Monday, February 28, 2011

Valentine’s Day event to promote HIV/AIDS awareness: blow by blow

A chaplain from the area South African Police Service opened our event.
 November, 2010
I approach the college about hosting a Valentine’s Day Event to promote HIV/AIDS awareness as a “fun” event for the college students at the start of the new school year, 2011. I have something in mind like an open-air festival, with a free-flow feel, where the students can meander about between classes, have goodies and treats from community members who have agreed to donate goods and services, and perhaps take the opportunity to learn something about HIV/AIDs and/or seek counseling and testing for HIV/AIDS. The college is excited and supportive, but when I inquire about beginning with the planning in November 2010, I’m told to “wait until school starts next year.” When I object to waiting, because that will leave me only six weeks to prepare for the event, I’m told, “It will be fine.”

December 1, 2010
The World AIDS Day event hosted by my primary school is a smashing success and I’m heartened and hopeful about doing something similar for the college students.

January 10, 2011
It’s the first day of the new school year and I’m told to “go ahead and plan” the Valentine’s Day Event to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. I have five weeks to coordinate an event that hopes to attract about 1000 students and community members. In the USA, I would never, EVER have attempted such an event without at least six months planning time. I’m told “It will be fine.”

January 11, 2011
I find colleagues at my college who will help plan the event. The former Student Support Officer, who should be my counterpart but is no longer the SSO, reluctantly agrees to help. The school’s Hospitality Program can cater the refreshments, and the Hospitality Department has an exceptional instructor who is a friend and I trust completely, advises me we need money for ingredients to prepare the refreshments. How can we raise the money? This same woman knows of someone from the University of the Free State whose passion is “to promote HIV/AIDS awareness among the youth of South Africa.” This wonderful woman from the U of Free State agrees to come, but we must pay her transportation. How can we raise the money? I’m told we can ask the college’s Corporate Center to donate money to fund these areas of our event.

I seek out the woman in charge of the college facilities, the one who will prepare the seating for 1,000 or so guests, help the vendors set up their booths, etc., and ask her to help with our Valentine’s Day Event. She says, “Sure, just remind me.”

(I will remind her weekly about our event, so much so that whenever she sees me, she playfully laughs, points to me, and says, “I know, I know, Valentine’s Day!)


So much for an open-air, festival-type of event.
January 12, 2011
I draft a proposal to request funds from the college’s Corporate Center to pay for our Valentine’s Day refreshments and transportation for our guest speaker. My supervisor revises, correcting all of my American English, into English English, approves proposal and I fax the request to Corporate Center. (Or, as she would correct me: Corporate Centre.)

January 13, 2011
Worried that the college’s Corporate Center may not fund our event, I travel to Vryburg to walk door-to-door to illicit participation and contributions for our event. I’m told I need to hand out a “formal letter of invitation” for requests to be considered.

I return to the college campus to draft this “formal letter of invitation,” my supervisor reviews and approves it, and I return to Vryburg to hand-deliver the “formal letter of invitation.”

January 14, 2011
I spend the whole workday scouring the phone book to find potential donors for our event. I begin, what will become in the next weeks, a routine of daily emails, faxes, and phone calls all for which I’m begging for money or donations.

January 15-February 4, 2011
I fax every community member within a 100-mile radius: Will you come to our event, help make it “fun” for our students, and/or donate goods or services that promote your product the future generation of South Africans?

It is in these weeks that I realize that people seem to not understand what I mean by a “fun event for the students” and an “open-air festival,” although the taxi ranks all over South Africa are keen examples of an “open-air festival.”

It is also in these weeks that the guest speaker from U of Free State confirms she is coming, so I feel a bit urgent about not having money yet for her transportation. Also, I have invited the local community radio station, the local mayor, a team of HIV/AIDS specialists from another city two hours away, the District Health Department, the District office of the Department of Education and I realize I’m somewhat panicked about how we will feed all of these people should they show up, and somewhat panicked about if they will ever let me know they are planning to show up.

But another bomb-shell: the woman in charge of the Hospitality Program, who is a STAR in every way, who could single-handedly make this event a great hit, will be having surgery on February 7, and unable to be on-hand for the event. I feel a dark cloud of foreboding, but forge ahead anyway.

Still no word from Corporate Center in regards to funding our event.

I am wanting to dissolve into the floor.
 Monday, January 17, 2011

I approach my college supervisor to express my concerns and suggest we “wait until we can better plan for such an event.” She waves me off and assures me, “It will be fine.”

More faxing, emailing, phoning, waiting… Still no money, still not sure who is coming…

I do this same thing of expressing my doubts on a Monday and my supervisor assuring me that “It will be fine” for two more weeks.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011, our event is a week and a half away…
My college hosts a formal program to “officially open” our school season. All of the “suits” from Corporate Center are in attendance. I find the woman in charge of doling out the funds from Corporate Center and she informs me that, a) Corporate Center did not take my request seriously, because I signed the form instead of my Campus Manager (who, at the time, seemed quite fine with me signing the form), and b) Corporate Center cannot just dole out money to anyone. I must tie this event to the curriculum: What will the students gain, academically, from such an event? If I can tie the event to the curriculum, Corporate Center will fund our refreshments and transportation for our guest speaker.

I have no idea how to do these things. We’re a week and a half out… Is there time to do such things? My supervisor assures me, “It will be fine.”

Thursday, February 3, 2011
I revise the submission request for funds for our Valentine’s Day event, tie the request to the curriculum to the best of my ability, have my supervisor sign it, and re-fax our request.

Friday, February 4, 2011
Our newly-appointed Student Support Officer, who should oversee these kinds of events (and perhaps become my counterpart), is too busy to meet with me, but suggests we meet the next day (a Saturday) with members from the Student Representative Council. I’m thrilled: finally, someone with a connection to the students is on board and finally, the students will have a voice. How can we make the fun for THEM?

