More than 65,000 villagers in northern Benin have attended the play Spacing Our Children.
Theater troupe helps villagers in Benin consider family planning
As with any visitor to an African village, the theater troupe’s first stop is the chief’s house. Once the actors have secured the chief’s blessing, they find the village center—usually a clearing or space under a tree near the village market. There they hang stage curtains, place their backdrop (it depicts a well-dressed family of four) and set up their microphones.
Meanwhile, the theater griot, or traditional storyteller and musician, circles the village playing his drums—an advertisement for the imminent show. Curiosity overcomes the villagers, and within an hour’s time, they have formed a circle 10 people thick around the improvised stage.
When the actors emerge from the curtains, the griot quiets the crowd and begins to spin the tale of a long-time rivalry between two brothers: One has carefully nurtured his small family. The other’s large family has fallen into poverty, disarray, and ill health.
PATH designed the play Spacing Our Children to instigate discussion and raise villagers’ awareness of modern family planning methods. More than 65,000 people in 232 villages in northern Benin have attended the play, which is in the Bariba language. The performances, and the activities that accompany them, lay a foundation for change that leads to healthier communities.
Theater for social change
PATH has found that theater is a highly effective way to address health issues—and even begin to change social norms—because it reaches whole communities at once. In villages with no access to television or cinema, and in which many people cannot read, it’s relatively easy to gather a large crowd—often up to 300 people—for a performance. The lack of competing media makes the play even more efficient at spreading ideas and getting youth, parents, and elders thinking and talking about the same thing.
The idea of spacing children is an important one to nurture in Benin. Five women there die of complications from pregnancy and childbirth for every thousand children born. Contraception prevents unwanted and high-risk pregnancies and can save women’s health. Yet only seven percent of families use it.
Spacing births or limiting the number of children reduces risks to mothers’ and children’s health. Yet women in northern Benin have an average of 6 children, and 20 percent have them dangerously close together—fewer than two years apart.
Constructing the set
Before creating Spacing Our Children, PATH assessed the knowledge and attitudes of villagers. Our research suggested that men, who control the purse strings, often oppose their wives’ wishes to use contraception. As a result, the play emphasizes the husband’s responsibility in family planning and the economic benefits of well-spaced, healthy children.
The two central characters are brothers with divergent views and life situations. One is a mild-mannered, well-respected man who uses condoms and has a small, healthy family. His brother Sacca has a dozen children and still refuses to consider contraception because he fears his wife will be unfaithful. Sacca’s brother and the other characters enlist audience members’ help to poke fun at Sacca’s obstinate ways, which have contributed to his wife’s poor health and their failing financial situation. After much public deriding and a few words of advice from the village chief, Sacca comes to value the concept of birth spacing and promises to visit the health center with his wife.
We worked with an existing African theater troupe, Troupe Bio Guerra, to create and tour the production. Project staff trained the actors to administer oral surveys before and after the play and to hold short discussion groups with the villagers after each performance. The discussion groups, which are segmented by age and sex, are the first chance for villagers to freely exchange stories with their peers, ask questions, and clarify what they learned.
To reinforce the messages of the play, we also broadcast radio shows, distributed printed educational materials, and arranged home visits by community health volunteers who had been trained by our partners in Benin.
Hitting the road
The play has proven incredibly effective at transferring knowledge and influencing health behaviors. Data from surveys of villagers before and after the play indicate dramatic increases in the number of villagers who:
- Were able to describe several contraceptive methods.
- Said they would discuss contraception with their spouses.
- Said they planned to have no more than four children.
Interviews with villagers conducted several months after the theater tour suggest that they remember the story and messages. Survey data demonstrate that use of contraceptives by married women in this northern region increased from 7 percent prevalence in 2000 to 11 percent in 2002. The project aims to reach 13 percent by the end of 2005.
The show must go on
The play’s effectiveness will not end with the project. The theater troupe now has the skills needed to write, direct, and tour educational plays as well as to monitor the quality of their performances and to use audience feedback to refine messages. Already Troupe Bio Guerra independently tours Spacing Our Children and another play on HIV prevention. They cover costs by charging audience members a small fee. Because Benin is a diverse area, the troupe has translated plays from Bariba, the majority language, into French to reach even more villages.
Photo: Siri Wood.