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At a glance: Lao People's Democratic Republic

Travelling puppet show in Lao PDR promotes bird flu awareness

© UNICEF/2007/Souvannavong
The Lao National Puppet Theatre recently toured more than 30 villages in six northern provinces to increase awareness and promote prevention of avian influenza.

XAYABOULI PROVINCE, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 9 April 2007 – When a giant rooster scattering blood-red feathers dashes into the middle of a rural village in northern Lao PDR, a group of startled children gasp and leap back in surprise. Their eyes grow wide as the rooster cackles out threats of a deadly disease, encouraging the villagers to ignore hygiene and eat undercooked food.

However, the rooster soon stumbles and falls, and the children’s gasps turn to giggles as they see the menacing bird defeated by characters who refuse his wayward advice. Instead, the puppets in the show clean out their chicken coops and homes, wash their hands and cook their food thoroughly.

The bird flu monster has been defeated.

“The big chicken was scary at first,” says Maniphone, 9, who watched the show with her family. “But in real life, I’m not scared. We just have to do things like cook chicken meat and eggs really well. Then he can’t get us.”

Mixing the message with humour

Like others in this small riverside village, Maniphone is absorbing the messages being conveyed by the Lao National Puppet Theatre. The troupe has travelled hundreds of kilometres from the country’s capital, Vientiane, as part of a joint campaign led by the Lao Government and UNICEF to combat the spread of avian and human influenza.  The programme is funded by a grant from the people of Japan.

The following morning, villagers put up posters on their shop fronts, read the booklets handed out after the show and discuss their favourite scenes from the night before. 

This is both a familiar and satisfying sight to Deputy Director Souvandy Chanthavong of the Lao National Puppet Theatre. “Wherever we go, our shows interest nearly everyone,” he explains. “They draw people in. It’s different from someone like a health worker who just comes and talks into a microphone. We’re not just giving people messages, we’re also providing entertainment.

“Mixing messages and humour means the ideas are more easily retained,” adds Mr. Chanthavong. “When people laugh, they remember.”

Difficult travel pays off

As enjoyable as the shows appear onstage, getting the messages out to remote areas is no simple task for Mr. Chanthavong and the 11 other members of his troupe. Every morning the crew puts on facemasks and scarves to protect themselves from the heavy dust that swirls along the roads.

© UNICEF/2007/Holmes
Children laugh during a Lao National Puppet Theatre show, as an actor in a red rooster costume menaces hand puppets who emphasize the importance of hand washing to prevent bird flu transmission.

“Travelling is the hardest part. The dust can be so bad, and when it rains, the mud can make it almost impossible,” says Phonevilay Panyasith, a singer who has been travelling with the troupe for six years. “The troupe becomes very close, like a family. We do everything together, not just the performances.”

But the travel pays off, she says, especially in the locations that are hardest to reach. The largest audiences turn up in the most rural areas, where there is little other entertainment. The troupe estimates that they draw an average of 300 people per show, though in some remote villages the audiences have totalled more than 1,000.

The tour that wrapped up in February included more than 30 performances in 6 northern provinces.

‘Thinking about bird flu’

Prior to the troupe’s performances, many Lao villagers had never heard of avian influenza, and those who did know about the disease often considered it something distant and removed from their daily lives.

“I’ve seen news reports on Thai TV, but I didn’t really think it was something we had to worry about here,” says Ms. Hiam, a shopkeeper who raises chickens and runs a cock-fighting arena in Xayabouli. But after seeing the show, she says she will be thinking more carefully about how she handles her chickens.

“Chickens die every year when it gets cold,” she says, referring to Newcastle disease, a common virus found in domestic and wild birds in the winter months. “But now I know that we should be thinking about bird flu too.”

Changes in risky behaviour

Ultimately, bringing the issue closer to home and changing risky behaviours are the goals of the joint communication strategy. The puppet show is just one facet of this effort. Late last year, a drama troupe made a similar tour of villages in southern provinces.

Additional activities over the past year have resulted in mass messages conveyed through posters, booklets, billboards, TV and radio spots. Regional training sessions supported by UNICEF have also produced teams of educators responsible for taking messages to villagers face-to-face throughout the entire country.

“People are learning that this is dangerous issue,” says Mr. Chanthavong. “Even though the show is funny, they know it’s a serious topic. They’ll take back what they remember and put it to use in real life. That’s what we’re hoping will make a difference.”



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