Saturday, February 5, 2011, 11:00 am
I meet with the newly appointed Student Support Officer and the only one member of the SRC to show, and he is reeking of alcohol. The Student Support Officer suggests we change the day of the event, seems unconcerned that I have been circulating fliers about the event with a firm date and time for weeks now, suggests we change the style of the event (from an outdoor festival to a formal program), and worries that we have too many guest speakers and they will all feel competitive and jealous of each other. He also asks, “What are we doing for Valentine’s Day?” He doesn’t’ want it all to be about HIV/AIDS) and suggests we offer a session on the history of St. Valentine. I inwardly groan, but say nothing. How could a history lesson on St. Valentine be fun for the students?

Lighting the AIDS candle
I try to maintain composure at what feels like a rising panic setting in, apologize profusely (I don’t, after all, really know what I’m doing, and desperately need his help), and beg, “Can we please do it the way we’ve already planned and do the best we can and we can do it however you’d like the next time?” He reluctantly agrees and suggests a planning meeting for Wednesday, February 9.

I’m not terribly alarmed at holding a planning meeting at so late a date: the primary school held its planning meeting the day before World AIDS Day and pulled the event off beautifully.

I was hoping the college would similarly rise to the occasion.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011: T-minus six days and counting
We host our “planning meeting” for our Valentine’s Day event. About twenty of us show for the meeting, including fellow educators from the Hospitality Program, educators that have helped me link the event to the curriculum, members of the local police department (who have a team dedicated to HIV/AIDS related concerns within the community), people who just wanted to help, and two students (but no members of the SRC).

Again, silly me, I thought we could hold a very democratic meeting, a brain-storming session, if you will, whereby everyone felt comfortable (and perhaps excited?) to contribute to the discussion. I did not want this to be a “Karen Kaye” meeting, but a “this is our school event” meeting. Not only was this kind of meeting NOT to happen, but the men dominated the meeting, the women were mostly silent with downcast eyes, and I would later be publically upbraided for not having formally introduced everyone there. I still am a bit clueless to how to formally introduce people that stream in very late, well after the meeting has begun, and up to a half an hour late or even more. In my culture, late-comers are ignored (or even reprimanded!); in this culture, they’re revered. However, I have not yet mastered the art of revering the very special people who could barely be bothered at all to attend, and certainly not be bothered to attend on time.

The other major way I mis-stepped was that I brought the meeting back, again and again, to the students: “What would YOU GUYS like to do?” or “What do YOU GUYS think?” When I called on the students to contribute their ideas, they slumped their shoulders, lowered their eyes and heads, and apologized, “I’m sorry Mam; We’re just students. We have no voice here.”


The outcome of the meeting: we kept the date, changed the event time (uh oh), and still weren’t sure who was coming and when.

Long story short: I created a Valentine's Day “program” that was quite vague and could be easily manipulated on the day of, when hopefully, we’d have some idea of who was coming and when. I had relinquished my idea of an “open air festival,” because, well, no one seemed to grasp the idea of it.

Mr. S, a top-notch educator who sat in the hot-seat with me. 
He was our "Master of Ceremonies"
Friday, February 11, 2001: T-minus three days and counting.
My guest speaker from the University of Free State cancels.
I repeat: My guest speaker from the University of Free State cancels.


I take my forlorn, defeated self to my supervisor who is thrilled: Corporate Center has finally approved the funding! I’m ready to cancel, she’s ready to proceed!

I take a bit of heart… I have invited someone else who could serve as the guest speaker. He confirms, wants too much money, but I’m moving ahead now in full-steam, and hope the college rises to the occasion, no matter what happens. I feel certain they will help me navigate the mystery of organizing/facilitating an event at their school and will rise to any occasion on our Valentine’s Day.

Sunday, February 13, 2011, 7:30 pm.
I, to woman in charge of the food for tomorrow, say: “Are we all set for tomorrow?”
She replies, to me, “No, not really.”

Not really?

It’s too late. I can’t worry now. Everything is in place. What will happen, will happen and it feels out of my hands.

Monday, February 14, 2011: Valentine’s Day
7:20 am. The gentleman from the local police station, who insisted we change the event time in the last hour, cancels. He apologizes, but he has a family matter and will not be in attendance.

7:30 am. Staff meeting: As a show of unity and school spirit, it was decided everyone wear red for our event: red for Valentine’s Day. About ten of us are wearing red out of the forty staff members present. (I had frantically searched Vryburg a few days earlier looking for something red to wear, and eventually bought a red scarf.) I invite the staff members to gather for a group photo, so “I could show everyone in America how wonderfully supportive our staff was of the event.” That was the very wrong thing to say, everyone grumbled, and filed out. (Remember, in South Africa, the education system is teacher centered, not student centered, so hosting an event or otherwise doing something supportive of the students doesn’t go over well.)

Another blow: my supervisor won’t even be coming to the college today.

8:00 am.In a panic, I ask about the food for the event, the food for feeding perhaps 800-1000 people, and am told, “We still haven’t heard from Corporate Center.” This next person in charge assures me, “I will fax them in a minute.”

I fuss with having the programs printed, which takes me about a half an hour or so.

A star student bravely reading her HIV/AIDS message
8:30: I return to inquire about the food for our students and guests. My new person in charge is busy with other matters and doesn’t seem concerned about us needing to feed so many people in a few short hours, would she mind if I send the fax to Corporate Center? She is fine that I send it, so I do. Ok, I’ve faxed Corporate Center, there is nothing more I can do. If worse comes to worst, certainly the college will do something to feed our people something.

8:40: The local radio station that I had solicited weeks earlier but had never responded calls to say they will not be coming to our event. Fine.

8:45: I go to check on the main hall that is supposed to be set to seat 800 people. It is set to seat 35 people. I go find the lovely woman in charge of the facility, the one that jokingly laughed with me the weeks prior, about readying for our Valentine’s Day event. I show up in her office, she throws up her hands and can’t be bothered. I ask about the students (we have at least 650 of them) and how will they be seated? This is, after all, their event. “Tell them to bring chairs from the classrooms,” she replies.

Great. This is supposed to be a fun event for the students and the college can’t be bothered to ready chairs for them.

