Everybody is gifted, everybody has a special talent. We realised this again during our outreach training for North Star Alliance in Kempton Park, South Africa. We are Thirza and Mariëtte, Programme Officer and Training Specialist Sex Work Projects at Soa Aids Nederland. Our professional base is in the Netherlands. In July 2014, we travelled to South Africa to work with 45 health staff members and sex workers from eight different African countries. Our aim was to develop guidelines for outreach activities relating to HIV prevention and treatment.

We were impressed by the openness and directness of the participants. Stella, a peer educator among sex workers in Kenya, gave us a health class about how to use the female condom. She stood up and explained in a clear and loud voice that female condoms can also be used for anal sex. In this way, Stella conquered various taboos in one step! Delene, our guest speaker from the organisation COC, took the participants on a journey of understanding the complex field of human sexuality. Delene was able to let us experience the feeling transgender people have of being born in the wrong body. She asked the participants: ‘How would you feel when you wake up tomorrow and there is a beautiful penis in your pants instead of a vagina?’ One participant said: ‘I would die.’

How would you feel when you wake up tomorrow and there is a beautiful penis in your pants instead of a vagina?

Margareth, a peer educator from Kenya, explained to the group that she has no difficulties talking about sensitive topics, such as sex, private body parts, and condoms. In Kenya it is not necessary to use the sensitive words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’. Sex workers in Mombasa have their own code language; Miss Susy for the female body part and Mister Garan for the male body part. Zanela, a counsellor from Zimbabwe, was quiet and hiding behind the group members during the training. However, when she was invited to participate in a role-play on counselling techniques, Zanela transformed into the perfect sex worker explaining to her co-workers that Dettol does not work as STI prevention. We also became aware of a special talent, that is understanding metaphoric expressions such as drie hoekie koekie, the Afrikaner term for triangular pastry (samosa).

The people who participated in the training all work for North Star Alliance, a unique organisation that operates a network of clinics strategically placed along transport corridors in different African countries, including Kenya and South Africa. The clinics provide mobile populations, such as sex workers and truckers, with access to high quality health services, including HIV testing and treatment. During the training for this special group of people, we realised the importance of linking expertise to creativity and humour when doing outreach work.

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