MOZAMBIQUE: Art imitates life

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"I don't know why you had to go to the hospital," the woman's husband yells furiously. His pregnant wife defends her decision to go to the hospital instead of just trusting the traditional healer. "But I had to know about my health and the health of my baby," she argues. At the hospital, the wife discovers she is HIV positive.

Her husband screams, "So now you know - that's your health, but I'm healthy. Now get out of my house ... "It's over. It's all over between you and me." She tries to argue but its no use. And the scene is over.

The play, "My Husband is in Denial", is based on real events, like all those staged by the Grupo de Teatro do Oprimidos (GTO), "Theatre of the Oppressed Group" in English).

When the wife's HIV test is positive, her husband refuses to be tested and the actor then turns to the audience and asks, "How do I resolve this situation?"

Audience participation

Teatro dos Oprimidos has an interactive style that originated in Brazil and has been exported to more than 70 countries on all continents. Its creator, Augusto Boal, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his success in using theatre as a tool for social activism.

Using workshops and verbal exchanges with the audience, this style of theatre has not only spread but has proven to be an excellent method for revealing cultural obstacles in HIV treatment and prevention. In Mozambique, where there is a long-standing tradition of socially aware community theatre, it has found fertile ground.

After the 1992 peace accord brought an end to 16 years of war, the National Song and Dance Company crisscrossed the country, announcing that the conflict had ended and asking for reconciliation. Later, numerous local theatre groups explained how to avoid land mines and how to vote in the country's first democratic elections. In 1997, actors explained to farmers their rights according to the new land law.

Today, Mozambique has a total of 120 theatre groups in 83 districts performing plays mostly about malaria, cholera, tuberculosis and HIV prevention. GTO has partnerships with the youth activism network, Geração Biz, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Pathfinder International, a non-profit family planning and reproductive health organization.

In 2001, after spending six months studying theatre methodology in Rio de Janeiro on a scholarship from the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), Alvim Cossa founded GTO in the Mozambican capital, Maputo.

"The main difference is that there are no spectators - people participate. The play is presented, based on a question, and the audience provides the answer," said Cossa, an actor who has lost four members of his family to HIV/AIDS, and is now dedicated to preventing the disease and eliminating the stigma attached to it.

"Normally, the plays are created by the oppressed themselves - associations of people with HIV/AIDS tell their own stories of how they became infected, or how they have survived in life in a positive way."

Their own solutions

The plays are presented in public places - markets, schools or commercial centres. In one of the performances of "My Husband is in Denial", in a busy Maputo market, the audience was asked to put itself in the shoes of the pregnant wife - the oppressed character - and to suggest solutions to her dilemma.

Putting on the character's skirt and headscarf, men and women in the audience took the place of the wife to try to encourage the husband to take the test, or to explain that traditional medicine can be used but that for HIV you must go to the hospital.

Cossa said the results of these efforts to educate the audience were better than if someone had given a seminar in Portuguese or distributed printed materials to a mostly illiterate population.

Cuanja Zawares Muanza, an activist with the youth HIV educational group, Geração Biz, who gives HIV information talks in Maputo hospitals, said her young age often made older listeners ignore her advice on prevention and she found theatre more effective for teaching people about HIV/AIDS.

She remembered a play in which a father finds a condom in his teenage daughter's purse and confiscates it in the presence of the girl and her mother. "They were embarrassed because we were young people talking about condom use, but when the mothers in the audience saw what was happening they took on the role of the mother in the play to defend its use."

Sassy Capetine, another participant in GTO, said the plays often presented scenes with which the audience were familiar. "We take everyday problems experienced in the city. The idea is to fight to convince the father to let her use the condom," she said.

Muanza said the group researched themes for its plays by visiting the places where they would be staged, usually to give talks on HIV prevention.
During debates and question-and-answer sessions, participants identified themes or issues that were seldom discussed and generally considered problematic or taboo, and would be illustrated more efficiently through theatre.

The group is currently working on a play about the dangers of illegal abortion, to be staged in secondary schools. Muanza said the plays made the audience more willing to pass on information about subjects that were generally not discussed in public.

Source: PlusNews