children, among other things,” Mr Kapalaula says.
The Insaka programme is a DREAMS sub-project specifically called ‘Male Involvement in Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights and HIV Prevention.’
DREAMS is an ambitious PEPFAR public-private partnership to reduce rates of HIV in adolescent girls and young women in the highest HIV burden countries.
Girls and younger women account for 74 percent of new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa and nearly 1,000 adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) are infected with HIV-every day.
The project of Male Involvement in Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights and HIV Prevention therefore came about to help reduce new HIV infections among adolescents and young girls aged between 14 and 24.
The aim of the project is to spread positive messages among the men which can shift their attitudes and misconceptions about sexual reproductive health and other issues that directly affect them or those they come in contact with on a daily basis.
By positively engaging the men, Afya Mzuri hopes to influence communities through them, more so because Zambia’s patriarchal cultural structure positions them at the helm of decision-making.
“In our patriarchal cultural arrangement men dominate in many things and from that context, they hold a lot of power in the cultural structure,” Mr Kapalaula says.
The project operates in the six zones of Garden, Matero, Chilenje, Libala, Kabwata and Chawama.
Some of the topics discussed at the insaka include Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC), gender-based Violence (GBV) the importance of testing for HIV, the need to take Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs if one is HIV positive and the dangers of alcohol abuse.
“As we developed this project involving the men, we also had to think of where we could find these men,” Mr Kapalaula explains.
Using outreach workers under the programme, they found, these men in bars and nightclubs as well as in offices and churches.
The council hall where the men of Garden township meet is a free environment allowing them to discuss sensitive subjects that they would otherwise be hesitant to share freely.
The men must attend a minimum of six insakas after which they are considered sexual and reproductive health ambassadors who then spread the messages learnt to other men in the community.
“We use this structure because traditionally the insaka used to be like an informal school. Even here where we are, we share quite a lot but the three themes we focus on are HIV, gender based Violence and HIV treatment,” Mr Kapalaula shares.
Humphrey Mutondo is an outreach worker under the project and admits that convincing the men to attend the insaka is not always the easiest of tasks but as it is changing the attitudes of many young people and influencing the men positively, it has been well received in Garden.
“When we go out in the bars, it’s not easy because some of the men we meet are drunk, however, the response towards the project is overwhelming,” Humphrey says.
Sarah Situmbeko works alongside Humphrey as an outreach worker. Part of role also includes distributing condoms and flyers carrying messages on sexual reproductive health to men in Garden community to entice them to attend the insaka.
Sarah says what they are trying to do as outreach workers is to reduce the HIV infection rate by educating the men and encouraging them to change their behaviours.
The insaka attendees are thankful for the way the informal gatherings are helping them reflect on their lives and make better choices.
“Whether I am an alcohol drinker or not, I need to take care of my family,” Patrick Phiri says. “From the time I started attending the insaka, I have seen it as a good thing because it is helping us replace negative thoughts that can lead to negative behaviours, with positive thoughts.”
Frederick Nyoni says it has helped him be more responsible about his health to reduce the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“They have also discouraged us from irresponsibly sleeping around with women because we may exchange STIs this way,” Frederick shares. “We have been taught that we must control our urges, if we want to live long.”
Still, other men shared how they now appreciate the importance of testing for HIV together with their partners and that safety comes first where sex is concerned.
Insaka first-timer, Evans Chanda, echoed Patrick and Frederick’s sentiments: “This Insaka is powerful because nowadays, we as young people are doing a lot of irresponsible things in the townships but here, we are made to think of what we can do to change our society and move together.”
The Insaka project began in 2017 and was set to run for a year but Afya Mzuri intends to lobby for a project extension based on the positive response from the men.
As the meeting ends, Mr Kapalaula runs through the main points before dispersing the attendees. Some men help themselves to a box of condoms Afya Mzuri has provided before saying hurried goodbyes and then heading out.
They will be back the next Saturday when some of the lessons already taught will be reinforced.
NKOLE NKOLE, Ndola