8:55: Phone rings, it’s the office administrative assistant, my guests had arrived. Great. Guests already… Seems like they were counting on, surprise, surprise, our originally and highly advertised program time of 9:00-4:00.

I go to greet our guests, who happen to be 20-30 of members of the local police department, the same police department of the guy that had cancelled on me at 7:20 that morning, the same guy who had insisted we change the event time, (but apparently neglected to tell his own staff of the time change) and a chaplain that was chomping at the bit to open the program because he had other engagements.

I apologized to our guests, pleaded for them to wait, and ran about finding someone to serve the guests coffee and tea. After a lot of shoulder-shrugging and nods of “no,” my begging prompted the appearance of beverages for the guests who will be waiting two and a half hours for an 11:30 start time.

9:30: Community-service providers invited to provide free HIV/AIDS counseling and testing services begin to arrive. People from groups I hadn’t invited arrive: Where should they set up their equipment?

I return to my formerly-joking facilities lady who becomes unhappier and unhappier each time I knock on her door. She is very unhappy with our Valentine’s Day event and can’t believe the attentions I’m requiring of her.

9:30-10:30: More community-service providers show, more people needing assistance with set up.


Mobile unit offers HIV screening and counseling
 11:00: I’m notified that the local chapter of the Health Department, whom I had invited, were coming, but needed me to send them transportation. What? The Health Department needs me to send a car? At the same time, I’m notified that my too-early-arrived guests, who were really on time, had had their limit of waiting, and were marching to the Main Hall to begin the event.

Great. I really can’t be bothered now with the stranded Health Department and head toward the Main Hall.

11:00: We’re all in the Main Hall, I and the 20-30 members of the local police force, but there is not one other member from the college in the hall: no students and no teachers, no Master or Mistress of Ceremonies, only I and the select group of highly-irritated members of the police force.

I frantically phone the Acting Student Support Officer, my should-be-counterpart, to ask for his assistance: Could he come help me? No, he was busy with other things. Could he at least get the word to the students to come to the Main Hall? No, he was sorry, but he really was busy with other things.

I grab a student to find the gentleman that agreed to be our Master of Ceremonies. In the meantime, I try to stall and attempt to speak to our guests, attempt to explain to them who I was, why I was in South Africa, and the purpose of Peace Corps. My audience, the highly irritated and kept-too-long waiting members of the police force seem distracted and inattentive when I try to talk to them. A woman from the police force stands, approaches me, and leads me out of the room. She points out that my pants are unzipped. MY PANTS ARE UNZIPPED AND HAVE BEEN SO FOR ALL OF THE MORNING.

11:45: My Master and Mistress of Ceremonies arrive and help me with the chaos. Still, the students aren’t in the Main Hall. My colleague, familiar with student protocol, asks the girls to lead in song, all stand, and everyone begins singing. At hearing the music, students finally flood into the Main Hall, but have nowhere to sit. They stand about and sit on the floor. Our program begins. Someone informs me that Corporate Center had finally released funds and the Hospitality Team was off to Vryburg (40 minutes away) to purchase ingredients to prepare food for the 300-400 or so (as it turns out) guests that would be expecting to eat in only a couple of hours.

11:45-2:30pm. Miraculously, almost all the invited guests to speak arrive, file in, and seem to know when to “go on” for their parts of the presentations. I’m flitting about, trying to take photos and trying to figure out who is who and generally putting out fires. We are in the Main Hall, it is a hot day, there is no water to drink, and there is no water to be provided because our Hospitality Team is in Vryburg. The students are noisy and disrespectful of our guest speakers (and of me) because they are hot and have nowhere to sit (and likely can’t understand most of the English that the speakers are using). I grab and beg a fellow educator to serve as crowd control and he complies with limited success.

For the most part, I wished to dissolve into the floor.

2:00: My Department of Education supervisor arrives (I have so many supervisors!) and although I’m delighted to see her, am embarrassed at our floundering situation. I ask her to do the “Vote of Thanks” to close our program and while she initially agrees, she soon declines after seeing how the students are being so disrespectful.

I continue to want to dissolve into the floor.

2:30: The formal part of our program ends and another one of my colleagues sits in the hot seat with me and gives the “Vote of Thanks.” In her closing, she scolds the students thoroughly for being so disrespectful. We should now serve refreshments but the Hospitality Team still hasn’t arrived from their delayed shopping excursion. Everyone is encouraged to wait for the food. The team from LoveLife, the organization that had promised they would make the event “fun for the students,” show up after the program had ended. The community-service providers conducting the HIV/AIDS counseling/testing services send for their own food and tsk tsk about how the numbers (of students coming for counseling/testing) are so low.

People have been displeased with me all day, and have voiced it heartily. The former Student Support Officer, the one who was supposedly helping me in the past weeks, seems to be following me around saying, “You should have done this and you should have done that.” I flee from her admonishments as graciously as I can.

3:00: Emily, my nearly-next door neighbor Peace Corps Volunteer, shows up to support our event. At this point, I’ve not had even a sip of water since 7:30 am and have come unglued. She basically bolsters me up, provides moral support, and takes some great photos that I would be very grateful to later have (and most of the ones you see here).

4:20pm. The very angry members of the police force, who have been waiting unhappily to eat all day, are ushered back to the Hospitality Lab, where Emily and I assume the food is ready and the guests are finally being fed. Sure enough, we see them leaving and carrying “to go” box containers. The food prepared is nice, it’s a braii, with grilled meat and pap and salad. The students head toward the Hospitality Lab for their turn, and are summarily turned away. THE STUDENTS, WHO HAD WAITED ALL DAY, TO EAT THEIR PROMISED REFRESHMENTS, WERE REFUSED. The crowd of students becomes rowdy, obviously upset. I worried they would toi-toi, as their uprising is referred to, when they often do when promises to them aren’t kept, and Emily asked if I would like to spend the night with her.

The Valentine’s Day Event to promote HIV/AIDS awareness was not fine; there was no fun event for the students, invited guests were not fed, students were not fed, the college did not even provide water for the guests to drink. When I walked my very disgruntled and unhappy guests to their cars, I would see fellow-educators in the Staff Room, laughing and having tea, while our school event was limping along as a disaster.

