Charlottetown Airport | | Tricia Smith
Connecting Islandersto the World.

Tricia Smith

I am the Project Director of the AYAZAZI research study that operates out of two clinics in South Africa. AYA, is short for ‘Adolescents and Young Adults’ and Zazi, means ‘knowing themselves’ in Zulu - one of 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. Together our study name means "Adolescents and Young Adults Knowing Themselves.” Pictured in the photo with me are Nonny Bhengu (left) and Thandeka Sithole (right), two team members at our dynamic Durban clinic.

AYAZAZI aims to better understand HIV risk among adolescents and young adults in South Africa. The study includes 427 youth aged 16 to 24 years living in Soweto and Durban. We are investigating the myriad of social, behavioural, structural, clinical, and biomedical factors that may contribute to a young person’s increased risk of HIV infection. We also want to find out what young people in South Africa think about participating in future HIV prevention and vaccine research studies.

We offer HIV counselling and testing for young people who test positive for HIV, and we also facilitate access to treatment and support. Additionally, we offer testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections for our young participants– and treatment for their partners as well. Our small, but mighty team on the ground in Durban and Soweto are committed to working with and for young people.

I work for the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, where the AYAZAZI study is funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative. In South Africa, our clinics are located at MatCH Research Unit (MRU) in Durban and at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) in Soweto.

Working from multiple time zones can be challenging given we have team members in South Africa, Vancouver and myself, on PEI. However, there are challenges to any job and ours only make us work harder. It’s key to my role as Project Director that I am present at the clinics at various times throughout the year, and Charlottetown Airport makes it possible for me to fly from home to South Africa. I fly PEI with hopes that we will see our work making a difference to the lives of young people in South Africa. The AYAZAZI study team works together - youth and adults alike - to ensure that participants are not only engaged, but that they feel connected to the research we are conducting and as though they are contributing to something larger than themselves.

Travel and time zones aren’t our only obstacles in this unique work environment. We are challenged by some of the stories we hear. For example, it’s not easy for our young team members to hear about the struggles their South African peers are facing. Things like family and relationship struggles, intimate partner violence, poverty, lack of money to further their studies and unintended pregnancies are realities for many young people in South Africa. It’s especially difficult when youth in our study go from being HIV negative to HIV positive. It’s never a good day when our HIV counsellors must tell another young person that they are HIV positive.

The challenges, however, compel us to persevere and see that young people hold promise and with the right support, can learn to take their health in to their own hands. The dedication, kindness and generosity that I have experienced from our team has had an extraordinary impact on me. I work with people who are committed to helping a younger generation of South Africans and that is encouraging, even on our toughest clinic days.

My partner Craig (who I met when we were both working in Zimbabwe in 2004) sometimes joins me while I am in South Africa. We have escaped to Limpopo for Big 5 game viewing and we’ve also relaxed on stunning beaches in Herold’s Bay and Hang Klip in the Western Cape. We’ve climbed the magnificent Lion’s Head in Cape Town and marvelled at the penguins at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town. We have wonderful friends in Johannesburg and the Western Cape, so spending time with them is always a pleasure.


From left to right: Savannah Shezi, Nonny Bhengu, Tricia Smith, Thandeka Sithole, Sphamandla Gumbi

The AYAZAZI project is made possible thanks to a group of dedicated international, multi-disciplinary HIV researchers with a passion for advancing adolescent sexual and reproductive health. I am humbled and grateful to be part of this extraordinary team.