Wakirisana Ehehosi cradles the lifeless polyurethane, looking upon it intently as several young women flank her, looking first at her and then at it.
“This is all we we have. As women this is all we have to take control of our lives, and we don’t even have it yet.” She crinkles her brow, solemnly shaking her head, her dreads moving rhythmically along with her thoughts. She explains to the group that the woman’s condom is not available in this country yet, and anyway, “I’ve just been told that they’ve tested it in South America, and it didn’t prevent pregnancy in 12 percent of the cases. I’ve got to find more information on that,” she adds in her rapid-fire manner.
Wakirisana talks to me between missions–that is, as she walks from one classroom to another at Martin Luther King High School, at 44th and Drexel She’s accompanied by Kim Dean and Dionne Thompson, fellow volunteers at the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project, during a seminar for female students at the school.
Located in a big blue home on North Ashland, the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project grew from a small reproductive-rights group to the grass-roots women’s health organization it is now, focusing the needs of different cultural groups and of women raising children on little or no income. Wakirisana, Kim, and Dionne work with a CWAP outreach group called Girls’ Night Out. Ordinarily volunteers spend a good amount of time with a single group of women, but at King High School the students are clustered into five different rooms where as many women’s groups are participating in an afternoon of lectures. A 20-minute time limit has been set so that the lecturers can rotate from room to room.
The CWAP talk is basically sex education with no holds barred. “Hi I’m Kim. I’m here to talk to you about HIV. You can get it many ways. You can get it anally, vaginally, and orally. Anal sex means you have it in the butt, vaginal sex means the penis goes into the vagina, and oral sex means the penis goes into the mouth.” Despite a few “eyeews” and “yucks” her talk seems to fall on only half-interested ears.
Then Kim starts passing around a photo album that captures the attention of all the girls,
“This is what herpes looks like on a woman’s genitals.” More groans from the student “Here’s pus.” Kim points to another photo.
“Let me see.” The buzzer sounds.
“Kim, maybe you shouldn’t hand out the photo album until we’re finished talking–we don’t have enough time,” Dionne says.
“I didn’t even get a chance to show them the safe-sex stuff we brought,” Wakirisana says. They walk into the next room.
“OK, it’s very important for you to know as women that STDs are usually not found until a doctor examines you or you experience severe pain,” says Wakirisana, rattling things off as fast as she can. “For men, they know right away, because they can see it on the outside of them.”
“I can’t hear you,” yells one student. “What did she say?.” asks another of the girls sitting next to her.
“Please, miss, can you slow down?” asks one of the school officials. “Everybody, I have a lot to say, so youre going to have to keep quiet and pay attention,” Wakirisana tells the gabby students, and proceeds with her talk.
“Miss, please slow down and speak up,” the school official pleads again. Wakirisana, a bit harried, steps down and gives the crowd to Dionne.
“Everybody can hear me? OK, we’re here to tell you about AIDS and HIV. Now if you’re going to have sex, use a condom,” Dionne tells the group.
“Will you be quiet?” one girl yells to a few others. The room is too large for this kind of discussion, but Dionne tries a new tack.
“What does a person infected with HIV look like?” she asks.
“They have spots,” offers one girl. “They lose weight,” says another.
“Well, you never know what the disease looks like,” Dionne tells them matter-of-factly. “I’m infected with HIV.”
Absolute silence replaces the whispering and chattering, as all the students turn abruptly toward her, staring at her in disbelief. At 36, she’s old enough to be their mother. This is the moment Dionne has been working for. She goes through her spiel as casually as if she were teaching the day’s history lesson.
“I’ve been infected for five years,” she says. “I used to shoot drugs, but I’ve straightened up. Back when I was your age, I was sharing needles. I don’t have AIDS yet. I don’t know when I’m gonna get it, but when I do I’m gonna die.
“You don’t want to end up like me. That’s why I’m here talking to you. Statistics show that the greatest rise in HIV infection has occurred in African American women and teenagers, and you fit both of those descriptions. I’d prefer you didn’t have sex, but if you are, use a condom,” she says. “Any questions?”
“Do you have a daughter?” Yes, Dionne tells them, but “she is healthy.”
“Are you sick?”
“I get tired a lot, but I have none of the other symptoms,” she assures them, then explains that she went for testing when she got very sick five years ago.
“Do you have a new boyfriend?”
“I do, but we use a condom and he does not have HIV,” Dionne says. “Now, when you use a condom you should also use a spermicide with Nonoxynol-9.”
“What kind?” a girl asks.
“It will say Nonoxynol-9 on the package. Nonoxynol-9,” she repeats.
