Workshop Nation

Here, where average life expectancy ends at 42, and a recent drop to a 14-percent prevalence of the virus that leads to AIDS is the good news, at least 20 workshops and conferences devoted to the epidemic pack ballrooms in every major hotel every day.

This story is about one that brought journalists to a slightly shabby business hotel on the outskirts of Lusaka for two days recently, to learn about the toll of the virus here.

We were asked to register by eight a.m., with an agenda extending from then to 6:30 in the evening ahead, rooms for us to spend the night, and not a minute to waste as the program stretched to the end of the following day.

We began about 9 a.m., when a man in a linen dashiki, one of a near dozen facilitators leading this two-day affair, herded us into the center of the room to stand in a circle and sing. This, as anyone who has attended any nonprofit workshop knows, was a minor demand as far as warm up exercises go, ones in my experience having included jumping up and down, hugging the stranger next to me, imitating animal noises, describing my dearest aspirations to the entire roomful of strangers and listening to them describe theirs.

So we gamely learned all four words of an African song with the inspiring translation “we can do it.” Then we learned a special way to clap to the song. Then we learned a dance to go with it. Then we learned another dance. Then it was time to get down to business — that is wander around the room until a signal, at which we were to start talking to the nearest person as if old, old friends. This hit a snag with my partner when he looked at my name tag mispronounced my name. No matter, at another signal we were circling the room again, and at another stopping to have a sign language conversation with the nearest person. Another signal, another new friend, this time to tell basic biographical details, as well as “something silly” to. Sharing what we had learned about each other, and learning a new way to clap after each presentation, occupied the remainder of the first active hour.

At ten we took our seats while another facilitator rose and in a funereal monotone read every single word of a powerpoint presentation that he projected on the wall for the next half hour. Not one word of the tome, which appeared to have been lifted directly from a grant proposal to raise money for the workshop, imparted a single fact about HIV.

We had a tea break and returned to green and yellow slips of paper and instructions write “something positive about dealing with researchers” on the yellow ones — because that is the brighter color — and “something negative about dealing with researchers” on the green ones. With the agenda now a good two hours behind, however, facilitators became concerned with how to do this efficiently. We were told to get into groups and talk about what to put on the cards. We picked up our chairs, carried them around the table, and looked at each other. “This is the same thing the questionnaire we got asked us,” one man said, “I told them, I don’t know what’s positive or negative about working with researchers — I’ve never worked with any.”

“Write that,” one of the facilitators drifting past suggested — “Why have you never worked with a researcher? Are they hard to reach?”

“They can be very hard to get ahold of,” the man wrote, because by now, the instructions had been reversed again, and participants were told to write the answers individually and stick the yellow ones on the wall next to the yellow highlighter-drawn picture of a smiling sun, and the negative ones next to the sketch of a demonic glowering face, drawn in black magic marker.
Then, after some confusion, one of the two people selected from each group to read the answers aloud, read the answers aloud while we crowded around the slips stuck to the walls.

Now it was time to talk about ethics — in general (i.e. Should journalists have ethics? why?) so herded back into our groups. The conversations that ensued there — should the photo of a five-year-old rape victim be published? should the name of an 11-year-old rapist be used? — touched on an array of horrors, but not TB and HIV. The answers, written crookedly on flip-chart paper were stuck to the walls and read aloud.

One of the facilitators went to check on lunch while the song and dance man read the agenda for the rest of the day aloud. The facilitator returned to say lunch was delayed enough for us to proceed with the next activity.

The song and dance man did his own version of counting off in threes to sort us into new groups — this one involved asking one woman to sing the national anthem, the man sitting next to her to sing a Zambian soccer song, and the man sitting next to him to sing a folk song. With those as our count-off, we stepped back in the middle of the room to stand in groups and sing the songs spiritedly. Then we learned a new way to applaud ourselves. Then another new way. And a dance.

Then each group was given a list of terms to define — all having something to do with HIV! We then left for lunch without learning if our answers were correct.

Over lunch I learned that at least two of the facilitators hold the job title of “anti-stigma trainer.” One said the Global Fund tightening up in the wake of the worldwide economic crunch was worrying to people at her workplace.

I got an Internet connection in the lobby and wrote home about the progress of the conference and about the fact that HIV hadn’t been mentioned until 1:40. Home told me to have fun. I decided to time my return for the next tea break when cookies would be served. I arrived a few minutes early to find everyone standing in the middle of the room learning a new dance. I backed out and had a cookie.

To make up the missing time journalists were asked to come at 8 the second morning instead of the scheduled 9. They ruefully agreed, but didn’t show up until 9. The song and dance man had gone, but his understudy greeted the group with a resentful mention that someone had complained about the amount of singing and dancing the day before.

A middleaged man raised his hand and said he wanted more information about the subject at hand. We were singing the national anthem when you handed out those pieces of paper asking us to define terms, but that’s what we came to find out from you, he said.

We were getting to that, a facilitator said, and introduced the first researcher. He went on too long – ten minutes past his allotted five, leading him to get the hook from one of the facilitators. The next trainer galloped through her presentation, on HIV and how “food insecurity” keeps sick people from taking their medicine, and cut herself off midsentence to avoid the indignity that her predecessor had met.

The understudy arose apologized for the amount of time the researchers had taken and told us to stand in a circle in the middle of the room.

I slipped out the door during that, returned to my room, packed and checked out. The lobby was now my home for the rest of the day, with visits to my friends in the room where HIV, and all the misery and money it has spawned was celebrated.

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2 Responses

  1. Oh Lord how have you suffered. Singing? For this reason alone I couldn’t do what you’re doing. The amount of liquor I’m going to pour down your throat when you get home has just doubled.
    Be brave.

  2. So funny and so true!

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