I felt hurt, betrayed, and sabotaged by my college colleagues. The Valentine’s Day Event to promote HIV/AIDS awareness was a dismal failure and an embarrassment for me and the college.

The Aftermath:

I visited a neighbor later that evening to take her some tomatoes. She congratulated me. SHE CONGRATULATED ME. When I asked her how she could possibly, and voiced my complaints, she soothed me, “Oh, Ms. Kaye, it was not about the food today. It was about the MESSAGE. You brought some wonderful people to our campus today and the students were exposed to a wonderful message.”

I met my Peace Corps supervisor a few days later who assured me that the event had been successful, that having 50 college students receive HIV/AIDS counseling and testing was phenomenal, and that I was “being too hard on myself.”

Later that week, I would attend, as a guest, a similar event that was very well done. Many of the community-service providers that had attended our Valentine’s Day event were present, and I made my way to each of them to offer my apologies. All were more than gracious, and an area social worker said to me, “We could see that you were doing a brave and courageous thing, and that your school was not supporting you.” She further added, “If you’d like to do another event in the future, call us and we will help you organize and execute the event and we’ll bring everything you will need.”

I left my school to spend a week in Pretoria, which ended up being a very good thing, in that it allowed time and space that brought helpful perspective. On the Monday that I returned to my site, I made my way to the local grocer. As I passed the Police Station, on my way to the grocer, I heard someone calling my name: it was the Police Force Chaplain, the gentleman who arrived promptly at 9:00, waited impatiently until 11:00, then stormed the Main Hall demanding the program start, and was offended by my unzipped pants. On Valentine’s Day, he was rightly very, very angry with me and voiced it heartily. I cautiously approached him, expecting the worst. To my amazement, he was kind, gracious, and friendly. He seemed very happy to see me. I thanked him profusely for coming to our event and apologized for how badly it came off. He basically said the same thing Mrs. N had assured at the end of that awful day: That the message was the most important thing and to my concern that his staff hadn’t been fed, he replied, “It’s good for people to “go without sometimes.” He also asked me to try again and offered his help with the planning. He also invited me to his church.

When I returned to the campus from the grocer and my chat with the chaplain, someone else called me by name: “Karen, I have been looking for you. I live in a village 60K from here and want you to help me host an HIV/AIDS event just like the one you had here.” I assured him that I was happy to help and promised that this second attempt with his event would be much, much better. He replied, “No, I want the event to be exactly like yours.”


PS. For more pictures of our Valentine’s Day Event, see my public Facebook page (click on the link). You need not be a FB member to see the photos:


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Louisville RPCVs Lettie and Sally visit

Lettie and I in front of my "guest room."

Lettie and Sally with the college kids

Lettie with my primary school children
 Wow! What fun! My friends Lettie and Sally came to visit me this week and I had an exceptionally good time! It was fun to have friends from Louisville visit and as a bonus, friends from Louisville who happen to be Returned Peace Corps Volunteers! (RPCVs are volunteers who have previously served and have since returned to their lives in the States.) Lettie served Senegal from 2000-2003 and returns to Senegal each year. Sally served Ecuador, South America in the mid-70s.

I met these wonderful women about a year before I came to Africa. My recruiter for Peace Corps had told me that Louisville had a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group in Louisville and I began attending their monthly dinners to meet former volunteers and hear all the Peace Corps stories. I learned very quickly that it’s great fun to be around former volunteers, as Peace Corps Volunteers share a special bond formed by our unique experiences.

And Sally happens to teach at Jefferson Community and Technical College—so we share employers as well!

Lettie and Sally are here only for a few weeks, so they could only stay a few days. However, I don’t think our visit could have been any more exciting:

• Lettie and Sally rode a bonafide Northwest Province taxi from Vryburg to my site. One asked, “Should we wait for another one?” as we spied a particularly dilapidated vehicle; I replied, “This is as good as it gets.” W were all crammed into the very back seat for our 50K ride to my site in true South African style!

• I had not before accommodated a whopping two guests at a time, but we managed beautifully and were a bit creative with sheets and towels and bed linens. Although I was worried that I had fed my guests too many eggs: fried eggs, boiled eggs, and French toast, they were very gracious and tried a lentil/rice dish and my chakalaka! I was sure to feed them fresh vegetables and fruit, and we delighted in a very ripe mango. Scrumptious!

• We visited my primary school and it was great fun to watch the kids swarm Lettie and Sally like a little hive of bees—and I remembered how it felt to be surrounded by so many school children at one time when I first arrived. There really isn’t anything quite like it! The children sang for us and the educators were very pleased to be meeting my guests from the USA.

For more pictures of our primary school visit, see my public Facebook page (click on the link). You need not be a FB member to see the photos:

• The next day we visited my college. Sally was especially excited about my college, because she works for a technical school in the States. She has a great idea about both schools collaborating and was excited to find her very own counterpart in Mr. S to help facilitate a cross-cultural exchange between the South African college kids and the USA college kids. (I will, of course, help until I leave South Africa.)

• For more pictures of our college visit, see my public Facebook page (click on the link). You need not be a FB member to see the photos:

• Just to add a bit of dazzle to our visit, we had rioting in a nearby town. The residents were protesting for better water services, the police came and fired rubber bullets into the crowd, and two little girls fled the scene to be later found drowned in a nearby dam (dam is the SA word for pond or lake). The drowning of the girls made the crowd even more upset, of course, and the police ended up arresting 42 citizens. We were fine, and the conflict has since resolved, but it was interesting to be hosting guests all the while receiving text messages from my PC security advisor giving me updates on the volatile situation.

• We were able to walk about the village one afternoon on a sizzling hot day. We encountered a family keeping a young Chacma baboon as a pet, a village cemetery, and a wonderful “pink apartment complex” where the landlord grows pomegranates, grapes, limes, lemons, and figs.

It was a lovely, lovely visit and my only regret is they couldn’t stay longer. Lettie and Sally were off to KwaZulu Natal to visit another Peace Corps Volunteer—another PCV from KY!  We had a blast!


