Culture as a weapon against AIDS

December 2003 -

Theatre, soap operas and music have proven to be effective tools for informing young people about HIV and AIDS in the countries of Africa. Viewers identify with the stars, the topic comes to life and behaviour is actually changed: a lesson from the world of advertising.

Noah Meli is HIV infected but unwilling to admit it. The soap star dies at the beginning of Heart & Soul, after which a disturbing drama unfolds in the course of six episodes. This soap opera, which can be viewed on television and heard on the radio in both English and Kiswahili, is hugely popular in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The plot is exciting, the actors are true-to-life and the topics are everyday.

The initiators - the UN, World Bank, British Council and the BBC - make no bones: the soap's message is being clearly understood. The viewers learn more from it than from the massive publicity campaigns that governments, international organisations and NGOs have been launching since the mid-1980s. These attempts to inform the public about HIV/AIDS brought virtually no changes in behaviour.

The complex HIV/AIDS epidemic in the countries of Africa requires a multi-dimensional strategy, according to UNAIDS and UNESCO. In May 1998 these organisations collectively launched the project 'A Cultural Approach to HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care', with the objective of involving cultural activities in the battle against AIDS.

Since then the project has given birth to a Plan of Approach, four policy manuals and a manual for socially-tinted interactive theatre productions for the youth, and regional workshops and conferences have been organised. The premise is to adapt information and training to the culture of each target group. The expressive arts play the leading role.


A variety of countries have adopted this way of thinking. Ethiopia now has a drama series on the radio. In Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa, local hip-hop stars sing about the dangers of unsafe sex, and their songs lead the hit parades. In Malawi a number of artists that cooperate in The Story Workshop strive to change social behaviour by means of radio soaps, videos, music, stage performances and a comic book that tells the tale of two children who lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.

The East African soap Heart & Soul is now broadcasted by TV Africa in 22 countries on the African continent. There are plans to produce a theatre version in the next five years and to develop an information package for young people.