SOFALA PROVINCE, Mozambique, 16 March 2007 - There are few sights more pleasing than seeing 100 children's faces light up with laughter. That the source of their joy is a message of good health and hygiene, dressed up as theatre, only adds to the moment.
Community theatre groups are taking a vital message of cholera prevention to people affected by recent flooding in Mozambique. More than 160,000 people - half of them children - were left homeless after the Zambezi River broke its banks, taking with it crops, livestock and homes.
Thousands of people have come to the accommodation centres - and as their stay is prolonged by the slowly subsiding floodwaters, the threat of cholera and dysentery rises. But with emergency funds from the US Fund for UNICEF, the training and deployment of health campaigners by UNICEF in Mozambique is well under way.
Hygiene and sanitation
Light on props but heavy on talent, the theatre groups draw crowds of hundreds within minutes of arriving in a community and beating their drums. Mothers and daughters with babies on their backs, fathers and sons, coy couples and grandparents all roar with laughter as the play begins.
The messages - wash your hands, keep your food protected, go to the doctor - are simple, yet they are delivered amid scenes of slapstick humour that enthrall the crowd. But the tone turns serious and a hush descends over the audience when the daughter in the play is struck with cholera. It's clear the point has been conveyed.
"Along with ensuring safe water for the thousands of people in this emergency, hygiene and sanitation education is imperative," said UNICEF's head of operations on the ground in Caia, Jeremy Hopkins. "Of course, we only see the results when people do not get sick, so it's a 'silent success'."
Community theatre is just one part of UNICEF's multimedia approach to informing communities about cholera prevention, safe hygiene, good sanitation and overall healthy practices. In addition:
- Teams of 'activistas' go from tent to tent in the accommodation centres
- Others are positioned outside toilets to distribute soap and water
- A third group focuses on reaching out to families and distributing leaflets
- A fourth plasters poster messages on toilets.
Meanwhile, a mobile video unit drives between communities, showing a movie with a message on health every night.
'They are mesmerized'
Arriving in areas where radios are rare and televisions nonexistent, the mobile units are hugely popular. As night falls, they hang a huge video screen between trees, set up their amps and microphone, and charge their generator. Within five minutes they have created something resembling a drive-in cinema.
As with the theatre group, an important component of the mobile video presentations is the after-show discussion. The audience is asked various questions on health, hygiene and the efficacy of traditional healers versus doctors. Then community members of all ages take the floor to give their thoughts. Suddenly, debate springs up and the message is multiplied.
"I think sometimes the children may 'turn off their ears' when they are saying these important things in schools, but look at them here," says one audience member. "They are mesmerized by this screen and movie."