Saturday, 31 March 2012

The correct and consistent use of condoms


I had already been tested for HIV during each of my pregnancies, but with the unraveling of my marriage came the need to get tested yet again. There was a VCT center around the corner from my house. I passed the large signs pointing to the place everyday on my way to work, never thinking I would ever have a need to go there myself.

One day, I drove myself into the compound of the VCT center and walked into the unfamiliar building. It was a weekend in the early evening. I was surprised to find the building practically empty. After a few minutes, I was assigned a VCT counselor. My heart sank initially, as the counselor’s physical appearance did not make a great first impression. I had caught a glimpse of her as I walked into the building, and, frankly, had mistaken her for a janitor. She wore some sort of large overcoat which I had come to associate with the vocation, and a pair of slippers. She paced sluggishly from room to room, apparently hunting for something, and initially addressed me in the local language before I explained that I didn’t speak it.

When she ushered me into a private room, though, I had to revise my first impression. Before my very eyes, she switched gears and suddenly took on the persona of a serious and experienced professional. She began by asking about the circumstances that prompted my visit. I gave her a summary of the story which, by this time, I had grown weary of telling. For a minute, she slipped out of her professional persona and became a regular, fellow Christian woman: she heaved a deep sigh, shook her head in bewilderment and said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with our men. The church has a lot to do – a big job to do.’ She then began narrating stories about a couple of other Christian 'cases' she had come across recently through her work to support her thesis that the church needed to wake up.

I had come into the VCT center boldly, matter-of-factly, and on my own. I just wanted to get the HIV test out of the way and map out the way forward, based on whatever the results showed. ‘Why didn’t you tell me to go with you?’ a friend of mine later asked, ‘How could you have gone all alone?’ I was touched by this, and explained that it hadn’t even occurred to me to go with anyone else. I wasn’t sure what the results would show, but I wasn’t scared, either. Up to that point, I could never understand why many women I knew would prefer not to know their HIV status at all, feeling that the knowledge of an HIV-positive status would send them to an earlier grave than if they remained unaware. My stance has always been that the sooner you know about it, the sooner you can start taking care of your health.

However, after a few drops of blood had been extracted from my finger by the counselor, a sense of dread enveloped me for the next few minutes as we waited together for the results. I was taken aback as I hadn’t expected to feel any fear. I was either HIV-positive, or I wasn’t. But I did feel scared all of the sudden, and different scenes from my life sped before my eyes like an old movie in what seemed like a hundered miles per minute. To distract myself from this unexpected fear, I allowed my eyes to wander round the little VCT room, examining the posters on the wall, and the items on a table, trying to keep my breathing even and to push down the feelings of doom.

My eyes finally settled on a large, ebony black, ugly penis model. Although I had never actually seen one before (a penis model, that is), I immediately realized what it was. ‘Is that a penis model?’ I asked the VCT counselor. She answered in the affirmative and I said, ‘You know, I’ve always heard about these things, but I’ve never actually seen one. In fact, come to think of it, I’ve never seen a condom demonstration before. Would you mind doing one for me?’

The counselor obliged and as she proceeded, I temporarily forgot about my impending test results. ‘First of all,’ she said, slipping back into her experienced, professional counselor persona, ‘before you tear open the condom packet, you need to look on the back of the packet to verify the expiration date ...’

‘What a minute,’ I interrupted incredulously, ‘You mean condoms have an expiration date?’ She calmly showed me the expiration date on the one she was holding. As I explained to her, I had never, ever known this. As a matter of fact, I had never - have never - bought a condom in my life. I had always left that to my spouse. And since the lights where typically off during sexual intercourse, I know for a fact we never checked expiration dates. I sat there, shaken by the level of my own ignorance. ‘Before tearing open the condom packet,’ she continued calmly, ‘feel it to ensure that there’s still air in it – it shouldn’t be completely flat. If it is, there’s a problem.’ Lastly, using the big, unsightly, ebony black penis model, she demonstrated how to put the condom on. I watched in silent fascination. She put it on, ensuring some space was left at the tip to keep the condom from bursting. I stared pensively at the penis model for a few seconds and finally said, ‘I’m honestly not sure that this is how we used it during our marriage. I honestly don’t know. I never checked. I didn’t know what to check for. It never would have occurred to me to check.’

At the age of 36, after a decade of marriage and two children, I finally received my first condom demonstration; I finally knew how to put a condom on correctly.

During the marriage, I saw condoms as my spouse’s business. My assumption was that any man would know how to use them properly. Memories of friends who talked about not bothering to use condoms because ‘they always end up bursting anyway’ swirled around my head. Our assumption is that men know how to use them … but who taught them? Who teaches a Christian man to use a condom correctly with his wife? Certainly not the church. Who else, then? Where do they learn? How do they learn? I shuddered at these thoughts – at how much of my life I placed in someone else’s hands, at how little responsibility I had taken for myself.

‘Your results are ready now.’ I took a deep breath and looked.

I was okay.

'Praise God, praise God, praise God,' I whispered, my eyes shut tight. 

I was one of the lucky ones.

2 comments:

  1. I loved this. You are so right. The sad truth is no one taught most of our men anything. Most of them were not even taught how to be men so they picked up fragments from any mirage of a man they saw. What is even sadder is that women are supposed to live with their ignorance, be quiet and "endure". Maybe we can be the first generation to break the silence for the benefit of our future generations.

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  2. Maybe we can (that's an inspiring thought). After filing for divorce, I remember saying to a friend that I'm either a 'pioneer' or the worst sinner on earth. I suppose I'm a bit of both (divorce or no divorce). The sadder truth (referring to what you've said) is that I find many men are willing to learn (at least the young men in my Sunday School class), but teachers (or, I guess visionaries with a burden for men) are lacking.

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