Helping Creatively: Theater for Development in Africa


SEATTLE — In colonial Africa, the propagandist theater was an integral part of colonizers’ efforts to “civilize” African cultures or assimilate those cultures to their own. Far removed from the colonialist implementation, the use of theater for development in Africa has become an effective means of bettering lives across the continent since its resurgence in the latter half of the 1900s. In this context, activists use theater to convey information and portray situations that shed light on issues such as health or equality. The aim of this is to improve the overall wellbeing of the target community and its constituents.

Theater as a Means of Development

Using theater as a means for development is due in part to its ability to appeal to emotion as well as reason, enabling individuals and communities to both see a need for change and become inspired to pursue it. Audience participation is a common component of theater for development, and it allows members of communities to place themselves in the situations that they are presented with.

The use of theater for development in Africa additionally allows activist groups to surmount common barriers to the dissemination of information. This is especially true in rural areas, where lack of access to education leaves a larger portion of people illiterate, and poverty prevents people from accessing other forms of media. Even in urban areas, however, theater facilitates conversations about topics that are taboo, such as reproductive health.

Educational Messages Through Theater

International organizations such as The Red Cross and The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have used theater for development in countries throughout Africa. In Cameroon and Namibia, The Red Cross has employed theater to educate citizens on HIV/AIDS prevention and care. In Namibia, Togo, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, the organization has used theater to address immunization and diseases such as malaria, measles and diarrhea. In 2017, attacks on health care workers and facilities spurred The South Sudan Red Cross to begin performing plays that stress the importance of protecting these workers and facilities.

Similarly, UNICEF began working with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Tubiyage in 2011 with the common goal of informing Burundians about the spread of Malaria. In 2013, UNICEF partnered with the government of Botswana to initiate Wise Up, a theater for a development program that would raise HIV/AIDS awareness among the country’s youth. In 2014, UNICEF’s Learning for Peace Program provided support to a theater group in Sierra Leonne working toward promoting peace and discouraging violence in Sierra Leonean Society.

Many smaller organizations also strive to make an impact through theater for development in Africa. Theatre for a Change, for example, began working in partnership with Voluntary Service Overseas in 2017 to address gender inequality, gender violence and teen pregnancy.

Act4Africa is Empowering Women

Act4Africa is a theater development organization that operates in Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi. Act4Africa uses theater to engender women’s empowerment and respect for women’s reproductive rights, in the recognition of gender inequality as the most prominent obstacle to ending poverty and fostering development. The organization also prioritizes education in HIV/AIDS and the prevention of STIs, offering healthcare services in tandem with their theater projects.

According to their 2017 Impact Report, Act4Africa’s work in these countries has led to:

  • The economic independence of 1,553 women and the establishment of 1,203 businesses owned by women in South Eastern Uganda and Malawi
  • HIV and STI testing for 73,126 people so far
  • Training in HIV/AIDS and sexual health awareness for 1.4 million people
  • A 20 percent increase in the knowledge and use of condoms among 15- to 24-year-olds
  • A 41 percent increase in positive attitudes and acceptance towards those with HIV
  • A 44 percent increase in antiretroviral treatment for those living with HIV/AIDs
  • Understanding of HIV/AIDS by 80 percent of the organization’s beneficiaries
  • The seeking of treatment by 82 percent of those beneficiaries who are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS

While it may be an informal means of educating a population, the outcomes of these programs suggest that theater for development in Africa fosters long-term, positive change for those most in need. In approaching progress in ways that prioritize individuals and small communities, it appears that that progress may extend beyond to benefit much larger populations of people.

– Ashley Wagner

Photo: Flickr


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