During our village walk-about we spot a donkey cart

Sally with a Gogo and baby

The sun was sweltering this day.
Karen, Lettie, Sally, Ounaai, and the threatening African sky

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day? Teacher-centered education

I wish you could see this kid dance!

I have no nice new pictures of beautiful things to show you, so I’m posting some older pictures of the beautiful children from my primary school’s school concert from last year. However, hopefully none of these have been posted before, so they'll be new tot you!  Other than the child posted above, the remaining photos are all of my Grade Six learners from last year.  They are in Grade Seven now, and I refer to them as "my kids" in the captions.  My heart bursts with pride fro them!

Hopefully, after Monday, Valentine’s Day, I’ll have current fun stuff to show you.

One of the goals of education reform in South Africa is to move from a teacher-centered to a student-centered classroom. What is the difference between teacher-centered instruction versus student-centered instruction? Simply, the student is the most important person in the classroom, instead of the teacher being the most important person in the classroom.

I’ve never understood how extraordinarily difficult this shift will be for the South African school system--from teacher-centered to student-centered—until now.

In the USA, we do a nice job of having student-centered instruction in our K-12 classrooms. Teachers in the USA want their kids to succeed and good teachers will do everything in their power to support their kids in learning and succeeding. For many teachers, again, the good ones, who have unsuccessful lessons or a struggling student, we will analyze what we, as the teachers, are doing wrong and make changes in our lessons to improve instruction or find ways to better help a struggling student.

In the USA educational system, we do tend to shift to teacher-centered classroom at the university level; after all, the word “professor” conveys the message “I know and profess and you (who know nothing) must listen.” In the college classroom, this is best illustrated in the “lecture” style of teaching: the professor stands before many students, sometimes as many as 300, and the students furiously attempt to note everything this wise one is saying. However, even at the university level, there is a shift to a more collaborative teaching and learning style, as is one example in with peer-review of student writing in freshman writing classes. With our current teaching/learning trend, we have decided that learning best takes place in smaller classrooms with more collaborative methods.

In all our schools and universities, the teach is there to serve the students; the whole learning environment is centered around supporting the students; the school works together and is proud of their students, and sporting activities and anything extracurricular highlights the talents of the students. We work very hard to keep our students happy and succeeding. And as a rule, the whole school has a loyalty and pride in itself, evidenced in “school spirit.”

Now I’m going to shift into my observations of the South African school system, with its current “teacher-centered” form of instruction. I will provide my disclaimer here: I am writing of what I observe in my schools in South Africa, not all of them. And too, my observations are prejudiced by my personal biases that I bring from my own cultural background and experiences. And as ever, who is to say that “our way--my way--is the right way.”

My grade six class -- they are in grade seven now!

I spent most of my time at the primary school last year, instead of the college (I will tell you why in my next blog posting), and my initial observations of the South African school system were at the primary school level. I was, of course, horrified by the corporal punishment administered, hated seeing the 600 students—young children--crammed in great numbers into too-small classrooms with unbearable learning conditions: blistering hot or freezing cold, no water to drink, no clean toilet facilities, and their teachers seemingly sitting in the staffroom pulling their hair out because of the paperwork required of them demonstrate to their supervisors that they are complying with policy. (In fact, I believe the educator’s primary purpose, in the current state of affairs, is to make sure they are complying with school and departmental policies, and are spending the majority of their school days preparing their reports and compiling their evidence instead of teaching their students.) Of the school’s miserable pass-rate, the educators would reply, “our learners are slow-learners (stupid) and cannot be taught.” However, what outraged me the most, other than the corporal punishment, was watching how the teachers interacted with the students: it’s as though the students existed only for the educator’s beck-and-call, they existed as their personal slaves, if you will. The children couldn’t wait to be summoned to fetch their teacher’s cold drinks, or carry heavy boxes of books, or even chop a tree trunk to build a fire. (When the school is short of funds, they cannot purchase propane, and the school cooks will prepare the children’s meals over an open flame; this is, of course, no small task when feeding +500 people.)

I could not imagine how students could love and respect their teachers, when their teachers were, in my view, so cruel to them, but they certainly did love and respect their teachers. In fact, I did not hold the respect of my students, because I would not beat them, until they saw how well they could learn without being beaten—and how fun it could be. (Then, gratefully, they came to love and respect me, and would miss me and ask for me if I could not come.) In my primary school, I did sense an attitude of pride toward their school—a sense of reciprocated love and loyalty between the teachers and students. And I did sense that (some of) the teachers genuinely loved their students. All of this was evidenced in school functions: Heritage Day, Parent’s Day, World AIDS Day, and the end-of-the-school-year celebrations. During these celebrations, everyone was happy, having fun, and very proud of their school community.

Two of my guys... I'm very proud of them.

On the other hand, in my return to the college this year, and especially with coordinating our Valentine’s Day Event to be held on Monday, I’ve observed the prejudices of the teachers toward the students on yet another level. The lecturers --here again, not all of them, but most, I think) feel contempt for their students and are more than a bit put-off at having to teach them. At having to teach them?

Again, coming from my background, I have worked for universities that plan and host events all for the benefit of their students. At many college campuses, a regular feature is a “welcome back” event hosted at the start of each new school year. Often, the event is held out-of-doors, and the school has vendors to come and provide free soft drinks, snacks, and small promotional gifts; often there is music or other kinds of entertainment; often school groups will set up booths to welcome and introduce themselves to incoming students. There is a general sense of fun and celebration created by the school, by the educators (adults) for the students. I was hoping to coordinate and help organize a similar event, put on by the school (the educators, the adults) for the students. My goal was to have a fun event catered for the students, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, while at the same time promoting HIV/AIDS awareness.

That was my hope.

I’ve really gotten a good dose of “teacher-centered attitudes versus student-centered attitudes.” Time and time again, I’ve come up against the attitude of, “What? Are you CRAZY? Why would I participate in such an event (that honors or celebrates the students)?” Time and time again, when I ask community organizations to come support our event (the students), I’m countered with “What is in it for me?” “How much is in your budget for me?”

