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In Jamaica, young lives transformed by the ‘Bashy Bus’ message of AIDS prevention

UNICEF Image: ‘Bashy Bus’ fights AIDS
© UNICEF Jamaica/2008/Niles
Andre Lennon in front of the Bashy Bus, which spreads HIV/AIDS awareness to young people across Jamaica. Andre says his encounter with the bus changed his life.

By Chris Niles

The XVll International AIDS Conference begins in Mexico City on 3 August, following a pre-meeting for young people affected by AIDS. About 25,000 participants, including political and public-health leaders, are expected to attend the global conference. Here is one in a series of stories being posted in the run-up to the events in Mexico.

SPANISH TOWN, Jamaica, 25 July 2008 – Andre Lennon, 20, is a soft-spoken young man with a confident nature and a gentle smile. He lives with his mother and grandmother in a cottage surrounded by a garden that he tends himself. It’s a far cry from the life he grew up with, just a short distance away in one of the most notoriously rough areas of Jamaica.

“I’ve been through a lot of crime and violence in my life,” Andre said, describing how his father, uncle and best friend were killed, and his former home was burned down.

Immersed from a young age in the culture of guns, Andre struggled to find his way. He easily could have become a so-called ‘bad man’. But thanks to the work of UNICEF and one of its non-governmental partners, Children First, his life took a U-turn.

Talking directly to young people
“The Bashy Bus saved my life,” Andre said. “It got me thinking the way a young man ought to think.”

‘Bashy’ is a Jamaican term for ‘party’, and the Bashy Bus programme implemented by Children First uses drama and song to talk directly to young people about critical issues. The bus travels across the country, dramatizing the challenges children and young people face in dealing with HIV/AIDS, violence and the enormous social pressure to have sex at a young age

“It’s exciting, and it draws young people. There aren’t too many things where young people line up to get public health services,” said UNICEF Regional HIV/AIDS Advisor Mark Connelly.

Part of the health system
The UNICEF-supported Bashy Bus initiative is effective in reaching young people because young people are the message.

© UNICEF Jamaica/2008/Niles
Young men from Jonathan Grant High School in Jamaica listen to the AIDS-prevention messages of the Bashy Bus.

“They’re more likely to listen to their peers,” said Andre, “because not every young person goes to their parents and talks to them about what they’re going through.”

Bashy Bus performances are rowdy and funny. But the party atmosphere is deceptive. The bus is an integral part of Jamaica’s national health system, guiding young people towards services such as pre-natal screening and HIV testing.

“The Bashy Bus doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” said UNICEF Representative in Jamaica Bertrand Bainvel. “It complements the range of services provided by the national health system. And it is articulated in a way that you have information coming out of this project, feeding into the national response – but you have, also a very strong referral system.”

Impetus to change
Inspired by the message of the Bashy Bus, Andre received counselling and took an HIV test.

“I was actually fretting because I could have got HIV, because I was very vulnerable and at risk,” he recalled. The test was negative, and it gave Andre the impetus to change his life. He is planning to attend college and hopes to become an entertainer.

“I feel very, very good, and I tell myself I’ll never engage in unprotected sex again,” he said.




UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on how the Bashy Bus is changing the lives of Jamaican young people.
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