After the principal’s box of condoms went missing, the boys learned to find me alone, at the water tap, between classes, or tromping through the mopane forest to my flat on the principal’s homestead. Eyes locked on my feet, in the customary way Namibian children defer to elders, they whispered in nascent English, “Sir, help me one condom,” or, in code, “The socks are finished.” For two years I taught English as a foreign language in a rural southern African village and somehow condom distribution became one of my primary duties.
Two small square boxes used to sit beside the secretary’s typewriter. One held finger-length sticks of chalk, the other, condoms. The principal, a tall, potbellied Namibian man two years from retirement, had made it clear he didn’t condone premarital sex, but for a time he kept this box stocked. Students crept through the public entryway of the administration building, avoiding the teachers and administrators who swarmed the secretary’s desk, and pocketed condoms from the box that “hid” beside its twin. No longer.
One morning assembly, as a boy hoisted the Namibian flag on a squealing pulley, the principal announced he’d seen too many latex strips tied around students’ wrists as bracelets. He’d found too many half-torn packets littering the school yard. “This is not a game,” he said. “Some of you are not serious.” And so he removed the box. He assured the students that condoms were still available, but now they would have to ask him. I couldn’t see the students turning to the principal, who in his thirty years at Hallelujah School had taught many of their parents and even some grandparents. Had I grown up in Aakwetu village I wouldn’t have asked him for condoms. In fact, I never asked any adult. So, why did the boys turn to me?
I like to think it was because they trusted me, but I know it wasn’t solely that. Unlike the principal and the other teachers, I was an outsider, I was safe. A Peace Corps volunteer from Maryland, I missed many cultural nuances of the Owambo people. I didn’t have the language skills to tell their parents. If they got caught, they must’ve figured they could plead misunderstanding or ignorance, because their English wasn’t much better than my Oshiwambo.
I told the boys to meet me in the school yard. Then, I stole into the staff room, unlocked the cupboard and grabbed handfuls of condoms. In the ebb and flow of 700 blue-uniformed students, I secretly passed off the condoms as if I were shaking hands. As each boy, sometimes sheepish, sometimes stone-faced, turned away into the throng, I wondered if I should call him back and speak of the dangers of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS. Namibia, after all, had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and pregnancy played a large role in the school’s drop-out rate. But I never called them back. I wanted to be accepted and liked, even trusted.
So, after school one day I wasn’t surprised when Timo, a tenth-grader, miss-kicked the soccer ball toward an acacia tree where I stood alone watching practice. A two-track village road cut the soccer field in half. Shoes and sticks marked the boundaries and the goals were a length of wire garlanded with faded soda cans, loosely strung between seven-foot poles.
Shirtless and barefoot, Timo bounded across the sand field. His and the other boys’ uniforms hung from the barbs in the school’s wire fence so they would remain clean. Paces from where I stood he scooped up the ball and turned to me, eyes locked on my feet. Nineteen years old — just five years younger than me — Timo had a deep chest and well-muscled arms and legs. Even at Hallelujah, where many children started school late or repeated grades, he was older, taller, and more mature than his classmates.
In one breath he whispered, “Sir, help me know my status.”
Puzzled, I studied him. I thought maybe he meant his status on the team or in my English class. Of course he was our starting goalkeeper; of course his teachers believed he would qualify for secondary school.
“Help me be tested,” he said, and I knew: Timo wanted to be tested for HIV.
“I’ll do whatever I can,” I stammered. I’d never asked for help with this before.
A teammate called for the ball and Timo dropkicked it toward the goal. Then he faced me again, his eyes on my feet, waiting for more.
“Let’s plan on next Saturday,” I said. The nearest free and anonymous testing center was an expensive all-day journey by foot and taxi.
He nodded, shifted his weight from foot to foot, but still made no move to rejoin practice. I didn’t know what else to say.
“I’ll get tested too,” I offered, wanting to reassure him. Then, I thought, Fuck.
