Tuesday, March 16, 2010

William Alvarenga

This week, I'm not writing about getting older, but about dying young.

I got a very sad phone call from Honduras. William Alvarenga was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 20. William and his brother Melvin were members of a Red Cross youth group that Deb and I trained to give HIV/AIDS prevention presentations. We became very close to the boys and friends with their family. About once a week, William and Melvin would ride to our house on their shared bike for a visit. We would drink cokes or orange juice and play cards. When they left for home I'd go down with them to lock the gate. Melvin would pedal the bike and William would run for a few steps then jump onto the cross bar. Once he was on-board, he'd take over the steering. Melvin would rest his hands on Williams shoulders. I think Melvin got to pedal because he was a couple of years older.
William was very smart. I know this because he could always understand my Spanish. No matter how badly I butchered the grammar or how impenetrable my accent, he knew what I was trying to say and could translate it so that others would nod their heads and smile in recognition, "Oh. That's what the gringo was trying to say." Also he learned the card games really quickly.
Below, is one of the emails I sent to friends and family while Deb and I were in Honduras. It describes some of the work I did. I'm sharing it here because it is one specific day that I remember having had with William.

World AIDS Day

1, December, 2005

Dia Mundial Contra VIH/SIDA

Sonaguera, Colon

Greetings to Everyone!

El Sastre is my favorite of the villages surrounding Sonaguera. El Sastre means the tailor. We've been told that before there was a village, it was the home of a very skillful tailor. People from miles around would say, "I'm going to the tailor." The village grew up around the name.

A river runs through the middle of El Sastre. There is a shallow ford that buses and four wheel drive vehicles can usually splash through, but it is the rainy season so for now you have to cross the hanging bridge to reach the pool hall. In the afternoon, Billares Churito is the gathering place for a large percentage of the male residents of El Sastre.

I'm carrying a large plastic tote bag full of the tools of my new trade: John Kotula, AIDS educator to the developing world. It contains a thick roll of "charla papers;" a series of posters covering the basics with as many pictures and as few words as possible. There are other visual aids, too, including cards depicting the symptoms of AIDS and other cards with pictures of high risk behavior -unprotected sex, sharing needles, breast feeding by an infected mother - and risk free behavior - kissing, hugging, sharing household utensils, etc. There is a gross of condoms and the obligatory large, green platanos to use as dildos during the condom demonstration.

Eight of us, Peace Corps volunteers, Health Center Personnel, and two young AIDS educators from Cruz Roja, Melvin and William Alvarenga, have come to this aldea to present El Campeonato de Billar Contra El VIH/SIDA. We are going to put on a single game elimination pool tournament, starting with 16 players. It'll take us five rounds to determine the champion. Between each round there is a presentation about AIDS and during the final game, whenever a contestant sinks a ball, in order for it to count, he has to answer a true or false question based on the information that has been presented. We've arrived at 2:30 to set up for a tournament that starts at 3:00, a sure sign that a gringo is at the helm. However there is no electricity in El Sastre and it is going to be too dark to play by 6:00.

The manager of the pool hall has lined up 16 players, but he explains that the weather has been good so they are out cutting oranges. A man rides by on a bike carrying a wooden latter that is at least sixteen feet long. The manager yells out the door to him, "Hurry up. We're starting." By 3:15 everyone is there. The players range in age from about sixteen to their mid forties. Many are shirtless and some are barefoot. Some are very skilled and some are just knocking the balls around. Everyone is in a good mood, with much bantering and laughing. One man plays his games with his diapered toddler hanging onto his knees. Through out the afternoon more and more spectators crowd in. Both the windows are full of heads watching the action.

As part of the educational presentation after the first round, Melvin, William and I hang signs around the necks of some of the players and spectators, designating them as "healthy body," "white blood cells," "viruses," "microbes," and "HIV." Then we coach them through a scenario in which a healthy body is well protected by its immune system until infection with HIV kills off its white blood cells and leaves it vulnerable to opportunistic infections. They act out each stage in the progress of the disease. The men participate enthusiastically, particularly during the battle between the white blood cells and the microbes and during the murder of the white blood cells by HIV, which is accomplished by pantomimed machete chops and pistol shots. Through this drama, they seem to understand the biological mechanism through which HIV leads to AIDS and eventually to death. While it is a serious topic, they are having a lot of fun while learning.

Most of you know me well enough to know that the low brow, raunchy humor in all of this has great appeal to me. I can't pass up the opportunity to make penis size jokes or resist the temptation to strategically place the condom-encased platano between two pool balls. Fortunately, Hondurans seem to share my fifth grade sense of humor.

By the time the final game was played there were fifty people in the room. The man who won was an excellent player. He made a couple of jaw dropping shots. However, he had to sink two balls twice, because he missed two of the questions - Can you get AIDS from a mosquito bite? and Can you get AIDS from a virgin? This led to a lively discussion with members of the audience supplying the right answers and the rational behind them.

One of the reasons I judged the El Sastre event to have been a success is that I think the players and spectators both found the educational presentations as engaging as the pool games. I also loved the high spirits and the community camaraderie of the event. It felt like a sound combination of valuable information sharing and fun.

I hope everyone is doing great. Things continue to go well here, with a growing sense of focus and purpose. Take care. J.

When I went back to Sonaguera in 2008 I stayed with the Alvarenga family for a few days. Cruz Roja had gotten some funding to start their own HIV/AIDS education program. William was on the staff. I accompanied him to an event he had helped organize and took the photo of him sitting in the sun with his coworkers.

To live a long life is a great privileged. I'm thinking it comes with some obligations. Pay attention. Savor it. Don't take it for granted. Do some good.

1 comment:

  1. John,

    What devastating news. My heart goes out to the Alvarengas. I did not know them as well as you all, but I did have the pleasure to work with William on several Red Cross events and I know he was a very special boy, and this is a great loss for his family and for the youth of Sonaguera. Mis mas sinceras condolencias.