Two years ago at his friends 19th birthday, Ridah Manuel then 16, had his first try of marijuana and taste of alcohol. He says he was inquisitive and that his friends were pushing him to try it, so he just gave in.
When he talks about the years that followed he interrupts his thoughts with words like “I know it was wrong” or he stops a sentence half way saying that he is not proud of what he has done.
“I’m not proud of what I’ve done, but I am happy I woke up in time before everything got worse. I really have Health4Life Counsellor to thank for that – he really helped me get back on my feet,” says Ridah.
Salesian Life Choices offers the Health4Life intervention in the school that Ridah attends. Once a week a Health4Life counsellor provides one-on-one youth friendly HIV counselling & testing services and group talks in reproductive health. The programme also offers one-on-one psychosocial support sessions with a therapist to learners with deeper social issues.
The Salesian Life Choices team met Ridah last year when the Health4Life Cousellor approached his class and asked who would like to have an HIV test. Ridah says that he raised his hand because he thought “why not?”
“At that time of my life I was a stoner* I would just think what the hell and get high and drunk. I was playful, loud, I would smoke and drink often, I would say I was irresponsible. My friends were older than me so they always had drinks or weed*. I didn’t really take school seriously and I had become less active and disinterested in life. Before I would jog or take part in activities but at that time I didn’t bother.”
Adding to drugs and alcohol, Ridah would often not think about the consequences of his actions.
“I’ve had many girlfriends and have been sexually active with most of them. Most times I would use condoms, but there were times when I didn’t think about what I was doing. We would just have sex without using a condom. I never thought about any consequences.”
Meeting the Health4Life counsellor, Ridah says made him think seriously about his behaviour especially in those minutes while waiting for the results of his HIV test.
“During the time when I was waiting for the result I was thinking about what I’ve done in the past and that I could be HIV positive. Before I only thought of having a good time.”
When the result came back negative, Ridah says he felt like he was lighter and that he knew then that he had to change his lifestyle.
Ridah would continue to meet with the counsellor for four more sessions.
“It really made a difference, because I could speak to him, being open with somebody was something different for me. I don’t really trust anyone. I would try to speak to my brothers but it would always be like a joke to them.”
The goal setting exercise Ridah completed with the counsellor really made a difference and allowed him to look at his future differently.
“He asked me what my life goals were, afterwards, he took a page and showed me all the goals I told him I had and then he wrote down all the unhealthy behaviours I was practicing. He asked me to reflect on my attitudes/behaviours and if they were helping me in anyway to reach my goals. After a very honest talk, he looked at me and said, ‘let us be real and make a plan that can help you to reach your goals.’ This really helped me, he guided me to make my own plan, it made it seem possible.”
Ridah’s opportunity came a few weeks later when an English teacher at his school announced that he was starting a cycling club and that any interested students must meet him after assembly.
“I’ve always thought about doing things like cycling, but I was very playful so I didn’t think I could achieve it. I had agreed with my counsellor that I should become more involved in sports as a move towards a healthier life style. I wanted to get more fit, body and stamina wise, so I joined the club. I was the first one to join and helped recruit other students as well. In the end the team had four student cyclists.”
Ridah’s school gave each of them a bicycle to practice on, but the bicycles needed to return to the school after practice and weekends.
“We would normally practice on a Wednesday after school. In the beginning it was regular but then Mr Lucus would get busy or forget. I would always ask him when we going to start again. I was persistent. Riding was freedom for me, I got to clear my mind.”
Unfortunately, Ridah and his team mates cycling hit a bump in the road as their bicycles were stolen this year from the school store room.
“All we found were two frames that were completely stripped. It made me feel so crap because we were really enjoying it. Because the cost of buying bicycles would be too much for our parents, I am currently looking for new bikes to pursue our cycling further. I have approached cycling shops but they told me we need to be a registered team to get bicycles. So we are currently looking at how to register ourselves so that we can hopefully start cycling again.”
Motivated to keep true to his goals, Ridah continues to keep fit today by walking and jogging regardless of his situation.
Ridah says that he has also learned a surprising lesson about himself after meeting Salesian Life Choices.
“I would always think that I should change my friends and community, because they were the bad influence. I have realised now that what I needed was to find the confidence to stand up to them. They often ask me if I want to drink or smoke and I tell them I’m on a different buzz*. They call me weak or scared but it doesn’t affect me. This is how I know I am different because what they said used to get to me, but today it doesn’t. I know what I want in life and nothing will stop me.”
Weed: slang word to describe "Marijuana".
stoner: a person who regularly takes drugs, especially Marijuana
buzz: the feeling experienced by someone