Israeli volunteers ring bells for AIDS education

Participants display their bells as part of the Ringing Bells AIDS education project.An African mother wails a death cry as villagers wrap her two-year-old girl in a swaddling cloth for the last time. The body is put in a wooden …

Participants display their bells as part of the Ringing Bells AIDS education project.An African mother wails a death cry as villagers wrap her two-year-old girl in a swaddling cloth for the last time. The body is put in a wooden crate as the father, motionless, is left to cradle his head in his hands. The AIDS virus will soon take his life, while the fate of a second child and the HIV+ mother is unclear.

People are dropping like flies in Ntenjeru, an 18 mile radius sub-region of Uganda. Last year, Israeli Ido Shor, 28, was there documenting village life, as a different kind of backpacker: he was there to help educate villagers about HIV/AIDS transmission because information is still lacking or incorrect.

Now Shor is back in Israel and part of a unique project called Ringing Bells – which is training backpackers to be volunteers in educating about HIV/AIDS prevention. Last month he showed his video to a group of 20 young Israelis in Tel Aviv.

The tie that binds the group is that they all plan on backpacking independently this summer and have volunteered to be Ringing Bells pioneers. The backpackers – ages 18 to 32 – are planning to be global leaders in AIDS education, to fill in the gaps where local non-profit organizations are limited or non-existent.

Initiated by the Jerusalem AIDS Project (JAIP), Ringing Bells trains, supports and counsels the backpackers on how to make the most of their traveling time. JAIP is a formal NGO recognized by the UN as part of the UNAIDs organization.

The first of its kind in the world, Ringing Bells organizers also give backpacking educators a packet of material which includes diagrams meant to be effective even when a common language may not exist. Backpackers also receive a travel-size bell.

From their experiences, program organizers Inbal Gur-Arie, an AIDS educator; Hebrew University Professor Inon Schenker, and nurse Hanni Oren know that ringing bells work. Through pilot studies in about 20 countries including Nepal, Thailand, and Rwanda, the trio have found that a little information goes a long way.

According to Schenker, most of the credit for the Ringing Bells initiative goes to Gur-Arie, 31. Infected with the HIV virus eleven years ago through a heterosexual relationship with an African laborer in Israel, Gur-Arie is close to the age of many Israeli backpackers, and she ultimately pushed the idea that Israeli youths have what it takes to get the Ringing Bells program into the field.

It is taboo to talk about sex in some countries, says Ringing Bells chairwoman Hanni Oren. Backpackers wanting to help rather than harm, she explains, must be in tune with local cultural customs. Based on her experience, she recommends her backpackers absorb and study a village for a few days before approaching anyone to offer HIV/AIDS information.

Even remote locations have been exposed to globalization and English, Oren says, so she usually has an easy time finding someone local to help her translate. As she instructs the Ringing Bells group, Oren suggests that a wise thing to do is locate the village chief or priest.

This can make the job of building trust with the locals much easier, she believes.

“People are really looking for the truth about AIDS, and I find I am usually very welcome wherever I go,” she told ISRAEL21c.

Once she has a village leader’s go-ahead, Oren stands in the center of the village and rings her colorful cowbell.

“Sometimes, the village goats come,” she jokes, but usually she finds that within no time, a curious crowd encircles her. Then her work begins – where she mimes, speaks and illustrates by way of diagrams how AIDS is spread and how it can eventually kill the immune system in the human body.

Oren, who has worked with religious Muslims, Hindus and Christians, finds that her Israeli nationality is only a benefit.

“The word Jerusalem does miracles,” she says, “People expect holy things from me when I tell them I was born in that city.”

Like the other backpackers in Ringing Bells, Oren travels on her own time. She does benefit, however, from a small traveling stipend provided by Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the foreign ministries of others countries to cover basic traveling expenses.

This year, prompted by Gur-Arie, Oren and Schenker decided the time was right to take their program on the road. Through JAIP, a call was made to youths in Israeli universities.

Sami Press, 30, and his girlfriend Debbi Katz, 32, both working and studying in education saw a posting for Ringing Bells at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. They want to make their trip around the world later this year as meaningful as possible.

Press felt that the Ringing Bells workshop stood out by way of its seminars and that it attracted an interesting subset of people. Press, Katz and the others learned that although they are free to travel and educate on their time, they have a small obligation to send field reports back to Ringing Bells in Israel. This way, organizers can be in contact with support networks to monitor which villages are getting contact.

According to JAIP, there are 14,000 new HIV infections in the world every day. Statistics suggest that vulnerability and discrimination are closely associated in the AIDS pandemic and that developing countries are the hardest hit.

“AIDS is something bigger than all of us,” says Kenyan-born Shalom Shungulu, 29, a new immigrant to Israel. Shungulu came to Ringing Bells to share what most Israelis have never experienced. Every year in Kenya, he buries at least two family members killed by an AIDS-related illness. In Kenya, many of his friends are HIV positive; others have died.

The Ringing Bells’ activities – sponsored by the daily newspaper Ha’aretz, The Traveller magazine and the backpackers themselves – has included not only personal stories of people like Shungulu, Oren and Shor – but also lectures by university professors Linda-Renee Bloch and Nurit Guttman, who volunteered their time to teach health promotion, intercultural communication and the delicate nuances around the subject of ethics and respect.

“The backpackers shouldn’t be missionaries,” says Bloch. By way of a card game she and Guttman show backpackers what it might feel like to be a villager met by a foreigner from another part of the world. Bloch believes that backpackers, through the Ringing Bells program, will not only get the satisfaction of teaching people about AIDS prevention , but will get the opportunity to learn a lot about themselves.

Ringing Bells plans to be part of a wider initiative on December 1, 2005, World AIDS Day, when one million bells are expected to ring out simultaneously against HIV/AIDS.

For more information about Ringing Bells, contact Inon Schenker at jaipolam@yahoo.com.

About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman lives in Jaffa, Israel. She is a journalist, writer and blogger who focuses on the environment and clean technology from Israel and the Middle East. Published in hundreds of newspapers around the world, Karin also writes for the Huffington Post and Green Prophet.