MediaGlobal (New York)

7 August 2012

Africa: Acting Against HIV/Aids - Theater Takes on Deadly Epidemic

Theater is one of the oldest forms of entertainment for human civilizations. Plays are a means to not only tell stories, but also to explore cultural conflicts and values. Since the discovery of HIV/AIDS, dramatic productions have emerged as educational tools to discuss the impact of the epidemic as well as prevention methods. Theater as a strategy for reducing HIV infection rates is widely practiced in Uganda.

There are two approaches to design performances that educate audience members on HIV/AIDS. The performance-based approach emphasizes community mobilization. A narrative is crafted with the goal of entertaining, educating, and inspiring the community to change their behavior, but there is not necessarily a guided or formal discussion after the performance.

"Everyone gathers around and there's a platform and someone has a little bit of a costume and you're going to learn a lesson. You're going to learn how to put a condom on a banana, and you're going to learn how to get tested for AIDS, you're going to learn about corruption...you're going to learn something" explained Marianna Houston, Founder of the International Theater and Literacy Project, to MediaGlobal.

There is also a workshop-based approach. Unlike the performance-based approach, a workshop format focuses on the education process and requires audience members to interact with the performers. Performances are comprised of several scenes that are interspersed with discussion. Audience members collaborate to find a solution to a conflict that the performers act out.

Even though the performance-based and workshop-based approaches are different, both emphasize that learning need to be an active process to change behavior and reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Both approaches favor theater made for and by the Ugandan people and moving beyond the days of imperialistic rule.

According to Houston, theater performances and discussions run by the Ugandan people are potentially more effective. To learn from trusted members of the community strengthens the likelihood for audience members to change their behaviors and help eliminate the epidemic.

Today, an estimated 1.2 million people in Uganda are HIV positive, including 150,000 children. Of infected adults, more than half are women.

"The 2.5 million new HIV infections [worldwide] in 2011 are a stark reminder that HIV is still growing and that we must use all possible means to turn the tide on the epidemic. Theatre creates a safe place where difficult issues relating to HIV status, gender relations, sexuality, and also the use of drugs can be raised and addressed in an open and non-judgmental way, creating awareness among the audience and hopefully a change in behavior," Dr. Asha Rose-Migiro, Secretary-General's Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa told MediaGlobal.

Since 1986, the Ugandan government has taken a proactive approach to educate its citizens on HIV/AIDS. The first AIDS control program was set up in 1987 to educate the public on preventing the spread of HIV. The program also promoted the ABC approach (abstain, be faithful, use condoms), ensured safety of the blood supply, and began HIV surveillance.

During the early 1990s, The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) was set up to provide medical and emotional support for HIV infected Ugandans. The government's support of these organizations contributes to the decrease of HIV prevalence. From 1992-2000, HIV prevalence fell from 15 percent to 5 percent among adults.

However, since 2006 an increase in HIV prevalence has been reported. The increase has been attributed to several factors. More reliable access to HIV anti-retroviral treatments means that those infected with HIV live longer. The disease does not necessarily mean a death sentence. This means that many are no longer as diligent about condom use or limiting their sexual partners.

Another factor is the shift from comprehensive sex education to US-backed abstinence only programs. President Yoweri Museveni has warned against the promotion of comprehensive sex education saying that he does not want to encourage promiscuity, particularly among teenagers. Only teaching abstinence means that many teenagers do not receive information about contraception.

At the International AIDS Conference on 22 July in Washington, DC, Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé told attendees, "Science is giving us an arsenal of tools for treatment and prevention, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis; treatment as prevention; voluntary male circumcision; rapid, home-based HIV testing; and real hope for a vaccine, and ultimately a cure."

Technological and scientific developments from the developed world, however, do not offer opportunities for communities to bond and discuss the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "[Theater] is a very good method for communicating information [in] an oral history society," said Houston. The act of coming together at a performance reconnects communities with cultural roots.

Until we perfect such scientific developments and medical treatments, people need to work together to educate each other on the impact of HIV/AIDS. Until then, theater blasts open the opportunities to promote respect and universal human health.

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