Forum discusses use of theater in African AIDS education campaigns

by Mickie Barg

The use of popular African theater in presenting the perils of AIDS is the subject of a presentation today at 1 p.m. in Room 5, Blegen Hall.
In more than 30 years studying African media, Louise Bourgault, communications and performance professor at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, found that South Africans are more receptive to theatrical drama when learning about safe sex than to professionally made films or television.
Bourgault, who worked on several media projects in Africa, said the African mass media was not effective in reaching the people because it was disconnected from their traditions.
Africans respond more to tradition-based performances such as storytelling and theater, dance and masking as their mass media, she said.
“I was disappointed with many projects using (Western) mass media — it is high tech and operated by foreigners or Africans who have become out of touch with the people,” Bourgault said. “These slick productions are less effective than some of the more traditional kinds of communication.”
Young people in South Africa are very uncomfortable talking about sex, Bourgault said. To combat their reluctance, youths participated in theater performances which they found less inhibiting than open discussions.
Trained facilitators encouraged the young participants to act out scenes of sexual and social activities. After discussing their performance, they learned what would be a more proper response to various sexual real-life scenarios.
“The final production is then performed for adults, which is an opportunity for (them) to learn about the AIDS issue,” Bourgault said.
The theater is used in much the same way abused children in the United States use dolls to act out abusive events, she explained.
Wynfred Russell, a teacher in the Afro-American and African studies department, said Americans can use the African method to learn a different approach to AIDS education.
According to 1999 World Health Organization statistics, 24.5 million of the estimated 34.4 million cases of AIDS in the world are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost nine percent of the population in sub-Saharan countries has been infected with AIDS.
“I think the AIDS epidemic is going to change the face of the African continent, and possibly the world, because the rates now in places like India and China are skyrocketing upward,” Bourgault said. “In certain United States communities, too, AIDS is the leading cause of death in persons age 25 to 44, according to statistics.”
Bourgault has worked with African media since the 1970s, specifically in Durban, South Africa during the past year, and wrote the 1995 book, “Mass Media in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Mickie Barg covers medical school and welcomes comments at [email protected]