Magnet theater helps communities question social norms that may contribute to the HIV epidemic.
In Kenya, interactive street theater spurs HIV prevention
In Bungoma, western Kenya, before a crowd of 150 people, actors at an outdoor market demonstrate a young couple’s dilemma: she wants to go for counseling and an HIV test before getting intimate, but he feels like she’s questioning his manhood. Another actor stops the play to ask the audience, “Should this woman have sex with this man?” The audience responds with questions, suggestions, and lively debate. When the play resumes, they witness one possible ending.
PATH organizes such interactive community theater performances to prevent HIV transmission in Kenya , where nearly 9 percent of the population has HIV. Called “magnet theater” due to its natural pulling power, the regular performances are designed to get people talking about how traditional attitudes may be fueling the epidemic. One mother explains, “I do not know how to talk with my children about such things, so I encourage them to go to the magnet theater.” There, her young teenagers will join other people, young and old, who flock to take in the performances.
PATH consultant Margaret Larson reports on magnet theater and its power to stop HIV. Read the story.
Because of their regularity and the audience participation, each performance is anticipated and much discussed by the whole community. Subjects such as HIV and sex, once taboo, become regular topics of conversation, laying the groundwork for societal attitudes to change, for new social norms to take hold.
Individuals are moved to change their ways. When magnet theater performances began on the doorstep of a video parlor in a poor Mombasa neighborhood, Aziz, a young man who had dropped out of school and was involved with drugs, remained outside the circle of onlookers and heckled the performers. After several performances, Aziz moved into the circle. Eventually he began to participate and even to help gather the crowd for performances. Aziz finally decided to seek testing and was greatly relieved to find out he was negative for HIV. He has since returned to school and now regularly shares his experience with pride during post-play discussions.
“The regular performances give youth like Aziz the ability to interact with common dilemmas over time. It’s a deep learning experience,” said PATH program officer Oby Obyerodhyambo. “When they share their experiences, it starts a ripple through the community.”
More than one year after PATH began holding the performances in fixed venues, they continue to draw eager crowds. Magnet theater is now a regular source of transformation in more than 14 urban and semi-urban districts spread across three provinces in Kenya, and we are expanding to new areas.
When establishing a new venue, we select actors directly from the community, train them in HIV and AIDS awareness, and help them add interactive techniques to their repertoire. We’re helping community members build skills and help each other.
In addition, the project is drawing great interest from other organizations throughout Kenya. National youth organizations and the administrators of Sudanese refugee camps have contacted PATH, eager to replicate and scale up this successful approach.
Photos, from top: PATH, Wendy Stone.