I enjoyed reading Oby Obyerodhyambo recount his experiences with communicating for behavioural change during the early years of the HV/AIDS pandemic in Africa https://www.theelephant.info/culture/2020/07/24/why-re-invent-the-wheel-we-have-been-here-before-with-hiv/?print=pdf. I like to think that Oby is a griot of modern age, a voice of consciousness and an excellent writer. He weaves his story with seasoned wit and imagery since he is a communication guru and was at the forefront and deep in the trenches in those hazy days of gloom, despair and much pain.

Two parts of his piece catch my attention. The role of communication for public awareness and the re-curing issue about misinformation about diseases such as HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

We have just lost a vibrant personality who used humour and drama to educate, supposedly to the Corona pandemic.  The late Charles Bukeko was a powerful voice, but his voice is likely to be more powerful after his demise if we can use his transition to educate and make lasting behavioural change.

I have been at the forefront of pioneering the use of theatre to raise public awareness on health matters.  I worked on raising awareness on HIV/AIDS while a student in New Zealand. The play, Beer… was broadcast by the African Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on 20th December 1987, and by the WDR, in 1988 and produced by the Nairobi based Miujiza Players in1994 under the direction of the late James Falkland. The synopsis of that play is as follows:

`..Beer… Our spontaneous relaxation after hard day, out there slogging to get money that brings us here to spend…  

Look at those two fellahs – happily talking and smiling – on their way to the bar – who knows the sadness in their lives, that discontentment, lack of fulfilment, hopelessness, and… Yes; even death?  

Who can tell the overwhelming weight looming over each of their shoulders? Only beer knows how to unlock the deep chambers of the heart, warming itself into their confidence and coming out with bagfuls of sadness.  And yet it is true, that they too have their own problems. 

Who can foresee that soon, very soon, these two smiling smartly dressed fellahs walking into the bar as laughing comrades and bursting with life, will stumble out disheveled, blind, angry and totally disorganized; reeling from the impact of their revelations? Who can indeed, but beer… the key that unlocked them, forcing their desperate minds into drunkenness…?’

In 1993 I followed up by authoring two plays, Kachinja and No 15, which were later produced by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) in December 1994 and by the Miujiza Players in 1995. Both dealt with the subject of HIV/ADIS.

In 2013, I wrote `You Gave me the Urge… (Why then deny me the performance?)’  a highly provocative satirical piece of drama that uses powerful imagery, music and storytelling as well as flashback to openly discuss that most embarrassing and taboo sexual condition afflicting many men, known in medical circles as Erectile Dysfunction (ED). Within our African cultural setting, where men’s abilities are closely linked to their sexual prowess, you can begin to appreciate why the inability to perform in bed, linked closely to the physical well-being, can have severe psychological consequences. A man losing `it’ quickly becomes a pariah, to be commonly regarded as a societal failure and suffers from low esteem affecting both the work output as well as happiness.  This is no condition to wish on any one, for it elicits the very negative in ourselves, and can lead to decline to levels of the sub-optimal, and worse still, to the very destruction of ones existence. Many men live in the shadow of themselves, fearful of speaking about what has befallen them, lest they be ridiculed, despised and made outcast, by the very loved ones they cherish. Even the relationship with your own wife changes, and home is no longer the man’s castle, but a shrine of torture and torment. 

The play is essentially a one-man performance cast as a candid confrontation between middle aged man (Kamang’-a-Solo) and his manhood (named `Binaisah’). The confrontation is as a result of Kamang’-a-Solo suddenly finding that his libido is no more and cannot seem to get the required erection to have meaningful sex. His frustration at this turn of events are vented on Binaisah, regarding `him’ as a traitor, blaming him for his misfortune and accusing him of being the root cause of the impending marriage to his wife, who is a mother of lovely twins. Nothing Kamang’-a-Solo does seems to work, neither regular medication, nor herbal treatment. He crosses borders in seek of remedies but to no avail. His unfruitful pursuit leave him paranoid, avoiding social contact and almost succeeds in committing suicide. His rescue comes when he begins to come to term with his medical condition and starts to take the better and more-healthier options. 

