Children of the Road
The Road We Know Explores Peer Abstinence Education in Botswana
by V. Anderson
The Road We Know is a documentary about the work of a rally team from Face the Nation, a local organization that was formed as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging Botswana. The team consists of a group of college students: Innocent, the charismatic performer, Kez, the ambitious leader, and Mumbi, the wise, reflective native Zambian. Each lends a different style to the group’s overall objective of promoting sexual abstinence in high schools across Botswana as a solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis. This documentary is producer, director and editor Suzanne Taylor’s Master’s thesis at American University, and she admits that making the documentary was a learning process. Initially having gone to Botswana in 2008 to shoot, Taylor states, “I got the footage back and realized I had a lot to learn about filmmaking and about what made a story interesting.” She went back in 2009, and after shooting about 100 hours of footage and showing many cuts to different test audiences, it was finished in December 2011.
Lending a profound weight to the central question of the importance of promoting sexual abstinence, Mumbi explains that the group’s message includes an acknowledgment that HIV/AIDS is a real problem that young people need to face, and that “if we abstain we’re being smarter, not just trusting our lives to a piece of plastic. We’re smarter than that.”
In the documentary, Dr. Edward Green, former director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard School of Public Health, comments on the inevitable debate between right and left politics in the U.S.: religious conservatives promoting abstinence and liberals in favor of promoting sexual freedom. He states that it’s wrong, in the context of global AIDS, to impose our Western context, our Western ideology on other countries and advocate sexual freedom over public health.
V. Anderson: Does promoting sexual abstinence mean something different in Botswana than in the U.S.?
Suzanne Taylor: The arguments that were being laid forth by the kids for abstinence wouldn’t have the same impact [in the U.S.] because the death rate isn’t as high….They were like, “this is difficult, but true,” if you abstain from something then you’re not putting yourself in this danger zone. It’s just that the danger zone looks different in these different countries.
Why would safe sex with condoms not work as a prevention method in a place like Botswana, where free condom distribution and free HIV testing and medication are available?
Education’s been difficult. Access has been probably less consistent than you want for someone that’s consistently relying on a healthcare facility that may or may not have them in stock, or that the condoms have been damaged through travel or through heat in the Kalahari desert in Botswana for example….The government helps provide [ARVs] for free for all the citizens, which is amazing and good, but you’re still relying a lot on Western drug companies and on a lot of outside funding.
The documentary touches on the idea that many of the local “witch/traditional doctors” believe that they can cure HIV. How prevalent is this belief, and is there a conflict between older and younger generations on this?
It was tough for me to gauge…in a very modern culture with all the access to information that students do have, there’s this fear and just kind of respect that’s built into the system because these people have traditionally held the power and information.
At times, Innocent, Kez, Mumbi and the rest of the rally group appear to be in over their heads. When they’re not performing abstinence-promoting skits for the high school students, they meet with them one on one, and are faced with a wide range of very serious problems that the students confide in them. For the viewer, it’s questionable whether the rally group members have adequate training to handle this type of counseling. But, it is evident that the high school students look up to them. Taylor provides an explanation: “I think [the government was] desperate for a way to reach out to the students and happy for these college students’ influence. It’s a very difficult thing, to become a college student in Botswana. You have to be at the top of your class.”
Perhaps the most progress that the group members make is in their own self-awareness. By giving counseling, they counsel themselves. In the end, they impact themselves in the ways that they seek to impact others. One of the members decides to take an HIV test for the first time. Innocent becomes more mature and responsible about the impact that he can have on his country.
Face the Nation’s motto is “reaching Botswana through Christ,” but the rally group does not seem to place an emphasis on religion in the context of abstinence. Did you omit that aspect on purpose?
I thought what was more interesting, because I think a lot of films have been done about different religious groups that kind of can be more polarizing—I wanted to do something a little bit different. I wanted to not make a film that was going to be for Christians, or to anger people who didn’t like Christians…that’s an important part of who they are, and certainly their mission statement, but for me as a filmmaker, I came at it from a public health angle.
In your opinion, is sexual abstinence primarily a practical solution or religious solution?
I think for a lot of people they would say that my faith enables me to make this tough decision, it gives me the moral compass to stand strong, it helps me with my convictions, and therefore is invaluable. I think some people would say that you couldn’t even remove that from the abstinence message….I’m a Christian myself. I think I related to a lot of what they were saying in the film because these students were saying this is the basis for how I am able to keep making this decision, and it’s difficult and sometimes you don’t want to—and so this is the strength that I draw on.
Taylor goes on to say that “This is for Muslims, this is for Atheists, we’re going in and telling people how to save their lives, and we’re not forcing anybody to convert or to choose our particular faith or a faith…ultimately in Botswana in particular this is a very, very practical thing and that’s why the government thinks it’s of value, that’s why the government lets us go in to public schools and teach this….”
When asked about the overall objective of the documentary, Taylor says, “I hope it’s a discussion point.” She also said the documentary was edited for a U.S. audience, and she hopes that it will “inspire people in the States that don’t know about HIV/AIDS issues but also maybe that are younger and aspiring to take some sort of community action like this.”
The documentary’s key expert, Dr. Green, publicly agreed with Pope Benedict’s 2009 statement regarding condom use in Africa. Coproducer and writer of the documentary, and also the founder of Citygate Films, the company releasing the documentary, Carolyn McCulley authored Radical Womanhood, a book that is self-described as “exposing the anti-God agenda of the three waves of feminism to date and presenting the pro-woman truth of the Scriptures.”
However, regardless of the radical perspectives of the key players, the viewer is left examining the dire health situation that Botswana faces through the eyes of a group of college students coming to terms with themselves and the state of their country. The viewer may wonder whether sexual abstinence without association to religion, although a desperate and potentially unrealistic measure, may work for some in a place that, according to the documentary, has the second highest AIDS rate in the world.
The film is available on-line through a program called “Watch the Film, Save a Life,” where
the cost of viewing the documentary is an $8 donation to Partners to the World, the parent organization of Face the Nation. Log on to theroadweknow.com/savealife.
V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.