By Tears Wenzira and Patience Kunaka
As the XVIII International AIDS Conference draws to a close in Vienna, 28-year-old Tears Wenzira ties a bright red ribbon in the last head of hair she will braid on her first trip outside of her native Zimbabwe. Back home in the Harare suburb of Chitungwiza, a typical day in the salon brings Tears approximately 25 clients; in the past four days, she estimates that she’s placed a symbolic braid with a red ribbon in more than 300 women’s hair.
She’s part of a group of more than 2,000 hair dressers in Zimbabwe who work closely with PSI, as part of a programme, co-funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.K. Department for International Development, to prevent HIV transmission by promoting the use of female condoms to their clients. In 2009 alone, PSI sold more than 2 million female condoms, and more than 50 percent of them were distributed through a network of 1,700 hair salons across the country. Today, Tears sells 100 female condoms per month, rendering a profit of US $4.00 – enough to buy basic groceries like bread and milk for her husband and three children, three nieces and nephews, three siblings and grandmother she cares for.
| Tears braiding hair in the Global Village.
Below, Tears and her PSI colleague Patience share their thoughts and impressions on their time at the conference.
Tears: I was so happy to attend the conference. I didn’t think a person like me could ever be in a place like this. I never finished school – I’m just a hairstylist. I didn’t think that I could come here and speak to educated people with so many degrees…I thought I wouldn’t even be able to speak. But on the first day when I started braiding hair, I realized that I could. I was so happy to speak to them, communicate with these people and talk to them about my life in Zimbabwe, about HIV in my country and about how I help distribute the female condom. And it made me happy to see people so happy to have their hair braided – even though it was hard to braid so much hair! And the type of hair that I braided here is different than the hair I braid back home, so that was hard too!
I’m excited now to go back to Zimbabwe. All the other hairdressers at the hair salon had come to the airport to say goodbye to me, and I know they’re excited to have me come home and tell them all the things that I learned while I was here. You know, I’d never seen the FC2 Female Condom before! It was my first time so now I’m excited to go back and tell the other hairdressers that there’s another type of female condom out there. Really, this whole experience has been so exciting for me.
You know, I’ve never had a passport before… I’ve never been in an airplane, I’ve never been on a train and all these new things were so exciting for me. But what is most exciting is having learned so much about how important the female condom is not just for me and my friends, but even here at this big conference. It has been so amazing for me to be here.
Patience: As an Interpersonal Communications Manager with PSI/Zimbabwe, I’ve been working with Tears and the other women hairdressers for many, many years now. But I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how successful this program really was. To me, it was a simple thing, but I was here with so much research and papers – it’s amazing to see how much was being achieved by such a simple initiative. It made me understand that it’s the simple things that are cost-effective that work. Now I’ll look at other interventions that can use these same elements to reach out to men and women with other important messages. To strengthen the capacity of a community so that it can help itself is what is most necessary, and this program is a great example of one that can do it.
One thing that excited me was that I’m looking at Tears with no secondary education being able to talk to doctors about the female condoms, talking to experts and talking to all these intelligent people and they’re sitting there in her chair, having their hair braided and listening to her talk. You don’t have to be sophisticated about the condom – when women have the skills to demonstrate condom use they’re able to preach the gospel to everyone at every level. People who may not have the words to explain the condom can understand it after they touch and feel it.
Every woman needs a space within her community, and now I can see how Tears is owning her space within this wider community. I’ve seen her influence her local community at home, and now I see her at this wider level, influencing all the others. I also see the future of this hair salon initiative, and I can see how it can grow so that every woman who comes into a hair salon can take care of her health and the health of the people around them. The female condom is so important, and it was exciting to see where it fits in the women’s movement and within all other health areas. As a health programmer, I now feel better able to articulate these issues.
Tears and Patience will return home to Zimbabwe – where twenty-one percent of women are HIV-positive, compared to fourteen percent of men – with a new perspective and a renewed enthusiasm to spread the word about the female condom. Tears is eager to share her new knowledge with her colleagues so that even more women are able to use the female condom and protect themselves from HIV, other STIs and unwanted pregnancy.