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AIDS “caravan of hope” travels river valley to break taboos

[Mauritania] The Caravan for hope tries to break AIDS taboos in southern Mauritania, May 2005.
Une équipe de 25 animateurs a préparé le spectacle ‘spécial VIH’ donné à la tombée de la nuit devant un public nombreux et attentif (IRIN)

This is a road show with a difference – a West African “caravan of hope” raising awareness about HIV/AIDS through evenings of entertainment that are wowing the crowds in Mauritania.

The mobile state-of-the-art theatre, a truck equipped with a powerful sound system and giant screen, has just ended the first stage of a 2005 HIV/AIDS tour of the Senegal River Valley in southern Mauritania. Nedwa, the Mauritanian organisation that runs the podium-cum-lorry, hopes the tour will trigger dialogue about the pandemic across the Mauritanian countryside and help break down taboos about HIV/AIDS. At the end of April, the road-show drove into Tiguent, a small town on the road linking Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, to Rosso on the southern river border with Senegal.

Onboard were 25 people, essentially entertainers from across the region, preparing for the nightfall performance of "Special HIV". As day broke over the town, a car equipped with a loud speaker cruised the streets to announce the evening show. By evening, a crowd had flocked under the spotlights, sitting on the ground or standing and clapping their hands. That night, Mauritanian singer Cheikh Ould Elabyad, a look-alike of Algerian pop star Khaled who is popular in Arab-speaking Tiguent, had a star role.

The locals already knew his songs "Stop AIDS" and "Protect yourselves against AIDS". In Tiguent - as well as in other river valley towns such as Mbagne, Rosso, Bogué and Kaedi - the show has attracted big crowds of up to 7,000 spectators an evening. "Our dream has come true," said Jon Shadid, co-founder of the initiative. "We never thought AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases would keep people listening for four hours at a time."

Local languages to get messages across

The evening schedule in hand, Pape Diallo, who coordinates the entertainers, carefully watches the spectators and reworks the show if necessary according to crowd response.

"Every evening, we need to assess the public's reaction to know what will interest them," Diallo explained. "Priorities and interests are different depending on populations. Adaptation is essential to get the message through."

The show uses music, locally-produced short fiction movies, and sketches by entertainers from SOS Peer Educators of Nouakchott. Sometimes provoking the audience, sometimes gay and sometimes grave, the entertainers explain the transmission and prevention of the virus, go over the taboos and the issue of responsibility, while also tackling sexually transmitted infections.

At times, they might invite a doctor up on stage to reinforce the message, or ask an authority such as the Hakem (county administrative leader) or the mayor to play host to give the evening more weight. Entertainers speak local languages in order to reach their objectives. "Even if we see only one Maur, or one Pulaar, we should talk to him. Therefore we summarise the message in his language," said Soya Watt, one of the educators on the caravan.

Raising awareness is the best method of prevention

Built in Cote d'Ivoire, the podium-cum-lorry arrived in Mauritania in 2003 and was sent travelling inland last year.

This year it plans to visit three more regions and stage 54 shows compared with 36 on the previous tour. Three new short movies have been produced and 200,000 basic information folders are to be distributed to the public during the 2005 tour. Funded by the US organisation World Vision, the lorry is run by Nedwa while the inland tour and the project has financial support from the national secretariat of the fight against AIDS (SENLS), World Vision, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and other local partners.

"We select a geographical area, like this tour on the river valley," explained Gibril Sy, president of SOS Peer Educators, the association that trained the entertainers. "It allows us to travel with the same team for two weeks to harmonise messages."

In Mbagne, on the banks of the Senegal River, the Pulaar singer Mousa Sarr, clad in yellow, performed songs against AIDS. He knew the local customs and the right words to touch people as he is from Kaedi, just a few kilometres from the fishing village.

"Once we feel that the public has understood, we as entertainers get hotter," said Aminata Ly, one of the performers. "If we hear people talk about AIDS the next morning, that's satisfying. That's positive feedback."

Mauritania's HIV prevalence rate is officially estimated at 0.6 percent, but according to many humanitarian organisations it could be much higher in this country where few statistics are available. "Mauritanians often have many sexual partners and if we do nothing, HIV prevalence will explode in the country," Shadid insisted. "The best prevention is raising awareness."

Fostering dialogue between generational groups

Breaking taboos is another aim of the road show.

"We're obliged to centre our message around abstinence, fidelity or the unreliability of your partner, depending on the public," said Ly. "We've been accused of inciting people to indulge in sexual promiscuity simply because we advocated condom use."

"We talk about it as one last resort," Diallo, the coordinator of the caravan, explained. In Mbagne for instance, the public is very conservative and "you need to be able to talk to all generations at the same time and incite them to exchange views," caravan educator Watt explained.

Condom use, for example, remains a touchy issue.

"Instead of talking about condoms, we choose to show its use on film with two young people who intend to have sex for example," one of the entertainers said. Abdulaye Ndiagne, a college boy who attended the show in Mbagne, said such subjects were taboo in the region. "In Halpulaar society, I can't even talk in front the elders, left alone discuss sexuality."

"Many youngsters don't know how to use condoms," Ndiagne added. "They tear the wrapping package with their teeth or don't look at the expiry date." Distributing condoms is not part of this trip. "We can't plan to distribute condoms in public," Sy explained.

"However, we're trying to set up a network of relays and peer educators in every town for a more efficient distribution." The absence of medical staff on the caravan is a deliberate choice, according to entertainers. "It's important that trained communicators deliver the message," Watt said. "To conceive sketches about AIDS is not a doctor's job. He may not find the right words to make people laugh."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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