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Flu prevention through theatre

© UNICEF/ 2010/Saikat

By Naimul Haq

Rangamati, BANGLADESH, June 1: As the sun set behind the dark green hills of the picturesque Rangamati town, some 350 km south-east of the capital, Dhaka, a group of teenagers fine tuned the dramas they had been rehearsing for the past six days. An aura of festivity filled the ambience. 

The colourful tribal clothes and rich makeup of the teens added more vibrancy to the whole environment. They were preparing for their  show in a two-day interactive popular theatre (IPT) festival which aimed to promote healthy behaviours for flu prevention among the mostly indigenous population of the area. As the night wore on the atmosphere became more festive and crowds of teenagers from different tribes arrived dressed in distinct tribal clothing, while musicians played traditional songs on native instruments.

Building awareness through dramas

During the two-day festival, seven dramas -  one each in the seven major languages spoken in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region -  were performed. These dramas offer entertainment and at the same time disseminate messages that encourage the adoption of  practices preventing diseases like washing hands properly with soap, covering mouth when coughing and sneezing, and providing proper care to patients suffering from flu and other diseases.

An ethnic mosaic of 13 indigenous groups, the CHT is a particularly isolated and disadvantaged area compared to other parts of the country.

 The hilly environment, deep forests and vast swathe of the Kaptai lake make the area difficult to access.  None of the mass media – radio, television, newspapers reach the remote valleys and mountain slopes. Messages reach the people only through the word of mouth, which is why UNICEF chose the traditional folk media to be the vehicle of communication of development messages across the region.

Sanimoy Pankhua and other actors performed short dramas to demonstrate safe behaviours for both bird flu and human flu prevention. Traditionally, almost all tribal families raise poultry for food in this region. A scene in the drama shows how to safely prepare poultry for cooking, in order to prevent the possible spread of avian influenza. On the stage, a performer says in his native Pankhua language, “Wash away the chicken blood before cooking”, and adds “Wash hands properly as well”.

All dramas demonstrated what people should do when someone in a family or neighbourhood falls sick with the flu – the sick person should be attended to by one caregiver, one should cover the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing, and not spitting.

“The idea is to build awareness on safe behaviour and enhance knowledge on transmittable diseases like avian influenza and pandemic influenza among the larger tribal community in three hill districts,’’ said Shamsuddin Ahmed, Communication for Development Specialist of UNICEF.

© UNICEF/ 2010/Saikat

Popular festival

While the plays were entertaining and humorous, the audience also appreciated their educational value. The event built understanding on the prevention of communicable diseases linked to adequate hygiene. Aurpan Tripura, a class ten student enjoying the show said, “This is the first time I have heard that diseases can transmit from person to person through sneezing or coughing”.

The actors themselves also learnt a lot: ‘’During the rehearsal, I learnt for the first time about how diseases can quickly spread in the community if precautions are not taken,” said participant Rowleng Mro.

There was tremendous enthusiasm among the general public to watch the dramas on both days. More than 600 people, including people of all ages, crowded into the 500-capacity hall to catch a glimpse. Many of the audience members and participants made long and difficult journeys through mountainous terrain to attend the festival, such was the popularity of the event. Shiaung Khumi, leader of one of the acting troupes, travelled for about half a day by boat and on foot to attend the drama festival.

UNICEF provided technical and financial support for the event, which was organised by the Borgaon Aboriginal Cultural Society of Bangladesh. The festival also received tremendous support from the local administration and noted local personalities. The Chief Chakma Circle Raja (king) Debashish Roy inaugurated the event on 20 June 2010, and  Nikhil Kumar Chakma, President of Rangamati hill district council chaired the closing session the following evening.

The show will go on

Once the two-day festival is over tribal groups will continue performing the shows  in their native dialects in their respective communities.

‘’The dramas that we will perform in our community will promote hygienic  behaviour to keep our communities  free from diseases. We  in the hill districts get such information mainly through word of mouth,’’ said Malati, one of the actors of the Khiyang group.

‘’The ideas of community theatre is new to the Pankhua people. Most of our people living in the deep hilly forests never watched a drama before,’’ said Jiban Pankhua, leader of the Pankhua Drama Group, adding, ‘’We will continue to perform the dramas in our community. These dramas will  help spread the health messages to all the Pankhua people and I am sure, our people will live a life better than before, thanks to these  community dramas.’’



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