More recently, the Corona pandemic has descended upon us and dictated a new normal. I have been on record as saying

….Disaster Resilience–the ability of countries, communities and households to manage change, by maintaining or transforming living standards in the face of shocks or stresses without compromising their long-term prospects, is somewhat limited when applied to the COVID-19 experience because of the underlying assumption of` bouncing back’ or `recovery’ to a status that what was there before. The COVID-19 pandemic is so severe and profound in effect that there really will be very limited instances of returning to the status that existed before. The pandemic will require societies to be radically transformed to a new culture of existence…http://yoroguyo.co.ke/2020/06/19/disaster-resilience-and-the-role-of-science-in-responding-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic-first-advisory-to-african-governments/  

Since the first cases of a then-unidentified pneumonia were reported in late December, hoaxes, half-truths and flat-out lies have proliferated, mostly through social media. BuzzFeed News for several days kept a running list of misinformation, including wildly inaccurate reports that the death toll in China was 112,000 as of late January (reality: around 80 at the time); claims that Chinese people eating bats were the source of the outbreak (a viral photo of a woman biting a bat was not taken in China); and false suggestions that the virus was lab-engineered as a kind of bioweapon.

Calling it `a misinformation ‘fire hose’, Kim Bellware, who write for the Washington post, says that `…Many of the inaccurate reports spreading around bear a resemblance to a disinformation model used by hostile governments of any nation, but known as the “Russian fire hose” strategy. The goal isn’t to convince people of one wrong thing, such as the false claim that vitamin C destroys coronavirus, said Bergstrom, who studies how misinformation travels across networks and spreads like pathogens through populations


“The idea is to put out so much [bad] information that people feel as if they can’t get to the truth. That creates a kind of power vacuum that leads to what, I guess, is in the interest of certain regimes,” Bergstrom told The Post. “If you can go from 1 percent of the population believing nutty conspiracies to 5 percent, that’s a win,” he said.

Bergstrom said the endgame for some hostile regimes is to disrupt the smooth function of commerce in rival countries by stirring up anxiety that leads to trade or travel disruptions; within China, hypothetical agitators could be motivated by a desire to make the communist government look bad.

How is the artistic community responding by debunking popular myths doing the rounds in Africa about the coronavirus? http://yoroguyo.co.ke/2020/05/29/debunking-9-popular-myths-doing-the-rounds-in-africa-about-the-coronavirus/

A related major collateral effect of COVID-19 is increase in domestic violence, especially gender based.  As some countries are beginning to reopen, billions of people are estimated to still be sheltering at home. When households are placed under the increased strains that come from security, health and money worries, and cramped and confined living conditions, levels of domestic violence spike. Africa is no exception. There needs to be action against gender and domestic violence. UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, launched the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ public awareness campaign, focusing on the global increase in domestic violence amid the COVID-19 health crisis. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women has been quoted to say:

“..Even before the pandemic, violence against women was one of the most widespread violations of human rights. Since lockdown restrictions, domestic violence has multiplied, spreading across the world in a shadow pandemic. This is a critical time for action, from prioritizing essential services like shelter and support for women survivors, to providing the economic support and stimulus packages needed for broader recovery….”

Gender-based violence and sexual harassment are cancers originating from home and metastasizing into public spaces. Not even the tech industry, with its relatively young and progressive denizens, is immune to the disease. As with many male-dominated fields, women in tech, especially those in the lower roles, have long endured sexual harassment at the hands of their male colleagues for fear of reprisals in the form termination, public humiliation, or losing out on future job opportunities.

Oby passionately makes a case that:

`…The public must be given the correct, scientifically proven facts about the virus and the disease it causes, and what to do when it strikes so that they can separate the wheat from the chaff that social media throws at everyone….

As happened with smallpox and rinderpest—and soon polio— science will eventually will find a way to eradicate COVID-19. The development of a vaccine will help manage COVID-19 as happened with measles. And just like we did with HIV, which called for social and behaviour change to get us to where we are today, development communication professionals need to ease into the driving seat of normalising COVID-19 and life after COVID-19 while the clinicians return to their primary role of tending to the sick…

So, do our artistes see their role in this? Are they actively rising to inform, educate, and influence based on scientific evidence? Or are they muted by the sheer onslaught of the pandemic?

1 Comment on Why must artistes communicate boldly on health matters?

One Reply to “Why must artistes communicate boldly on health matters?”

  1. This is an insightful and a wonderful piece. The content is right in context. Only distilled facts, and especially of a deadly disease like COVID-19 should be disseminated. Zero room for misinformation will help overcome the pandemic.

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