5 August 2009

Rwanda: Urunana Goes to the Village And People Turn Up in Droves

The crowd is quiet in the town of Masaka as hundreds of faces peer up at a scene unfolding on the stage in front of them.

A young woman wants to go to the family planning clinic to ask about her choice of birth control, but her husband isn't happy with her choice of health worker. An argument breaks out as the husband and wife debate the problem. A health worker who was chosen by the husband soon shows up to escort the wife to the clinic.

The crowd, consisting mainly of children and young women, breaks into a sudden burst of laughter when a humorous moment is introduced into the scene.

The actors are part of the radio soap opera Urunana, and many of the engaged crowd members have been standing in this field for hours, waiting for a glimpse of their favorite actor.

This exercise is part of Urunana Development Communication's outreach program to bring the educational messages from the weekly radio soap opera to rural people. Organizers say this is only the second time they have visited an urban area such as Masaka, but they are planning to expand this kind of activity outside of their typical rural audience.

"The urban people are saying that we should hold such a show here. We should even conduct the actor searches in the urban area," says Sylvia Muteteli, who has been working for Urunana since it began.

Urunana DC has been broadcasting on BBC and Radio Rwanda for 10 years. The drama aired its 1000th episode last year, and Muteteli says they are hoping to expand beyond radio to explore print or video mediums to get their message across to young people.

Soon, they will be airing a series of radio dramas in conjunction with PSI's anti cross-generational sex campaign.

"We are trying to teach youth to avoid sugar daddies and mommies and trying to show them the consequences of having or receiving those gifts from adults," says the show's head writer, Vincent Gakwaya.

From listener to actor

Typically, the show deals with two or three health issues in one segment, such as HIV/AIDs, family planning and malaria. The live scenes acted out in the Makasa village deal with safe disposal of needles, the importance of consulting doctors about medical treatment, and other health lessons.

The ideas for the scripts are generated in part from production team visits to communities, where script ideas are test driven and previous story lines are analyzed to ensure they accurately reflect the health concerns of the communities.

Actors for the radio program are recruited through auditions. They typically don't have formal training, but learn their acting skills on the job. Many of the actors start out as listeners of the show in remote parts of Rwanda.

Edward Bamporiki is one of them. Before landing his current role as Tebeyo, he used to listen to the Urunana soap opera from his rural home.

"I was in the village and when I came to Kigali, I came to their office and I said: I really like what you're doing. So even if you don't pay me, I can come and play," he recounts.

Tebeyo is a bad character in the series who doesn't pay his daughter's school fees and consumes a lot of alcohol. While Bamporiki may play a bad guy in the world of Urunana, in real life he believes his role has a positive influence on young Rwandans.

"We have many people in Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, who feel like me, who have that bad character. So, the consequence of what I do to my daughter or to my life, it's still them. They change, and they say, 'we don't want to become like Tebeyo. If we don't change, we become Tebeyo'."

Fear, concern and amusement

As the crowd in Masaka gazes up at the angry husband portrayed by Bamporiki, the fear and concern on their faces is palpable.

Just as, in the next moment, is their amusement, as the actor screams out a comedic line.

This entertaining delivery of serious educational messages is the daily goal for Gakwaya and his team of writers.

"We have to attract the audience's attention so they can follow the drama," he says. "When they follow the drama, they easily get the message."

Gakwaya's three writers produce eight of the 10-minute episodes per month. So far, they're encountering positive feedback.

"They are appreciating the messages we are putting across," he says.

The outreach exercises, like the one in Masaka last Saturday, are a way to solicit audience feedback. After a series of educational skits and interactive games including a dance competition, audience members are typically invited on stage to share their feedback and testimonies of what they've learned from Urunana.

"This is an audience-driven radio soap," says Muteteli. "Because we try to use the characters we have to represent the real life situation of the society, and we achieve that by keeping a close touch with the audience."

Aline Mutesi, a 21-year-old resident from Masaka, says she follows the radio drama regularly.

"I learn how to avoid HIV/AIDs and also how to live with other people peacefully," she says.

After the performance in Masaka, she says she also learned not to pick up waste from the dustbin, based on a skit in which a young woman was stuck with a used needle after putting her band in the garbage.

It's this kind of feedback that keeps Bamporiki inspired about his job. "Whatever we do, it's to teach people - and they change their lives because of what they learned from us," he says.

At the end of the afternoon in Masaka, the actors are introduced one by one on stage, as the crowd shrieks with surprise and amusement after putting a face to the familiar voices of their favorite characters.

Then the actors and staff board the bus, headed back to Kigali to work on the next development in their fictional community, and on the next lessons to teach in the villages across the country.

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