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:


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