THE Education Minister will be delighted to learn that in my 13 years going through Zimbabwe’s school system, not once did I engage in sexual activities. But that’s where the good news ends. More than anything, it was lack of opportunity and not moral abidance or some other quality that preserved my innocence.
From Grade 1-7, sex barely registered as a thought. Forms 1-4 were passed at the boys-only Mzingwane High School where contact with the other sex was limited to a handful of female teachers and on the rare inter-schools sports days when we had – for a few hours – the rare opportunity to mingle with girls from other schools in Matabeleland South. Usher and St James girls were gold dust.
For A’ Level, I got a culture shock when I enrolled at the mixed Founders High School in Bulawayo. Here, relationships flourished – not mine, I was too shy and too ill-prepared (due to the previous boys school existence) to put a word in on my own behalf. In any case, I was still a boarder, and girls and boys were kept apart – encounters limited to the school programme and sports activities.
But I had friends who were day scholars who also had girlfriends who commuted to school from home. They spoke freely about their sex encounters in the townships where the teachers and headmaster neither had reach nor authority.
I am recounting this personal story in the wake of new calls by the provincial administrator for Masvingo Province for the government to open consultations on the potential benefits of availing condoms to High School pupils in the fight against new HIV infections.
Education Minister David Coltart is refusing to entertain the possibility at all. “Parents want their children to abstain from sex at school age,” he says. But are they? The truth is significant numbers of pupils are sexually active – if not with fellow students, then it’s with adults on the outside which significantly increases exposure to HIV.
The most common brand of condoms in Zimbabwe, Protector Plus, retails for an average US$1, and double that on the streets. With recent studies showing that nearly 83 percent of Zimbabweans survive on less than US$2 a day, what chance is there that a sexually-active student with no income whatsoever will afford a condom? The answer is too frightening to contemplate.
I am not sure whether it was a government programme – judging by the minister’s attitude to sex and condoms at schools – but the only lesson, and arguably the most important in my life, I ever got on how to wear a condom came when I was at Mzingwane in Form 3.
I remember us being corralled into the school hall and a Sixth Former – a chap who answered to the beautiful name of Gaylord – stood in front and demonstrated, with the aid of a wooden penis, how to wear a condom. “It shouldn’t be too tight at the end otherwise it will burst,” I remember him say. Don’t ask me where he learnt that!
Some, like Coltart, are making the argument that if you make condoms available to pupils then you are encouraging them to have sex. I will not argue with such a supposition, but I do wonder how those conclusions were reached without the minister commissioning a study. Learning how to use a condom certainly did not get me to obsess about sex. It may have actually saved my life.
The minister may not like it, but the most important sexual lesson in my life came in school, imparted by a fellow student. It is not for me to decree that condoms must be distributed at schools, but it would be homicidal if the minister would at least not give the discussion a chance. Fighting HIV, like other new world challenges of our time, requires a new thinking and tough decisions which may offend the dearest of our traditional values.