2007 PFIG Recipient Tyler Spencer

Career Administrator

Tyler Spencer
College of Arts & Sciences
Interdisciplinary and Environmental Sciences
2008 Graduation Year

Internship: Sports for Life in Baltimore, MD, and South Africa.

Hello to all out there reading my journal. My name is Tyler Spencer, and (though I hate to say it) I am a rising fourth year. I have spent the past three years crafting an interdisciplinary major called International Health and Environmental Sustainability, focusing on the subject areas of anthropology, foreign affairs, and bio/envi sci. This summer I will be interning with Sports for Life, a partnership of UNAIDS, USAID, and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

My project will be to create some form of monitoring and evaluation product for Sport for Development (SfD) affiliates in southern Africa. I will be jumping right into the project with a two-week introduction to Grassroot Soccer, an NGO that uses to power of soccer to fight HIV/AIDS through peer-education. I will spend the first week in a mining community and the second in the city of Bloemfontein (one of the hosts for World Cup 2010). From there, I will be helping to create a brand new SfD project in Musina. I have spent the past semester doing an independent research project in preparation for the summer, but I am going into this experience with a very open mind. You will hear more from me soon!

Notes on the first week

Dumela (Setswana’s “Hello”) everyone back in the U.S., the place I left just under two weeks ago. Three flights, two drives, and a little bit of a hike later, I arrived in Danielskuil, South Africa. Whereas last year (as part of U.Va.’s study abroad program) I was able to spend a week in Jo-burg to adjust to South Africa slowly, this year I traveled immediately to a rural area on the fringes of the Kalahari (what my past professors have called “Africa heavy”). I have already learned so much.

Danielskuil is one of two villages located in this remote corner of the desert. The climate is extremely dry, and the weather is cold by dark, hot by day. When I first arrived here, I was told by a local that there were only three things to do: mine, drink, and have sex (kind of weird, right?). The town came into existence as a result of a diamond mining project began in 1857. Outside of mining, there is nearly nothing to do in Danielskuil, and drinking has become a huge problem. As such, risky sexual behavior and life choices in general have led to one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the entire world.

My first week was pretty intense. In Danielskuil I was working with Taylor Ahlgren (an expert Grassroot Soccer trainer and a former member of Botswana’s National Soccer Team) and Anne Montgomery (a PhD student from Columbia) to train a group of Danielskuil High students with the Grassroot Soccer curriculum. We were teaching them how to facilitate soccer games and activities that could incorporate messages for HIV prevention and resilience (to learn more about how this is goal is attempted, check out www.grassrootsoccer.org.

This place is a little rough, but it is great. Though the land is desolate, the sunsets are awesome and the stars at night are second to none. The high school students have really made the project, as they seem to be extremely motivated to solve this problem that afflicts their community. In seeking to use their strengths to take action in their community, they are some of the greatest leaders I have ever met. To add to that, my “co-workers” are incredible. In terms of their experience, I could not imagine two better people to be working and learning with. Additionally, all of us being (or having been) college athletes gives us something to identify with, and makes it fun to work out together and to explore the area on our many long runs.

Thank you so much for your support. It is only through this funding that I am able to make this project possible! Check back for my midway report…

Midway

Musina, South Africa, is the definitive example of an HIV-vulnerable context, and in the past 4 weeks I have become a real life witness to this. It is situated in the poorest region of the poorest province in South Africa, bordering poverty-stricken areas of Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique. It has an army base to patrol the northern border, diamond mines with migrant mineworkers, a vast trucking industry, and a large sex work industry, attracting prostitutes from the Northern Province and the two bordering countries. Musina also has inadequate public health services (hospitals, clinics, etc.) and large private and traditional health sectors, which made it really tough for us to put our foot down in the community. To top that off, recreational facilities are limited, consisting largely of bars and pool houses…with a few informal soccer pitches.

About a week into the program, Anne and I were admittedly frustrated by the enormously daunting task we had ahead of us…and at times we thought it would be tough to succeed in this community. We couldn’t seem to find any stakeholders to support our program, and those who did were hesitant about doing so without compensation. As Anne talked about changing her intentions to do her post-doctoral work in Africa, I couldn’t help but remember a conversation I’d had with one of my teammates. "Dude, why do you have to go to Africa? Can’t you just stay 'here' and chill in your hometown?" I missed home. I think we both did.

Things only got better when we decided to devise a whole new plan of attack. Anne and I just decided to start searching for real leaders in the community by hitting the courts and fields. In the past week we have been attending sports events all around the local community, and in doing so I think we are going to find our best leaders- people who will show a true passion for their community, sports, and HIV prevention.

Final Reflections

In the final weeks of my project, everything came together. Anne and I were able to assemble roughly 30 community leaders who stood behind us with the program. They were for the most part enthusiastic and dedicated people, representing a wide range of sectors in the community but sharing a common interest in HIV prevention. We got to know each of these people well and trained them to deliver our education/sport program. When the training was finished, I was fortunate to have a week to sit down with each of these leaders to discuss the program and their thoughts on its potential to impact the community.

I think first and foremost—and this is not just with HIV, it’s anywhere—the toughest, most challenging aspect of my summer internship was rooted in the general lack of a prevention mindset. Prevention is in some ways the quintessential non-event; when prevention occurs, nobody realizes it. Prevention is also tough because it’s difficult to change behaviors. If you look at any behavior that public health officials have tried change, whether it’s smoking, eating, exercise—any of the things that are important for prevention—it’s tough. It’s tough because behavior change takes time and it takes understanding complex social psychologies. It was also particularly difficult for Anne and I because our behavior change model was dependent on learning the dynamic of health issues that were already tough for people to discuss (due to stigma and a general taboo around issues involving sex).

One thing I learned over the past 8 weeks, though, is that prevention is engaging. Whereas treatment relies on knowing an individual, prevention demands knowledge of tons of other factors. You find yourself asking millions of questions. Why is this population so much more afflicted than a neighboring group? Why is HIV so much more prevalent in mining communities? Is reaching youth the best way to start reaching the community, the political structures, and eventually the entire population? Moreover, asking these questions effectively is an art in itself. I found that I’d talk to some people one day, talk to them again after I’d gotten to know them better (e.g. through playing soccer or tennis)…and I’d get two totally different stories. So, it requires engaging every side of your brain.

Lastly, my prevention project this summer challenged my character, and I hope I was able to really learn and grow from it. I am sad to say that I have left South Africa. However, I couldn’t be prouder to say that my experience in Musina and with Sports for Life/Grassroot Soccer has assured me that my work there is not done. This project only further strengthened my desire to complete a career in public service, and it has helped me to realize that this particular kind of work is my passion. I look forward to developing the mission I have only begun to embark on.