Wakirisana adds, “The spermicide is not necessarily good for you, so just be sure to use a condom.
The buzzer sounds, and it’s on to the next room.
“Whew, that was so rushed. We need more time,” Wakirisana tells Dionne and Kim as the three of them try to sort out the best approach.
I ask Wakirisana what she meant about the spermicide.
“The research isn’t finished yet on the effects of spermicides, and it won’t be for some time.” She picks up her pace, unwittingly walking out of hearing distance as she makes her way toward the next room.
The next few groups are about the same as the first, but the last group, sitting in the school’s auditorium, is able to hear better. More important, students can stay as long as they like since it’s the final lecture for the day. Once again Dionne gets everyone’s attention quickly by telling the group she’s HIV-positive.
“What if two people are HIV-positive? Can they have sex without condoms?” a student asks.
“Good question,” Dionne says. “It’s even more important that the HIV couple wear a condom during sex, otherwise the HIV can get worse quickly because it feeds off the other person’s HIV virus.”
“Is it better to get tested and know you have the disease? ” a girl asks.
Yes, she tells them, because then you have a chance. “I take 500 milligrams of AZT each day, and I take care of myself. When I was shooting drugs, I was sharing needles with my boyfriend and having unprotected sex. He’s dead now.”
A girl squirms in her seat and says, “Don’t you come sit by me.”
Kim seizes the microphone from Dionne. “You cannot catch AIDS from sitting next to someone,” she tells them.
“And you cannot catch AIDS from kissing someone,” adds Wakirisana. “You’d have to shoot about two gallons of their saliva directly into your veins before you’d become infected.” She mimics shooting a needle into her veins.
After that it’s on to the loot: the safe-sex paraphernalia the group hands out at every seminar. Some students stuff their pockets full of condoms, and others crowd around to ask questions; but basically all but a handful hurry to go.
“How do you use this?” a woman asks, pointing to the woman’s condom, which looks like a little elephant trunk with rings at both ends.
“Do you see this?” Wakirisana points to the rubber ring inside one end. “This is inserted at this end, sort of like a diaphragm. Do you know how to use that?” The woman nods.
There are tubes of spermicide and solid paper-thin sheets of spermicide. These she demonstrates to several young girls who are curious. “See, you roll this up and insert it into the vagina,” she explains.
Several other students are looking through the photo album with Kim. “Here’s a giow-in-the-dark condom,” she says. The girls laugh. It’s been a long afternoon, yet it seems a whirlwind tour to the volunteers, who want to spend more time but can’t. They vow to return.
Dionne is tired, but she has a few hours to rest before going to Columbia College for another seminar that evening. Each of the Girls’ Night Out workers receives a small stipend for each seminar–the project is funded for three years through the Centers for Disease Control.
Conducting the seminars is now Dionne’s job. She no longer has the energy to work the long hours of her former jobs, modeling and clerking at a hotel. Once she sought the services of the big blue house on Ashland, and now she’s providing them. And she’s perfectly suited to her new task: driven to educate the public about HIV and AIDS.
“I can really get to the men,” Dionne tells me with a laugh. “I just stand up at the front of the room and ask, ‘Would you sleep with me?'” No one ever says no. And that’s their big mistake.
“Next I tell them, ‘Well, then you might get AIDS and die someday, because I’m HIV-positive,'” she laughs, then becomes more contemplative. Dionne and the others have a common goal, to educate all women as quickly as they can about HIV; but they do get discouraged. Dionne, Kim, and Wakinsana worry aloud that they can’t work fast enough to get the word out.
Kim, who also works in a health clinic near the high school, says attitudes are changing, but slowly.
“I had a man threaten me because he didn’t want to hear that he could have AIDS simply by having sex,” she says. “I just cooled it, though, because it’s more important for me to tell a lot of people about HIV than to risk having him beat me up.”
Wakirisana also works regularly in a clinic, and despite all the energy she’s put into getting the word out on HIV and AIDS, she admits that not long ago she knew hardly anything about the disease. Now her thoughts are on the CWAP’s next project: it plans to introduce a condom lady, a kind of take-off on the Avon lady. Volunteers will begin selling condoms and other safe-sex item at wholesale prices. A Girls’ Night Out coordinator, Joyce Fitzgerald, says the cost of a condom, spermicide, and lubricant per screw could be as much as $2.50, but through the condom lady, it would be about 75 cents.
That’s the spirit of the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project–serving women and educating them, says Cindy Tsai, another coordinator. “It’s just for women, and it’s a safe place.”