I have now completed a second observation day, 2 days of survey distribution, and one day of focus groups. Moving right along!
The second observation day started out being equally as awkward because once again the Censeur lead me to a classroom sans professor. However, the kids were older this time around and therefore more confidant. After roughly 12 minutes of nail painting, sleeping, last minute homework finishing, and singing Adele, one of the kids finally asked what I was doing there. Good question sir, I’m beginning to wonder that myself. The following are tidbits from my spontaneous discussion with the class:
- “What’s your project?”
- “Why adolescent sexual health?”
- “Do you think you’re meeting your goal if you say you want to observe a class but there is no professor present?” (To which I wanted to respond, “you’re a shit starter, but you have a point.” Just one of many reasons why working with adolescents keeps you on your toes.)
- “We want to talk to our parents about sex, and some of us do, but most of the time our parents don’t want to talk about it.”
- “I think sex is natural. Kids need to discover things for themselves. They get to an age where they want to be liked and loved.”
- “We see American series where the kids bring their boyfriends or girlfriends over to the house and the parents don’t care. Doesn’t that encourage sex? We couldn’t do that, our parents would freak out. I got in huge trouble when my boyfriend came over to my house.”
And then they took pictures of me.
The Censeur came in to check on me and I asked if I could stay for History class. He looked puzzled but said that would be fine. Later I went to a biology class. Most of the time was spent on a quiz, so I didn’t get to see teacher-pupil interaction, but the quiz covered the menstrual cycle, phases of embryotic development, and STI symptoms/modes of transmission. Not bad!
After the quiz the prof gave the kids time to ask me questions, which included the following:
- Are you married?
- How old are you? (The class erupted in excitement. There is enormous age variation in classes, and it’s very possible that some students are my age or older).
- What were your studies in Boston and why did you decide to come to Gabon?
- Why adolescent health?
- Do you work with the United Nations?
- Are you just working with our school? Why?
- Will you speak English for us?
Overall I was pretty impressed with their questions and interest level. Both classes seemed to think an adolescent sexual health project was really important, and they were very open to talking about sexual health. Some people commented on how “sex is taboo,” but honestly, compared to the U.S. everyone is very open to the topic. I haven’t encountered any resistance from the school director or staff. Everyone seems to think this is important and worth doing, which is incredibly encouraging.
With that said, I did encounter a roadblock this past week: the religion teacher. This chapter should be entitled “how I found myself in Africa confronting my frustration with the Catholic Church.” It wasn’t pretty.
So here I am going to distribute my survey to a class that I assumed would be sans professor per usual. However, not only did a professor show up, but he was also a priest. Delightful. He asked to see my survey and I’m thinking “oh dear he’s going to send me to confession,” but to my amazement he was very interested and decided on the spot that today’s class would be about the relationship between sexuality, reproduction, and religion. My immediate reaction was “please don’t! you’re going to screw up my results!” Let’s just say the ideal survey sample for sexual health is NOT a group that has just received a lecture on how condoms are part of the profane world (yes that is a direct quote, although I think he was trying to get at secular rather than profane. Or maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better).
Then I took off my researcher hat. There I was listening to my own religion’s take on sexuality and reproduction with anger and dismay. It’s the part I try my hardest to forget, but rears its ugly head from time to time. It hit me harder though because it wasn’t theoretical anymore; it wasn’t just the part of the homily I could tune out. This was a classroom full of kids trying to figure out what the hell to do with themselves in this awkward time we conveniently call adolescence and someone just told them condoms lead to infidelity and diseases.
At the same time, this staunch Catholic presence was baffling given the incredibly comprehensive sexual and reproductive health curriculum the school uses in biology class. What’s a kid to think when the biology teacher says, “masturbation is a normal part of sexual development” and “there are many different ways to express sexuality, including homosexuality” and then the religion teacher calls both of them a sin?
We’ll see what the survey results bring, but something tells me there’s not a whole lot of abstinence going on around here.