One of the greatest experiences I have had since the 2014 YBGLI Summit was my recent travels to conduct research in Ghana, Africa with Florida Gulf Coast University. The study-abroad program focused on human rights and social justice and linked social work professionals and students with the Department of Social Welfare in Cape Coast, Ghana to evaluate and provide consultation and recommendations on how they could improve their services offered to special populations. As a recent graduate, magna cum laude, with a Baccalaureate of Social Work from the Honors College of Norfolk State University, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to work in a global capacity, specifically on the research project that we conducted with HIV+ men that have sex with men (MSMs). Over the last three years, prior to my recent resignation, I was employed with an AIDS Services Organization in the Hampton Roads area and have been able to grasp the domestic impact that HIV/AIDS has had on African-American MSMs. The catalyst of my decision to go to Ghana was a desire to understand the social ramifications and cultural contexts that exist within a developing country, such as Ghana, as it pertains to the lives of HIV+ African men.
The research program and cultural experiences that I had with African MSMs was amazing. In Cape Coast and the surrounding central region of Ghana, African men that have sex with men suffer extreme discrimination and oppression regarding their lifestyle and/or sexuality and many are forced to remain “in the closet” to avoid such persecution from family members and other village people. Society attempts to force them from the decision to live their authentic lives. This issue is compounded once people in the villages and towns learn that they are also HIV+. The healthcare facilities are not adequate to embrace discretion regarding confidentiality and many members of the group discussed situations that may have caused them and others to not want to go to the doctor and/or pick up their medication in fear of people simply seeing them use the services. I could relate on many of these issues from concerns in America but I was confronted with a much larger size issue of stigma in the local communities.
Often in America we group Africa as an entire nation, not realizing that there are now 55 African countries with different cultures, societal norms, and other social contexts that exist within their environments. The ability to grasp the specific information that related to Ghana was indescribable. While conducting research surveys and gathering both qualitative and quantitative data, I was able to build relationships with the respondents that was trusting and further allowed me to provide direct assistance with capacity building, administrative consultation, and other aspects to assist in improving their lives. The men that participated in the survey were from secret support groups that gather to have a safe haven and support for each other as they discuss same-gender loving issues and concerns about living HIV+. They discussed their fears, the discrimination and oppression that they battled daily, the lack of resources and financial assistance from the government and other non-government organizations, and how often funding that reaches their communities is cut and left without a safety net for them to continue the services that have been built. Sustainability is a huge problem and concern that prevents African MSMs from being leaders and pioneers in their communities to fight the epidemic of HIV/AIDS.
As I listened to the stories of my brothers in the same fight as I and continued to engulf myself in their culture throughout the remaining weeks that I was present, I made it my number one priority to let them know I was a resource that was refusing to go anywhere. I clearly defined my presence in their lives so that they would not feel alone in the struggle of their existence in a world of limited resources. The ability to share within their space and to understand the true definition of love was unforgettable. One of the essential notions that I learned while in Ghana was the definition of love and concern for your fellow man. Despite this community being oppressed and discriminated against, despite their lack of resources for adequate and sufficient daily living, despite the many societal and individual forces that were keeping them from their greatest potential, they were happy and free to live and love each other. I experienced the true form of community, the true existence of how we are to join together and stand as one. I began to reflect on how our community, even as African-American MSMs, are so divided yet, we have so much. We are talented individuals that have an array of knowledge and resources, yet it’s hard to sometimes join together for a simple common cause. For this I had to reflect on my actions and contributions and repent for my involvement, or even the lack thereof, that was not conducive to the movement of Black Gay Men.
I am reminded that we must not forget about our other brothers in this fight, those both here in America and abroad. Just simply being in their space and being connected to them made such a difference in their lives and mine as well. I urge us all to embrace our international brothers in this fight for equality and human rights and to stand with them as one so that they not only feel supported, but they too make the decision to live!
Over the next few weeks I will be blogging my experiences from my study abroad program and will be providing detail on the research from the project and other opportunities. If you wish to be connected with my blog and/or assist in helping our brothers in Cape Coast, Ghana, feel free to reach me directly via email at email@example.com or on twitter @Mr_ABChristian. I invite you to assist in the process and to become a major part in their lives.
Along with blogging, the research team will be presenting their findings at the 2014 National Association of Social Worker’s Conference in Orlando, Florida. I am excited to take the lead on this research and will further advancements for recommendations to possibly obtain assistance for Ghanaian MSMs. Besides the research that was conducted and as a fellow African-American MSM, I will work with the various organizations, both Maritime Life Precious Foundation and One Heart Foundation to provide leadership on developing sustainability within their programs. Their presence is crucial in their society and it is pivotal that we establish lasting relationships to help foster the change that they seek in their lives. We have to always remember, “the very least of our thoughts can very much be the greatest of someone else’s.”
-Andre’ B. Christian, BSW