I’m more than a bit put off by this attitude, as I was told South Africans honor a tradition of “Ubuntu,” or a common belief of helping others; a common attitude that all are responsible for helping others. However, I do not see my community practicing Ubuntu—at least for my college students; it seems more like my community members have been corrupted by the lure of money and that money is the only incentive to them for “helping others.” (And seeing these same people, business owners and organization leaders, who already have money and power, and use it in corrupt ways, is a whole other blog post.) So, it’s been a disheartening few weeks.

In the USA, a soft-drink vendor, like Coke or Pepsi, will often provide free refreshment for these kinds of events because a) they are recognized as a supporter of the school and the students and therefore earn a reputation for supporting their communities, and b) they know it is cheap advertisement for their product, and they have a good opportunity to “brand” themselves onto potential life-long customers. (I know; this in and of itself is inherently creepy.) I was hoping this opportunity, to raise their reputations and advertise their wares, would be a good enough sell on our community businesses to please come and participate in our school event and to please help make it fun for our students. No dice.

At the campus level, I would run into these kinds of brick walls: for our refreshment budget, I was hoping we could have a special treats for the students; it would always go back to: we’re feeding the guests and educators very nicely, will provide an elegant, catered, sit-down meal to the VIPS and the students will receive 4 slices of bread. (I’m not kidding.) I would plead: Please make this a special day for the student; Please help me think of ways to make it fun for the students. No dice.

We held a planning meeting for our event this week and I asked all interested in the event to come. We had about 20 to show, a feat that, in and of itself, I’m told, is a success story in itself. We had Hospitality educators come (who are preparing the food), Life Orientation educators to come (who are developing lesson plants so that our event is a learning opportunity for the students and one they’ll be given credit for), and the Student Support Officer. We had asked members of the SRC to come, the Student Representative Council, but they didn’t. It was very important to me that students could come, as how could we plan an event for our students without their input. In the end, we had two students there, one of my former students who had learned of the event and wanted to assist. We even had members from our police department come help plan our event: they have peer mentors in their HIV/AIDS outreach division.

My kids

Because I’m an American, and because I’m coming from a society that practices democracy on many levels, I was hoping that we, as a collective group of people with a common interest, (Valentine’s Day), could come together for a lively conversation with everyone feeling equally represented and feeling comfortable to share their own opinions. Not only did this not happen, I flubbed the protocol as the facilitator (in my culture, if you’re late, you are the loser; in this culture, if you’re late, everything has to stop so the late-comer can be honored) in that I ignored the late-comers and we continued on with our conversation. (I would later be publically upbraided for not properly introducing all of the participants, but how can participants be properly introduced if they all arrive late and at a trickle in half hour segments??) The men of the group dominated (and seemed to be challenging each other), women of the group demurred, (even though a very powerful female Head of Department was present), and the students were ignored and silent. As a facilitator, I would come back, again and again, to the students: What do you guys think? Do you have any suggestions of how we can make this event fun for you? The students were visibly shaken at my directing attention to them, and said something along the lines of “Sorry, Mam. We are only students here. Our opinions do not matter.”

In the end, on Monday, we hope to have an event, for students, that provides helpful information to promote HIV/AIDS awareness; we have invited special guests to make presentations and address the students; we have a team from the Health Department to provide HIV/AIDS counseling and testing; we have asked the choir to sing; we have asked for the Mayor of Taung to come and open our day for us; we have plans for refreshments to be served.

In all of this planning and preparation, which seems little and rushed to me (in the USA, I would have never taken on such an event without 4-6 months of planning—this has happened in 3.5 weeks), I have NO IDEA how this will come off. All of the phoning is completed, all of the faxing finished, all of the emails sent. I have made personal appearances, visited and pleaded, begged for money or donations. I have cajoled and schmoozed. There is nothing to be done now but show up on Monday and wait for the event to unfold.

As a unifying gesture, so everyone in the school can participate and support our event—in a gesture of school spirit--we have asked all of our campus community, lecturers and students, to wear red on Monday.

Yesterday, an educator pulled me aside to express her dismay: “Ms. Kaye, do the lecturers really need to wear red on Valentines’ Day?" (As if she couldn't believe she was being asked to lower herself to the students' standards.  She added, "Can't only the students wear red?” Eish!

Teacher-centered, indeed.


This shot is a bit blurry, but I love the mood of it.  Again, my kids.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Say, "Cheese!"

Our campus choir


My former and current supervisors with a happy award-winning student
All of us singing the South African National Anthem

The 2011 incoming students

The college had its official “Academic Opening” Ceremony this week. What exactly is an “official” Academic Opening? Well, my college, Vuselela FET, has six campus locations and to open each campus “officially,” the CEO and other VIPs come visit and we have a big “to do”-- a big, formal ceremony with caps, gowns, music, food, and awards. Ours was this week.

It’s so weird, because, in my little brain, I think these people would know that it’s kind of a big deal to have a Peace Corps Volunteer working for them. Or at least, in the USA, we tend to think it is something special to have a Peace Corps Volunteer working in communities in other nations. However, and alas, my schools seem to not think of my presence in a special way. They never provide a space for me in their programs, to address the students, so the students (and other staff) know who I am and why I am here. This is all very sad for me, and a bit frustrating, because I’m HERE to WORK WITH THE STUDENTS. You would think (I would think), the school administration would want me to address the students as we open the new school year. I kind of barged my way into the program last year and made space in their program for me to do this, but this year, I just let it go. I showed up as the token photographer. Everyone is always pleased to have a token photographer.

Last year, there was a lot of turmoil at my college campus and I somewhat ducked out to go work at the primary school instead. Last year, at the primary school, I had already gone through the process of setting boundaries with my camera. This entails a LOT of saying, “No, I’m sorry, I cannot take personal pictures”; “No, I’m sorry. I cannot take your picture, then ride an hour away to have it developed, and then bring it back for you, even if you pay me”; and “No, I’m sorry. I cannot do house calls for family portraits nor can I come to your house to photograph your car after the accident for your insurance company.”

