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Zulu Warriors Enlist Alaska Airlines Flight Attendant to Fight AIDS

Long-term project focuses on education to change behaviors

2/23/2010 9:14:34 AM

Zulu warriors have a well-earned reputation as fierce fighters, having successfully defended their KwaZulu-Natal homeland in South Africa against outside invaders for hundreds of years. But a new enemy prompted this courageous people to call in reinforcements in the unlikely form of Alaska Airlines flight attendant Monda Williams.

With a background in behavioral science, Williams has been asked by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the Zulu tribe, to help fight the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus among his people. Money for the effort is being provided by the prince and the South African government. It's a daunting task. South Africa has the largest concentration of individuals living with HIV/AIDS in one country: 5.7 million and counting.

"Kwa-Zulu Natal Province, where my work will be centered, is the epicenter of the pandemic with 57 percent of South Africa's AIDS population," Williams says.

She lists traditional beliefs, ignorance, poverty, low incomes and other reasons for high incidence of HIV/AIDS in KwaZulu-Natal province.

"An unfortunate dynamic throughout Africa - and particularly in South Africa - is a cultural norm for men to have first, second and third wives," Williams says. "Having multiple sexual partners greatly increases the risk of contracting the virus. Although I'm not going to try to impose my morals on anyone, educating men about why it is important for them to change their behavior will be part of the effort."

Specifically, Williams is designing a 22-part sexual educational program. This includes developing course curriculums and all training materials.

"Twelve of the training courses will deal with sexual assault, which is a big problem in KwaZulu-Natal," Williams says. "I'm also working to establish trauma centers at local police stations for women who are victims of sexual assault."

Other courses will deal with prevention, sex addiction, alcoholism, substance abuse, diet, nutrition and the importance of being tested for HIV/AIDS.

"I'm going to begin in July with an introductory train-the-trainer course for 10 health-care workers," says Williams, who will be assisted by a Zulu translator. "My goal is to train 120 care and social workers in the province to teach the course. They will then fan out into the towns and villages to teach the classes, each of which lasts about a week."

Williams estimates it will take about two years for her to complete the initial "train the trainer" project as she fits in trips to South Africa around her schedule as a flight attendant. "I'm not taking a salary for this, so I need to keep working," she says.

Williams came to the attention of Prince Buthelezi through her mother, who met the Zulu leader while working at the Tanzanian embassy in Washington, D.C.

"I wondered why he needed to reach outside his own country to someone halfway around the world," Williams says. "The reason is partly a slow response to the crisis by the South African government, but mostly it's because of a desperate lack of resources. The need is there, but the money is not."

On a fact-finding trip to the country a few weeks ago, Williams met with government officials, doctors, nurses and health workers. Surprisingly, she ran across very few people her own age.

"This is because the middle age population of KwaZulu-Natal is dying of AIDS," Williams says. "As a result, I will be teaching 19- to 26-year-olds and people in their 60s. There simply aren't many people left in the middle."

After coming to Alaska Airlines in 2004, Williams earned a master's degree while working as a flight attendant. Although she has developed domestic violence and child care programs for organizations in the United States, the South African project is her first opportunity to work in a foreign country.

"I'm looking forward to it," she says. "I really want to do this."

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