Brothers in arms
Published: Oct 24, 2008

Sara Knuckey

   Persipura footballers educate Papuan men in Abepura about sexual health
   Anton Imbenai/Persipura

Persipura football players, known as the Black Pearls, demand respect. Jayapura’s professional football team were runners up in the 2005 Indonesian National Football League competition. They are magicians with the ball, and heroes to Indonesian youth.

But more recently, team members have been thinking about more than football. Persipura’s management and coaches have enlisted a mix of senior and younger players as ambassadors to promote awareness of sexual health amongst younger teams in the Jayapura competition.

Black magic

The team’s ambassadors were selected according to their sense of humour, mental agility and capacity to communicate with younger members of the Persipura family. They organised a program of events incorporating dance and entertainment. Musicians played Papuan folk songs about birth, love and death. The ambassadors spoke at these events about manhood and what it means to be responsible, about gender, sex, love and desire, HIV and AIDS, and how to care for each other by using condoms. Their speeches were informal and in a local dialect. Participants laughed until they cried, joked, sang, cheered each other and celebrated their manhood nurtured by a mix of traditional culture and mateship.

   One of the billboards around the capital of Jayapura featuring the Persipura football team
   Papua Province AIDS Commission

The ambassadors’ evenings were supported by innovative health promotion messages on and off the field, using advertising billboards and on-field announcers at Persipura home matches. A giant inflatable condom cartoon character holding a football floated above the spectators, and free condoms were distributed to young players through the club coaches. Ambassadors also met with the under-18 and under-23 players at trials for the new season and discussed sexual health and how to use condoms correctly, alongside tips about how to stay fit and keep healthy, and demonstrations of ball handling skills.

Now you’re talking my language

The ambassador program was successful because the footballers spoke the same language in a context where AIDS has become part of the politics of resentment and misunderstanding. Like other Indonesians, Papuans distance HIV and AIDS from themselves by focusing on foreigners. Many people believe that the spread of HIV is part of a program of ‘unofficial’ genocide, in part a reaction to the steady stream of Indonesian sex workers from other provinces arriving on the inter-island passenger ferries. To make matters worse, many Papuans’ understanding about sexual and reproductive health remains poor due to the assimilationist approach of the Indonesian education and health systems. As a result, Papuans living with HIV and AIDS are alienated from their family and community, and experience shame, blame, and stigma.

Ambassadors discussed sexual health and how to use condoms correctly, alongside tips about how to stay fit and keep healthy, and demonstrations of ball handling skills

In Papua, the feeling between people is more important than the message. It is important the storyteller or messenger is known and credible, preferably from the same extended family or tribal group. This reflects the fact that traditional ways of knowing rely on the oral traditions in which the structure, content and mode of transmission of the message are critical to the retention of knowledge. As a result, storytelling and personal relationships are crucial factors to enable a two-way communication process to begin at the individual and at the community level.

AIDS has become part of the politics of resentment and misunderstanding towards the policies of the Indonesian government

The ambassador program is a first step towards developing a popular culture which supports behaviour change and promotes social norms that can address a whole range of issues related to gender imbalance, domestic violence and alcohol consumption. There is no time to waste in developing this and other effective indigenous community education strategies to increase understanding of both HIV transmission and prevention.     ii 

Sara Knuckey ( is a development communications specialist who worked on HIV programming in Papua from 2002-2008.

Inside Indonesia 94: Oct-Dec 2008