The people that I’m living with LOVE to have their photos taken and they can get very aggressive about it. For example, if they are unhappy with the shot, they ask you to stay with them, for hours, to retake it 20 or more times. Sometimes, and quite often, especially with school children, (but even adults will do this), crowds will approach me and yank the camera out of my hands in order to view and approve of each shot. All of this crowding and grabbing is unpleasant for me, so it’s a lot of work, initially, to set clear boundaries around the camera and picture taking.

This news, of me not accommodating personal portraits or other personal requests, is not good news to hear and makes people less than happy. I need to be consistently firm and say it repeatedly without exception; and, not only to the kids, but to the staff members and other adults as well.

(This is all somewhat confusing to me, because in almost every case, even with the students, they ALL have their own cameras in their phones and all take pictures of themselves and others—all of the time!!)

It’s something of a tiresome, ongoing process, and I’m not well-liked in the meantime, but eventually, everyone finally understands that the camera belongs to Peace Corps (a handy little fib I tell for personal protection), and that the camera is for official use only, and eventually everyone quits asking and accepts the fact, and are happy with the fact, that I’m there to take pictures of their functions. And then, the young kids at least, ham it up for the camera. It makes great and easy photography.

I had already set clear boundaries with the primary school last year, but had forgotten I would need to do it all over again with the college kids. My saying “no” so many times, especially when I’m trying to better know and relate to the college kids, felt overwhelmingly distasteful. However, I got through it and snapped some nice shots, and am sharing all of them with the college (so the college can deal with making reproductions), but a lot of students, and even educators, were not happy at my not complying and providing their very own “Vogue Shoot.” (However, the idea of a “Vogue Shoot” might turn into a profitable fund raiser idea—especially if I can use the school’s camera!!)

The other thing I was reminded of, and saddened by, was the fact that most of older, teen-aged students and students in their early-twenties, and ALL adults (well, most) hate to smile for photographs and refuse to smile for photographs, (and can become aggressive about not smiling for photographs); so I was mourning the loss of my beautiful portrait shots of smiling, happy people. But then, I remembered I do have other events throughout the school year with the younger children, so I will be getting my gorgeous shots of beautiful, smiling children.

Which got me to thinking: Why do I insist on displaying only happy faces? Why is it not ok to show a photo of someone who is not smiling? And even still, why is it not ok to show a photograph of someone that appears to be scowling?

In America, we’ve learned that a posed, smiling shot makes the best photograph (well, as far as portrait shots go) and our kids, of course, grow up mugging for the cameras that are ever-present, chronicling their every move for all of their lives, so are well-rehearsed in mugging for the camera. So USAmericans have, I think, grown accustomed to, and even if the pose and smile are tiresome, will cooperate for a “candid” shot. But adults here, steadfastly refuse.

I am the USAmerican with USAmerican standards, trying to enforce the “smile rule” on all of my South African peeps. That caused a bit of conflict for me during our Academic Opening as well.



PS.  You may think I'm  doing pretty good capturing those imposed smiles with these compliant, smiling faces here... I took 350 photographs. Three-hundred-fifty. These are some of the few what were "smile-able."

These two look like trouble! But they're not.  The gentleman in the right is my former student.

Fellow English-teaching colleagues

My reluctantly posing for a photo

Friday, February 4, 2011


The photo is of a lovely wild zinnia that I noticed and fell in love with when I arrived in Africa last year. (Or whenever it was that I arrived in Africa… I’m losing track…) One morning, as I was walking to my primary school, I noticed a whole stand of these growing by the side of the road. They are all this brilliant red and the blooms only reach the diameter size of a quarter, but I just love them. In fact, I love them so much, that I gathered seeds and was intending to send them to all of my “flower lovers” back home in the States--and I know many, many flower lovers! I would walk by every day and pause to enjoy their beauty and I couldn’t wait until the flowers were spent so I could harvest the lovely dried seed heads. I harvested many, many of the wild zinnia seed heads, and put them aside to dry well before mailing them home to various friends and family members.

However, I knew better than to do this. Not only is it illegal to import seeds from a different country, I also know enough that regional flora grows where it is planted for a reason: because it is indigenous to the area in which it lives. These wild zinnias are living in Africa, not in the USA. Also, I know how devastating an “invasive or exotic species” can be in an already-established flora and fauna.

For example, in the USA, European starlings have become a pest and a “problem bird” because it lives, thrives, and reproduces very well in the USA. How did it come to the USA? Someone from England loved the bird so much that when he decided to come to the USA to live, he brought these “beloved birds” with him. Asian kudzu is another example of how an invasive/exotic flora can run wild. It was brought to the USA to assist with erosion control and now you can’t ride down any of our southern highways without seeing it swallow up everything in sight.

But I loved these zinnias so much, I felt very compelled to share them with family back home. (As did, I’m sure, the gentleman who so loved the European starling!) Eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that I simply couldn’t in good conscience do so, and dumped the lot of the seed outside my windows. I should have gone to the trouble to plant them carefully, but I did not. Nevertheless, these lovely beauties defied my carelessness and decided to grow anyway! And I’m so glad they did, because they have become my housemates. They send me off to work each day with their bright-red, cheery faces and it makes me very, very happy to see them.

Most of you know that a village dog has adopted me: Ounaai. As a fellow mammal and as a household resident, she is my most dedicated housemate. I love that Ounaai is an outside dog and she is very low-maintenance. Well, after the initial “start up” of spaying, worming, de-flea-ing, etc., provided by angels residing in the USA, she is now low-maintenance. And a special thank you to the USAmericans who provided for her—for us—in this way. Ounaai has brought me great happiness in my African home!

She loves to scratch her belly by lying with her legs straight back, and pulling her very long self along on the carpet or grass with her front legs: it’s a land version of “dog paddling” and she doubles me over in laughter to watch her.

My home is equipped with security doors and she is small enough to move through the bars. In this way I can leave my home open for her and she comes in and out as she pleases.

