Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Sexy, Can I...Just Wear a Condom?"

Let me explain. The Pharmaceutical Society employs a driver who runs errands (picking up checks, delivering letters, etc.) all day all over greater Accra, because the national postal service takes up to 4 or 5 days, and I suppose this is considered more efficient and cost effective. His name is Charles, and he is a short guy (maybe 5’5) with short hair, a little goatee and big, wide eyes. I am to go with him because I need to make a few stops myself (U.S. embassy and National Malaria Control Program), so we leave the office around 11am. What I didn’t know is that the combination of multiple errands to run all over town and Accra traffic means that I am spending the next 5 hours with him. It is 5 hours of a great education.

I buckle up, he flips on the radio and we’re off. Charles is very affable, and it is clear after a few stops that he knows many people all over town. By Ghanaian standards he is a very good driver (aka: extra crazy). The only stop sign I see all day is blown by us, as Charles waves to the taxi that honks, swears and slams on its breaks to avoid hitting my front passenger side door. Traffic is bad, even in the middle of the day, and hundreds of people are employed by hawking goods to the cars stopped in the gridlock. Even when traffic is moving, they do not leave the middle of the road, and I have a fleeting thought about correlation vs. causation. Men and women of all ages carry baskets of wares atop their heads, selling everything from bags of water and nuts to neckties and paintings.

Charles' radio station of choice blasts a mix of international and local rap and R&B in between commercials for hair care products and PSAs about making sure to wear a condom when you have sex with your girlfriends (but not your wife). It is a nice change of pace form the music that Dennis plays in his car (only Gospel). The radio station is very into international entertainment news as well, and I soon learn who Alicia Keys is in the studio with and when Shakira’s new single is dropping. As I hear a string of Eminem, the Ying Yang twins, that “Blame It on the Alcohol” song (I think it’s Jamie Foxx) and
“Sexy Can I”, a thought occurs to me: Have donors ever considered paying popular artists to sing about their issues of concern? Can the World Bank pay Rihanna to sing about how sexy it is when people wear condoms? Can USAID pay Jay-Z to talk about how only true ballers adhere to their entire regimen of TB drugs? (Two related thoughts: Like movie stars that endorse foreign products overseas, Westerners don’t even have to know about it. Also, Ghana is an English-speaking former British Commonwealth, so it occurs to me that this type of campaign would probably be less effective for its Francophone neighbors, but I still think there might be something there…)

It is now the middle of the afternoon, and school children in their brightly-colored matching uniforms and backpacks can be seen walking next to the goats on the side of the road, as we make our way in the traffic. I contemplate a sign above a nearby shop declaring “Herbalist - HIV Has a Natural Cure!” and continue to notice the school children. Without having to turn my head, I am able to see the color-coded kids walking away from me and other ones walking towards me with a basket of fruit and a bag of soccer balls, respectively. What is the difference between those children on the side of the road and those in the middle of it? Between those carrying backpacks instead of balancing an open box of jewelry on their heads. These depressing thoughts stay with me for a bit, but a few miles down the road I see something that improves my mood. It is a billboard from the Ministry of Health promoting HIV prevention that states: “Abstain, Be Faithful, OR Wear a Condom Every time!”, and I am overjoyed that the Ghanaian government has taken the sensible approach of giving their citizens options…I guess that was too much to ask for from the Bush Administration.


  1. Great post, Scott, and wonderful to see Africa vicariously through you! Good luck settling in. PS: Emma will be in touch soon, if she has not yet, as she may organize a consulation in Dec in Accra. The report went to the WG members yesterday and we plan to make it public next Monday - yipppppppppppeeeeeeeeeeee!

  2. Thanks, Alix! That's so great to hear about the report!!! I'll keep an eye out on Monday, and yes, Emma has been in touch, so thanks for that.

  3. Sounds like you're off to a great start! Not that you have time for reading, but this a good (fairly brief) piece about the history of the ABC campaign: . The "be faithful" part has been controversial at times.... especially b/c being married doesn't mean folks are always monogamous.

    And for fun, a really sexy condom ad:

  4. Haha, that celebrity ad thing reminds me of the Conan O'Brien beer commercial.