The Chaos Within… ‘Irida Pola’

Anuradhapura. The city of kings. Forgotten and re-remembered ruins. Temples and trees offering the devout all they desire… even peace. Just for a moment. Lost in the smells and bells of burning coconut oil and flowers that decay slowly as their fragrance drifts on a quiet wind from nostril to nostril…

Anuradhapura Sunday Market (Irida Pola). Screeching vendors. Riotous colour. Where sickly smells of fresh and rotting fruit compete. Stagnant pools of floating fish scales. Life milling together with life as bargains are sought and bags bulge, misshapen with produce. Into this chaos descended 52 TWATS (31 TWATS from the Anuradhapura district, and 21 TWATS from Colombo, who being the twats they are, had traveled for five hours in a sardine can on wheels).

The Sunday market or ‘Irida Pola’ is not just a melting pot… it is a cauldron of gooey, lumpy, tasty, nasty Sri Lanka. It is a frontline. It is where people are! A place where we can tick the boxes of young and old and everything in between… there is no better place to engage with unwitting ignorance and related prejudice. Fifty two twats were soon lost within, finding their way, probing and questioning and taking HIV to the Sunday shopper, when she least expected it.

Would they be reluctant to participate in quizzes? Would they fling our leaflets into the gutter? Would they wear a red ribbon to support people living with HIV? Would they understand?

These were our fears… our concerns, and in the end our realities that day. People were rushed and did not always stop to fill the quiz. People grabbed flyers reflexively and some did find their way to a crumpled grave on the pathway. And as for wearing a ribbon… here was our greatest challenge of the day. It was as if the pin we were using was tipped with HIV and that we were there with the express purpose of sticking it into them. The myth of HIV filled injections lying predatorily on seats in cinemas and buses have had their desired effect.

But the twats continued undeterred, rising to this challenge as only a twat can in the face of cultural excuses and hurriedness – need to get home! Questionnaires started to fill up. Even questions that included anal sex were ticked. Those expecting another mundane promotion on a leaflet were instead confronted with GET TESTED for HIV! And soon there were these ribbons that fluttered on vendors and shoppers like little crimson butterflies.

The disruptive theatre teams pushed forward. Questioning and arguing and creating a general stir that allowed for crowds to gather and listen to modes of transmission, myths, the possibility of living full lives with HIV, the sadness of stigma and discrimination.

In the end we had close to one thousand questionnaires to take home from a footfall of thousands. Nothing? Something? A real beginning. The beginning of our Pola Strategy. A strategy that will be refined. A strategy that will allow us to engage with real people. If we are to change perceptions and dispel myths, in the end there is nothing better than a discussion, over a cup of tea or even the sweet juice of an orange king coconut. People listen more when a face is before them, a face that is passionate, and faces that clearly believe it is worth spending their Sunday talking to other faces about HIV. Despite the hurriedness, despite the culture question, we found a willingness to listen… an acceptance that WE need to know more about HIV. Not one twat experienced any rejection beyond a shake of the head, or feigned deafness.

And so… as if by accident, the ‘Irida Pola’ campaign has just begun. Every city, town village has a market day, be it Sunday or another day of the week… now imagine us hiring out a space too at this market, where we put on display our wares… be it counselors, or necklaces made at IDH, or IEC material or condoms (under the table to be dispensed like drugs until the day comes that we can dispense them over the counter), where we fan out and infect others with our enthusiasm and passion and knowledge… and why limit it to sexual and reproductive health? Imagine what a team of twats can do for this country by connecting with real people, by using tools like disruptive theatre to address prejudices beyond HIV? And most importantly… to LISTEN to what people who go to the ‘Irida Pola’ have to say… because it is in listening that we learn what we need to say.

It helps being a twat. You never know what you may stumble on to…

Hans Billimoria


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