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Burundi, 19 September 2011: Open-air theatre and audience participation raise malaria awareness

© UNICEF Burundi/2011/Krzysiek
Less than half of children under and pregnant women in rural areas of Burundi sleep under mosquito nets.

By Pawel Krzysiek

MARANGARA, Burundi, 19 September 2011 – “Give it back!” screams an adolescent girl fighting with her father over a blue plastic bag, which contains an insecticide-treated net. “You will not sell this! Malaria is killing our babies!” Gathered around the pair, an enthusiastic crowd cheers, laughs and applauds.

Welcome to Marangara – a picturesque corner of northern Burundi’s Ngozi province and the setting for an open-air, interactive performance where everyone can be an actor playing the life-saving role of a mosquito net user.

“The theatre gives us a chance to interact with our oppressors, who stop us from using the net as we should do,” says a mother of five who is participating in the performance. “It is bad to sell [the net] only for a beer. Our husbands, brothers and cousins should learn from good examples, because the mosquito net can save us and our children,” she adds.

© UNICEF Burundi/2011/Krzysiek
Experienced ‘joker’ Asteria Nizigiyimana pauses the show to let audience in on the action during a participatory performance in Marangara, northern Burundi.

Challenging taboos, changing attitudes

“The people of Burundi love open-space, participatory events, so we use humour, songs and role play to encourage them to join us in the show,” explains Asteria Nizigiyimana of the local non-governmental organization Tubiyage, which runs the interactive theatre with UNICEF support. 

Ms. Nizigiyimana facilitates dialogue between the audience and her crew of professional actors. The idea is to challenge community taboos, misconceptions and attitudes by playing out the reality people face in their everyday lives.

“The theatre is people’s world, because we play their real lives and they play with us,” she says.
Yet the theatre is only an entry point to reach the root causes of community problems through dialogue and meaningful interaction. “People engage with us because we give them a chance to express their concerns, practice positive actions and find solutions for themselves. This is a chain of true behaviour change,” notes Ms. Nizigiyimana. 

Community advocates

For Adel Namacumi, a shop owner in Marangara, the theatre is also a tool to fight people’s ignorance.
“Most people can’t read or write, and they are ignorant about such important issues,” he says. “I had a mosquito net before but I sold it because I didn’t know how to use it. Now I know it will protect me and my family.”

Through participatory theatre, community members like Mr. Namacumi are invited to become advocates for issues of common importance, such as health, education, hygiene and prevention of domestic violence. Participants engage in a self-empowering process, fighting back against oppression in their daily lives through dialogue and critical thinking.
“A passive spectator becomes an active actor who leaves the room of silence and talks about his or her daily problems,” says Ms. Nizigiyimana.

Getting men on board

Pascal is a father of six and a successful mosquito net user. But as he confirms, it took him some time to make up his mind about it:
“I sold my first net because people were telling me that malaria can be healed with natural methods,” he recalls. “My wife was opposing, but I didn’t listen. The net is money, I thought.”
Bringing men like Pascal on board is vital in a patriarchal society, where their opinions are often imposed on households. The theatre aims to highlight the positives roles of women in society, advocating for their greater involvement in family decision-making.

“Since we use mosquito net, there is no malaria in my house. When you know how to use it, you understand how important it is. I should be listening to my wife from the beginning,” Pascal says, smiling.

Participation is key

Every 30 seconds, malaria kills one child in the sub-Saharan Africa. In Burundi, malaria affects more than 2 million people, some of 25 percent of the total population. Together with diarrhoea and pneumonia, the disease is a main cause of mortality among children under the age of five, often reaching the level of endemic emergency. The youngest children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable.

Although UNICEF and development partners are responding to the crisis with nationwide distribution of mosquito nets, the nets are often traded or misused. According to the 2010 Burundi Demographic Health Survey, less than half of children under five and pregnant women in rural areas sleep under mosquito nets.
“Malaria is the first reason for consultation in the Health Centres across the country,” says UNICEF Burundi Health Specialist Dr. Sophie Leonard. “Yet around 40 percent of Burundi children in need of immediate medical treatment are left home without any assistance.”

To successfully fight the disease, community participation is key. So UNICEF Burundi combines the distribution of nets with a range of supplementary interventions, including advocacy, local capacity building, social mobilization, communication for behaviour change, and community-based health care. The participatory theatre project in Marangara is part of that bigger picture.



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