Although she has her run of all of Africa, she does choose to stay close. If I’m working at my desk, she is under my feet. If I move to another room, she follows right behind. She sleeps under my bed and barks at any suspicious noise she hears outside. Although she is welcome to stay inside my house when I’m gone, she remains on my front porch, regardless of the weather, to guard our shared abode.

Her new way of sharing companionship is to follow me out into the garden. I was away from my garden for nearly a month during the rainy season, and as a consequence, the weeds—and African weeds are FIERCE—have taken over. Ounaai likes it though, because she follows me out and lies in the tall weeds as I attempt to harvest. You can tell she delights in her “dogness,” in her way of lying hidden in the very tall grass. And that swirly-round thing that house dogs do when trying to settle? I’ve watched the village dogs exhibiting the same gesture, actually in the tall grass to dampen it and lie down. The gesture makes sense when you see it in its natural setting.

Ounaai has become a true companion and I’m already extremely fond of her. And--BLAST! I didn’t want a dog!!

Not quite as reliable are other housemates, and most of these are temporary—just visiting, so to speak. I used to be, like almost everyone I know and meet, very afraid of spiders and snakes. As I’ve learned more about them, I have come to admire and appreciate them very much. I’m not crazy about spiders in my house, but I don’t mind them. (And of course, don’t want snakes of any variety in my house!) I have a beautiful orb spider outside one of my front windows and each evening, as I’m watching the sunset, I watch her acrobatics as she spins and swirls to travel from one side of her web to the other. I believe she delights in the African sunsets as much as I! I especially like to watch her because she lives outside.

I have a different variety of garden spider that is sharing my living space, and she too, is outside. I haven’t gotten a very good look at her, because she resides in her web upside down and I haven’t seen her since our initial introduction. I’m hoping she’s still with me and will pose one day for a picture. While these garden spiders can look quite threatening, they are harmless and do a great job of keeping garden pests at bay. I usually fall deeply in love with my garden spiders and am heartbroken when the summer season ends, which sadly, also brings about the end of spider season too.

I’m not sure exactly where they are coming from, but I have a whole slew of baby spiders living in the vicinity of my bathtub. I try to relocate these whenever I’m drawing water for a bath or for laundry, but as I scoop one out, another appears. They are very tiny and I have no idea what kind they are, but I feel assured that they are valuable and necessary, so I attempt to rescue each one. I scoop them out with an empty toilet paper roll. I try to guide them inside the “tunnel” and drop them out the other by shaking the tube outside my window. In this way, I hope, they are outside of my house, yet still alive to flourish elsewhere—perhaps even in my garden!

I have a visiting bat, or perhaps one that stays in the house and comes out only on occasion. I had one come in a week or so ago, and watched him bounce around my bedroom trying to find a way out. This is no easy task for him, as my bedroom windows are covered in security bars and I have sheets of fabric pegged up as curtains. I love watching him circle around my bedroom, as I’m protected under my mosquito net (my anything-but-mosquito net!) and have a front row seat. It is a bit frightening though, because he bangs into the walls in an attempt to escape, and I worry about him becoming injured. Last night, he flew about and landed in a protected area behind my door. He heard, or otherwise sensed, a moth buzzing and bumping about near my overhead light and came flying out of his hiding place in hopes of a snack. (In fact, perhaps the bats are drawn into my house because the moths are drawn to my light as I’m reading.) The bat actually missed the moth, but did escape out of the hole in my broken window pane. I was worried the broken glass in the pane might harm him, but he seems to have escaped without injury. When lights were out, I heard Ounaai chasing and eventually chomping the huge moth that had earlier enticed the bat. Oh well--at least SOMEONE had a snack!

And I have a mouse. I’ve never seen this mouse, but s/he lives in my kitchen, and curiously, leaves my food alone. S/he does, however, leave “evidence” of nightly visits.

I learn a great deal from those I live most intimately with. When I was residing temporarily in Table Mountain National Park for the December holidays, I met and shared living quarters with a lovely woman, also a visitor to South Africa. She was from elsewhere in the world, a European, and she helped me better understand my “USAmerican-ness” probably better than anyone I’ve encountered in my life. But she gifted me in another way: she taught me to do the dishes.

I love to cook and do cook for myself, but tend to take shortcuts, mostly because I hate scrubbing dirty pans with cooked on/baked on food. For example, some mornings I will cook oatmeal for myself, while others, when I’m feeling short on time (or lazy), I will eat it raw—so I need not bother with scrubbing a breakfast pan. Likewise, I often eat eggs boiled so I need not scrub my fried egg off of the bottom of a pan. Good grief, have you noticed how difficult it is to clean a fried egg off the bottom of a pan? I have to use bleach to loosen it… And we put this substance in our bodies?? Now I understand why tempera paint (made from eggs) lasts FOREVER. And what about grilled cheese? Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to clean grilled cheese off of a plate? And we put this substance in our bodies? While many of you worry that I don’t eat enough meat, even in the States, I avoid cooking meat—because I don’t like to clean the greasy pots and pans! Gross!

Ok, back to the lovely housemate. Every single morning of every single day, every single lunch of every single lunchtime, and every single supper and every single snack, this woman would dirty every dish in the house to prepare herself a lovely, hot meal or snack: every single dish in the house! These meals weren’t even fancy: they consisted of simple fare, often only of toasted bread and pasta or a lovely fish omelet or soup. Even with her coffee break, she would trouble herself with toasted bread—toasted bread, like, in a pan on the stovetop! I would watch her and my head would hurt thinking of all those dishes she would wash; but in each and every instance, for each and every meal, she would go to the trouble.

I admired the way she troubled herself to practice self-care. Since my return to the village, I have been taking great care to cook wonderfully hot meals for myself throughout the day. And yes, I’m scrubbing pots and pans with cooked-on food, but each time I scrape, I think of her and the important lesson she taught me: life is too short to compromise on any meal, that each meal should be special and delicious!! And with this lesson and this practice, I’ve incorporated great joy into my life!

I am blessed with an abundance of rich housemates in Africa!

Soon, Karen