Benjamin Mbakwem uses traditional Nigerian social institutions to address the AIDS epidemic in a manner that simultaneously strengthens civil society and provides young people with better economic opportunities.
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Benjamin has established a community of urban youths to negotiate life in the city and reduce the risk of HIV transmission. He uses traditional rites-of-passage to reach young people and their mentors with an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, reinforced by a system of economic rewards. By reaching local entrepreneurs through formal and respected paths like trade associations, Benjamin gains businesspeople's trust and offers them technical assistance and trainings for their apprentices. In exchange, he solicits their time to conduct education programs and workshops on sexually transmitted disease prevention and treatment, leadership, and counseling techniques. To keep the apprentices engaged, he helps them set up traditional credit unions in which participants contribute to a common pool and rotate the capital among members for private investment. Through his initiative, Benjamin effectively spreads the HIV/AIDS message, provides middle-scale entrepreneurs with quality training, and ensures the availability of financial and non-financial resources for apprentices to set up their own enterprises.
In Nigerian society, a system of apprenticeship exists through which poor rural families send their children to established entrepreneurs in the cities in order for the children to learn a trade or skill. These migrants, who constitute a sizeable percentage of the urban population, generally live with their mentors, who take responsibility for teaching a profession to and parenting the apprentices. As commonly believed in parts of Africa, mentors have a reputation for regarding their own sexual irresponsibility as safe in light of HIV/AIDS being a "white man's disease." Young Nigerians adopt these risky behaviors as they mature and, inevitably, suffer. Young apprentices are exposed only to unrestrained sexual activity, often practiced in the open at urban markets by businesspeople. For Nigeria's urban youth, particularly female migrants, sexuality is a vital instrument in both the construction of identity and the negotiation of limited economic opportunities. Individual ambition, pressures to financially support rural relatives, and tremendous peer and mentor expectations to participate in premarital sex converge to create an environment of high risk for HIV/AIDS transmission. In addition to recreational sex among businesspeople and apprentices, young girls often engage in unsafe sexual relationships with wealthy, older men.To further compound these risks, social and economic factors restrict young people's access to appropriate reproductive health and disease prevention services. Despite the prevalence of clandestine behavior, discussion about sex and disease is still considered taboo. Open communication about anything sexual is generally abhorred, and parents and teachers are embarrassed by issues concerning their children's and mentors' sexuality. The result of this information and communication gap, when combined with the example set by mentors, is a high incidence of unprotected sex among young people leading to rising rates of AIDS among Nigerian teens.
Benjamin began his project in Owerri, a major city in southeast Nigeria, where he conducted a needs assessment of trade associations, mentors, and apprentices. He integrates himself into the communities in which he works and determines the best approaches for each target group. Realizing that he would not be able to convince the mentors and apprentices to participate in his HIV/AIDStrainings, Benjamin first introduces free trainings in areas of the entrepreneurs' immediate needs, including marketing, customer relations, and local council correspondence, delivered by university professors and technical specialists. In return for this service, Benjamin requires that participants attend his HIV/AIDS awareness classes with their young apprentices, who are also offered leadership and peer counseling programs. While working within the apprenticeship system, Benjamin realized that there is a lot of tension in the relationships between masters and apprentices. He found that many apprentices feel used by their masters, who overwork them and unnecessarily extend their apprenticeship period to take advantage of their cheap labor. Benjamin also noticed that most masters are excessively harsh with their apprentices and often turn physically abusive.
Most mentors are unable to meet their contractual obligation to provide financial support at the completion of their apprenticeship. To overcome this situation, which usually leads to disgruntlement, vandalism, or self-abuse, Benjamin introduced a traditional West African credit scheme, in which the apprentices deposit a small amount of money into a common pool every week, matched by their mentors. This amount is given to an apprentice on graduation so that he or she has funds to start a business. If, however, the apprentice has an urgent need before graduation, he or she can also borrow from this pool. The credit program encourages saving, reduces the tendency of young apprentice girls to turn to prostitution, and reduces boys' tendency to drink away the little income they earn.
Benjamin's father was a medical doctor who worked for the international Red Cross during the Nigerian Civil War. His mother has been in the catering business for the past twenty years, during which time she has apprenticed a number of young girls. Both parents greatly influenced Benjamin's interest in community development.After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology in 1992, he worked briefly as a primary school teacher before joining Africare, a United States international organization involved in health intervention in Africa. Benjamin has almost ten years of work experience with Africare and has been mainly involved in the HIV/AIDS program over the last five years. His tasks have included supervising the Africare Aids Orphan project for five local governments and organizing various disease awareness activities for young people. His experience at Africare exposed him to the extent of the threat of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria and neighboring West African countries. In addition, it introduced him to both good and bad health education techniques and helped him shape his present initiative. It also gave him contacts in many national and international organizations, most of which are willing to support his current work. His idea of using mentors in his campaign against HIV/AIDS comes from observing the relationship between his mother, who runs a canteen in Owerri, and her apprentice girls. From observing how much she influences them and how much they depend on her for guidance, he realized that mentors could be a powerful instrument for furthering HIV/AIDS education and changes in sexual behavior among young people.