I’d been tested once before, a requirement of Peace Corps’ medical clearance. Although I was sexually active and I hadn’t always used protection, I knew I’d test negative then. Curt and perfunctory, the nurse drew two vials of blood, snapped off latex gloves, and ushered me out. The results were mailed home. Not this time. The New Start Center, where Timo and I would get tested, required pre- and post-test counseling, of which I was wary.
Without a doubt Timo and many of his peers were sexually active. In fact, half of the girls in one of my English classes had become pregnant and dropped out. And what of the threat of HIV? In 2003, estimates suggested one out of every five Namibians was infected. Almost half of Hallelujah’s 700 students were designated as Orphans and Vulnerable Children, meaning they had lost at least one parent. Yet the stigma and shame surrounding the virus mostly ensured that it went unmentioned. It took me more than a year to recognize the subtle signs, how when people said someone “was sick for a long time” or “had too many lovers,” they spoke of AIDS. I wondered what it was like to be Timo, coming into your sexual prime in a time of AIDS.
In the years after my Peace Corps contract expired and I returned to the United States I’ve told many people about mainstreaming AIDS awareness into my English classes. I see the questions forming in their heads, as they had for me, resulting from the over-sexualization of AIDS, from assumptions that it was a disease for homosexuals, then prostitutes, the promiscuous, Africans, people unlike us. Certainly we feel superior: why can’t they abstain? Why can’t they be faithful? Use protection? I’ve even heard, why don’t all the men get circumcised to prevent infection? And underneath all this lingers the real question: are they too ignorant to know better? Such is the inscrutability of youth and hormones and sex that I wonder how much knowing “better” helps.
Did Timo know better? Did I teach the girl he slept with? I wondered if he’d fathered children, if he used protection, how many young women he’d been with. I pictured him creeping out of his room at night, careful not to wake the brothers he slept sandwiched between and the dogs that guarded the homestead gate, to meet the girl in the forest. Did he bring a blanket? What did they talk about? I remember, in my early twenties, before I joined the Peace Corps, the electricity in the look I shared with a young woman I’ll call Jennifer. I remember the resonance in the touch of our fingertips as we escaped a crowded basement party for the privacy of the kitchen. Pressed against a countertop that pulsed with the bass of the speakers, we kissed, and long past midnight we walked to her apartment, hands touching, palms slimy from the mid-Atlantic humidity.
In the only sex talk my father, a Presbyterian minister, gave me, he didn’t actually mention sex; he said he hoped I’d cultivate strong, meaningful relationships. I first learned about sexually transmitted diseases in the fourth grade, and later, in high school, I sat through slide after slide of genitalia riddled with warts and chancres. But what went unsaid, both in sex ed and my father’s talk, was how intoxicating hooking up was. Desire and sexual attention were addictive. Every weekend young men and women — even dean’s list honorees like me — sought this fix. And sometimes in the dark, half-sober, half-clothed or naked, arms and legs intertwined, we talked. Women shared things with me they said they hadn’t even told their best friends: how they’d never had an orgasm and feared they couldn’t; how they hated themselves for still loving lousy boyfriends; how men had slipped them hundreds of dollars for undiscussed abortions. What kept these encounters from growing into meaningful relationships? I didn’t know how to be vulnerable then. I never shared with those women the secrets I withheld from my best friends. With daylight, what intimacy we’d found evaporated.
In her room, Jennifer lit a candle. I took off her shirt, exposing breasts so pale they glowed in the soft light. She took off my shirt, my pants, and we lay together, naked, on her bed. I didn’t do any of the things I’d later teach my Namibian students (share sexual histories and expectations; get tested; use protection).
Jennifer steered me inside her. I can’t give a rational reason as to why we didn’t use a condom. In part, I think, I didn’t mention one because I’d bottled so much inside me. Fuck it, I thought: my soccer coach had benched me; I’d had a disagreement with my friends; a girl I had a crush on (not a hook-up crush, but a meaningful-relationship crush) had been hooking up with another guy on the side … Just fuck it all. I didn’t want to care anymore. I wanted a release.
The heat is what I remember most, and that the sex was over practically before it began.