The African Pulse

A graduate of Bournemouth University, Katherine van Wyk, founder of the charity ‘The African Pulse’, leads a groundbreaking HIV/AIDS education project in South African schools. This is Katherine’s story as published in The Talbot – the Bournemouth University Alumni newsletter.

“You leave the comfort of student life and suddenly you’re at the mercy of the world and at the beginning of a journey that you are responsible for shaping. Your dreams and fears, values and strength of character are put to the test. What do I do with this knowledge and experience? Where do I go from here?

I graduated with a BA(Hons) New Media Production degree in 2002. Discovering the power and the capability of the media was intriguing – it was a passion, as was Africa. Before university I had embarked on a voluntary teaching scheme with Africa and Asia Venture in Zimbabwe. I was one of the many visitors who experienced a sense of ‘coming home’ on the African continent: fusing these two passions was a challenge I wanted to take on.

Five years after my first visit to Africa, I’m now living in South Africa, striving to fulfil a vision that began as what seemed a whimsical and ambitious concept in my final year at Bournemouth University. At that time I knew very little of the devastation and despair left in the wake of the virus known as HIV/AIDS. Nor did I know that this decision would lead me to where I am now. I was only concerned with finding a topic that would hold my attention long enough to be my third year final project for my New Media degree. The little teaching experience I’d had in Zimbabwe during my gap year certainly influenced my decision to develop a teaching tool. It was to be a CD-ROM based, interactive teaching/learning tool for schools to enhance life skills and HIV/AIDS education in South Africa. Animated stories combined with entertaining activities and games would be used as the vehicle for learning – after all, children learn most effectively when the tasks at hand are fun and attractive. The research that was required for this led to an alarming glimpse into the reality of the disease and its impact. After a visit to South Africa I felt shocked by the scale of the issue and equally driven to respond and to become fully involved and proactive in the fight.

I learned that South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV in the world (5.3 million). Over 10% of all new infections worldwide occur in South Africa. 1 in 4 women are HIV + before reaching 25 and there are over a million children in South Africa who are alone having lost one or both parents to AIDS. The shocking statistics are endless and HIV/AIDS will continue to have devastation of immense scale for generations to come. It eliminates the economically active population, creates orphans, reverses development and gives momentum to the cycle of poverty. These are all grave issues that the entire global village is responsible for resolving.

Even though a cure for HIV/AIDS is still years away, an innoculation would not be the panacea to the problem. The spread of HIV/AIDS has highlighted gender inequalities, abuse of women and children, break down of the family, the sex worker industry, unemployment, lack of education, taboos and stigmas. HIV/AIDS has been a cause and a result of all of these issues and therefore cannot be addressed in isolation. Significant shifts in attitude and behaviour have to take place to tackle the virus and to encourage people to be responsible for their actions and show respect for others.

Life Orientation is part of the South African curriculum dealing with personal development, growing up, self-esteem, healthy living, sexuality and HIV/AIDS. This subject holds enormous scope for contributing to those shifts. However, there are many obstacles to overcome to ensure its efficacy.

My research in South Africa had exposed the need for innovative approaches to HIV/AIDS education. Young people’s sexual behaviour was not changing despite the billboard ‘warnings’. Sex education was occurring too late or not at all and this was resulting in a very young age of first sexual encounters due to curiosity or coercion. The 11/12 year olds that I interviewed in a rural school confirmed that lack of information leads to risky behaviour. In the one environment that is supposed to be safe, these children like many others were literally dying to learn. Existing campaigns and programmes promoting HIV/AIDS awareness were simply targeted at too old an age group and that is how I decided to focus on 11 – 13 year-olds.

The project had captivated me and I believed that I had something to contribute. My final year CD-ROM project became the concept that I proceeded to present to the Department of Education and other influential organisations in South Africa. The animated, interactive, edu-tainment style CD-ROM proved to be unique and enticing for both teachers and students.

With enormous support from my family and church community in London and the sponsorship of the company, Growth International, I pursued this vision after University, comforted and motivated by the realisation that others also believed in it. Taking what seemed like a giant leap, blindfolded into the unknown, I moved to South Africa in June 2003 and soon after partnered with a division of the University of Cape Town, the Schools Development Unit. Six months later Joanna Ward, a part time employee on the project in the UK moved to work with me in Cape Town.

We developed more advanced versions of the CD-ROM with the help of a New York based advertising agency, Euro RSCG, local fundraising in the UK and sponsorship from a foundation. Local South African scriptwriters, illustrators and educational experts were employed to ensure the product had relevant content, language and style to suit the local context.

For many schools in South Africa however, a computer-based programme was not feasible. We maintained our theory that IT provided an excellent medium, but in order to reach out to as many schools and communities as possible we needed to provide products that were relevant and attainable for them. The concept of the CD-ROM then expanded to a media package including a comic book, VHS and audio cassette to cater for all classroom requirements.

We are currently piloting two components of the package, the CD and comic book with 500 pupils in our first stage and up to 300 schools in our second phase this year. Schools and teachers have been bombarded with materials that are foreign, ineffective or inappropriate. We regard it our highest priority to engage the teachers as our main stakeholders in the development of learning materials to ensure that we’re achieving that which we’re setting out to do; empowering teachers to promote good values and take up a responsible position in the fight against AIDS. With feedback from this pilot and further input from teachers, we will enter our next phase of development.

Our big vision is to distribute ‘The Pulse’ media package to as many schools as possible in South Africa. In order to achieve a sustainable outcome, we are beginning to develop partnerships with organisations that provide teacher training and support across South Africa so as not to “deposit our goods and leave”. There needs to be a sense of inclusivity and nurturing which makes the distribution process as important as the actual production.

What about money? I’m not a money person and an altruistic approach doesn’t always serve good business practice, but like it or lump it, money comes into it one way or another. Running a charity is not far from running a business- there must be money coming in order for money to go out. Thankfully our team in the UK offers that financial expertise. However, entering the world of fundraising has been an eye opener to me .

My community in Twickenham, my family and friends have given in abundance in terms of money, time and energy. Fundraising efforts on behalf of the project have included hiking the length of Hadrian’s Wall, sponsored walks, marathons, exhibitions and countless jumble sales and stalls. This is what has ultimately kept us going for so long. Although we’re constantly seeking a more reliable source of funding to sustain us and allow us to grow, we recognise that in the last two years, our local fundraising efforts have touched people and introduced them to an issue and a part of the world of which they had no previous knowledge and this advocacy has become entrenched in our mission.

Nelson Mandela’s 46664 campaign held last year displayedthe slogan “Give one minute of your life to AIDS”. It may not be on our doorsteps today but the impact (like global warming) will soon be like a tidal wave on all of us. AIDS is NOT just an African problem any longer, nor is it merely a disease – it is a human rights issue. It is the biggest humanitarian crisis in recorded history and there must be no denying it. The African Pulse aims to play a prominent role in serving those affected and being a part of the global team striving to inhibit the growth of this virus in a humanitarian approach.