Health Club. The phrase may conjure mental images of sweaty old men in headbands working off their Christmas poundcake on a rowing machine, but in Kenya, it has a very different meaning. A health club is a representative sample of primary school students (usually classes 4-8) who gather once a week to learn about community health topics – malaria, teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, etc. The aim is that they will then become peer-to-peer educators or peer-to-parent educators, disseminating this vital information throughout their community. I can’t personally go house to house to house throughout all four sub-locations I’m responsible for to tell every person they should sleep under nets and wash their hands before eating, but if I can plant an adorable child in every sub-village with that same message, maybe I’ll get somewhere.

I’m currently co-running two health clubs and on retainer (providing supervision and assistance on an “as-needed” basis) for at least one more. I never take on a health club without an on-campus counterpart whom I can educate and encourage to a) share half the responsibilities and b) be able to continue the activity after I go back to America.

SUSTAINABILITY, SUSTAINABILITY, SUSTAINABILITY. In conclusion, SUSTAINABILITY.

Of course, any time you drop an unfamiliar face into a room full of elementary school kids, you’ll have a small handful that are gregarious volunteers, and a whole lot of deer-in-headlights stares. It happens, and they’ll warm to you eventually once you stop being the scary new white person teacher. At least, this is what I kept reminding myself of over and over the other day as I taught my second health club session at the new primary school where I’m helping. Not to be unkind, but I’ve known more talkative chia pets. At one point, I could not get a group of 14 girls to name one good thing they liked. About anything. Oi.

When I stepped out of the classroom and back into the blinding sun, my co-teacher touched my shoulder and said, “That was wonderful. They are shy, but they will come around.” Despite her reassurances, I felt ill at ease. This kind of thing can ride on waves of positive energy generated by the students in the group, or it can completely fall flat and make everyone’s life hard. I had a long, long, long, LONG walk home to think about this (about 9 km – bike tire’s flat, remember?)

On the way home, I passed a guy I had spoken with a week or so ago, informally, about HIV and condoms. It wasn’t a lecture or seminar or teaching engagement then. I was literally just hanging around waiting for my friend to finish at an ATM when this man asked who I was and why I was here. I explained. When my friend came out of the bank, the three of us stood there talking about HIV, dealing with misconceptions about condom use and “cures” for AIDS, etc. I do this all the time with beach boys. It didn’t strike me as anything unusual. But that day, as I was walking home from failclub health club, he called me over to thank me personally for talking to him the pervious week. He explained that he used to never use condoms for a variety of reasons, but now he knew the facts, and uses them every single time. “Thank you for saving my life,” he finished simply before shuffling back into his shop.

The walk home got a lot shorter after that.

That’s how these jobs go: it’ll happen when it happens, quite possibly by surprise, and in an instant you’ll be humbled and reminded why you came here.

And that’s ok with me.

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