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Sunday Times-South Africa
Getting a serious message out to young people - on a lighter note: How Kanthee Raidoo succeeds in bridging the generation gap in her Aids education workshops
Futhi Ntshingila
July 14, 2002
An eager group of pupils fire probing questions at members of an Aids education team led by Kanthee Raidoo.

The pupils, seated in a hall at Ridge Park College in Overport, Durban, face a large, blood-red banner that asks in white letters "What's Killing Us Now?"

Raidoo, 35, from Umkomaas on the South Coast, listens attentively and nods her head appreciatively.

The questions over, the eight members of her team, all committed to educating the youth about Aids, perform a drama, using creative and entertaining tools to sustain the pupils' interest.

Raidoo has gone beyond the stage of discussing how one contracts the HIV virus to an open discussion with young people about issues of sex, relationships and self-esteem.

And the difference with her Aids programme is that it is not a boring talkshop.

There is also entertainment to lighten the mood and the discussion is often punctuated with laughter.

One youngster quips: "My mother is a nurse and I am sure she has a lot of information, but I wouldn't talk to her about sexual issues, even if my life depended on it."

The others roar with laughter.

Another suggests that it is better to talk to a pet than a human being because pets are not judgmental.

Vanusiya Moodley, 13, a Grade 8 pupil, says that it is easier to talk about sex and Aids to people of her own age than to her parents.

"I know about Aids, but today I learnt more, especially about not being judgmental of people who are HIV-positive," she says.

A single woman, Raidoo shows great enthusiasm for her work. She has been working with young people for 12 years after starting out as a receptionist with an organisation called Giving Hope to Children and Youth.

"I was very green when I joined, and the people at the organisation developed me into the woman I am now."

She ascribes her success to Keith Coates, whom she regards as her mentor.

Coates vividly recalls the day Raidoo came to his office.

"She was very soft-spoken and shy. What stands out for me is her tenacity and willingness to learn. She is hardly ever ruffled," he says.

Two of her colleagues, Liz Govender and Robyn Hemmens, laugh in unison in referring to Raidoo's culinary expertise - she cooks great curries.

Hemmens says that the tireless Raidoo is a people's person.

Raidoo also takes care of her elderly mother. Her two married sisters live in Johannesburg.

She says that she has dedicated her life to helping young people develop into responsible adults.

"I come from a community where women are always put down. Gender roles are defined and limiting to women."

As the first-born in a family of three, she says that she felt that she had to grow up fast.

This is the reason she believes young people need to be given space to be young and develop into healthy grown-ups.

"We have gone through difficult times in this country, and it seems the hard times are not over yet. We have a new struggle now. Aids is killing young people, and this is why we need to face the challenge."

Raidoo's team holds workshops with young people from disadvantaged schools in the Durban area. Her programme is called Phakama, which means "rise up".

Lifeskills involving self-esteem and personal development form the core area of her work.

"I believe that it is useless to teach young people to be responsible if they do not have self-esteem. So we start from the beginning. Emotional intelligence is the tool that they can use to stay out of harm's way."

Tracy Peters, 21, a member of Raidoo's team, became involved when she volunteered her services at the 2000 World Aids Conference in Durban.

Peters says that working with Raidoo is a challenge because she is a "perfectionist".

"But it forces me to grow. We had to work hard perfecting the drama which sends the message to young people that Aids kills."

Raidoo said that she was often forced to explain to people the type of work she was engaged in.

During a break in the session, Raidoo interacts with the pupils. She cracks jokes with them and they are drawn to her like a magnet.

They may be years apart, but Raidoo's approach has bridged the generation gap and she has earned their trust.

The sounds of laughter follow Raidoo and her team as they drive out of Ridge Park College to spread the word of love and education to others in the Durban area.