Promoting health through drama

2008-01-14 00:00

THE DramAidEe project cleverly taps into South Africa’s story-telling and oral tradition to create plays and songs to enable school pupils to address issues around HIV/Aids. “It is a rehearsal for life, you are able to handle stressful situations that are difficult to deal with, in a safe place,” says project manager Mkonzeni Gumede. “But the emotions and feelings generated are real. This way you appeal not only to the intellect but to the emotions as well,”

DramAidE was established in 1992 as a pilot project in schools around the University of Zululand. The impetus came from the research done by head of the university’s drama department, Lynn Dalrymple, who examined ways of using drama to address public health concerns. “I had visited the UK and the United States and was inspired by the work I had seen there using drama,” she says, “and in 1992 we got funding from the KZN Department of Health which realised the seriousness of the Aids epidemic and thought this an innovative way of addressing it.”

According to Gumede, when it came to using drama to look at HIV/Aids two questions needed answering: “Firstly, could we use drama to create awareness about HIV/Aids and influence behaviour? Secondly, was it possible to put all this information on HIV/Aids into plays and song?”

The answer was clearly “yes” and today DramAidE operates from the Centre for Communication, Cultural and Media Studies at the Howard College campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal as well as the Department of Arts and Culture at Unizul and employs 15 staff members and around 40 health promoters and community facilitators. A typical school visit sees a combination of drama facilitators and community nurses. “First a play is presented at the school assembly followed by a question and answer session,” says Gumede. “We then go to individual classes and work with the pupils to create their own plays around issues. Nurses are on hand to answer questions — especially if some are too shy to ask them in assembly.”

Drama, song and dance enable the pupils to deal with subjects that might otherwise be taboo; instead of pointing judgmental fingers, the use of humour allows audiences to laugh at behaviour performed on stage. At the same time the plays can avoid preaching while still presenting healthy forms of behaviour which the audience will hopefully emulate.

Does this form of intervention lead to results? “In 1997 we did a comparative study to see if our activities had any impact on pregnancy rates and STIs,” says Gumede. “It was found that where we had been there was drop in STIs and pregnancy rates — but also an increased demand for condoms. Because of this, some people said we were promoting sex. We do not distribute condoms — they were requesting them from clinics. But, yes, they were having sex. The bonus was that they were having protected sex.”

However, Gumede says, this was not a situation they were prepared to ignore. “Awareness is fine, but it is not enough,” he says. “There are things militating against awareness, such as the ability to negotiate safe sex, and the type of relationship — whether equal or dependent.”

Adolescents also need to know how to negotiate the emotional minefields of puberty. “Young people need to be able to understand and deal with the emotional turbulence that accompanies puberty — to understand what is happening to their bodies and the effect this has on the emotions.”

Addressing such issues gave rise to the Act Alive project. “This is a peer education programme,” says Gumede. “We know young people talk to each other — ‘hey, this thing called sex, it’s nice, try it’ — but there is no discussion of the risks involved. We needed to find some way of getting them to talk to each other and also giving appropriate information.”

The main aim of the project is to initiate and sustain a communication process that develops the capacity of schools to create a healthy physical, emotional and spiritual environment in which children can live, learn and play. The DramAidE facilitator works with teachers and pupils to create “action media” in order to promote good health with special reference to prevention of infection by HIV, and the care and support of people living with Aids.

“But none of this will work if the environment is against it,” says Gumede. “If the school is not behind the effort; if teachers are having sex with pupils or if there is no life skills training … any HIV/Aids intervention will be meaningless if it is not based on the context where HIV occurs.”

Another DramAidE project Owahko Owami (“My child is your child”) involves working with rural communities to support orphans and vulnerable children. “People talk about the ‘lost generation’, but there are young people growing up today without parents,” says Gumede, “orphans who do not know their background, where they came from, their surname even. We are heading for a disaster. You have people saying you must have communities with values of sharing, honesty and compassion. But the atmosphere is so hostile. It’s fine to give food parcels but you also need to provide values, to deal with the psycho-social level.”

Gumede’s main task as project manager is to make sure DramAidE fulfils the requirements of funding contracts and realises its stated objectives. “We are not selling bread here,” he says, “we always have to see if our programmes are working so there is research at all times. We have to be prepared to be brave enough and say we are irrelevant and close down.’

“I often get asked ‘have you made a difference?’” says Gumede. The answer? “Well, if you can tell me that if organisations like us didn’t exist it would still be the same, then we haven’t. But my feeling is that it would be worse.”

• Check the DramaAidE website:

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