Themba Interactive: South African Theatre and HIV/AIDS

3 Aug

Andy and I took an overnight train from Johannesburg to Durban, and we are now staying at a most wonderful bed and breakfast called Essenwood House. If you are ever headed this way, you should not miss it. The house is beautiful and quite comfortable, and the gardens are enchanting.

Here I am at Collectors Treasury.

Here I am at Collectors Treasury.

The day before yesterday we explored a rather artsy section of Johannesburg called Maboneng where we’d heard rumors that we might find a good bookstore.  Ever since we went to Constitution Hill, I’ve been wanting to find a book that would tell me more about Mahatma Ghandi’s time in South Africa and what brought him here in the first place. Constitution Hill has a pretty neat little bookstore, but they were sold out of Ghandi books. We made our way over to a place called Collectors Treasury where we saw the largest collection of used books in the Southern Hemisphere! It was actually pretty overwhelming, and I wish books didn’t weigh so much in one’s luggage.  I’d bring armloads of them home if I could. Still didn’t find the Ghandi book I’m seeking, but I’ll keep enjoying the hunt.

A few days ago, during our first day in Johannesburg, Andy and I went over to the offices of a local applied theatre company called Themba Interactive. This nonprofit  is really a public health organization that uses theatre as its primary mode of educating its target audiences. They work almost exclusively on issues related to HIV/AIDS, and some of the key sites for their work are in prisons throughout Gauteng (the province in which Johannesburg is located) and beyond. We had the pleasure of speaking with two of Themba’s staff members, Sila Chatikobo and Sne Makanya.

Andy and I have now met with participants in three different prison theatre projects in South Africa, and all of the people with whom we’ve talked have stated that prison theatre in South Africa tends to address HIV/AIDS in one way or another. In the other parts of the world where I’ve done similar research public health concerns do emerge in some aspects of prison theatre, but those ideas range from drug abuse to domestic violence as well as sexually transmitted diseases. In no other country have I seen so unified a concern. Of course, it should come as no surprise that South Africans would be preoccupied with HIV/AIDS. According to AVERT–a U.K.-based HIV/AIDS charity organization:

South Africa has the biggest and most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world. In 2012, an estimated 6.1 million people were living with HIV, with 240,000 South Africans dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

South Africa now provides free HIV/AIDS medication to its citizens, both in and out of prison, and has reduced the number of HIV-related deaths in the country significantly since 2009. However, the social stigmas attached to HIV often prevent infected individuals from seeking treatment or support.

Themba Interactive uses theatre to train students and incarcerated people to be peer educators in their communities. Themba employs both a theatre company and a set of facilitators who train the peer educators. In a prison setting Themba programming usually plays out in several phases. First, the Themba theatre company devises and rehearses an original play about the issues they wish to address for this particular audience. Then the company performs inside the prison and afterwards holds an interactive discussion with the audience of prisoners. At this point prisoners have the option to sign up to participate in a series of workshops that will train them to be peer educators.

Each workshop has around twenty-five incarcerated participants. Over the course of about ten sessions, the Themba staff members educate the workshop participants about HIV/AIDS (or any other topic at hand, like sexuality in prison or gender violence, yet always with an HIV/AIDS focus) and train them to teach this information to others. The workshop participants then become peer educators, holding sessions of their own with others in the prison, and Themba staff members come back at various times throughout the following year to observe these sessions and support the peer educators. At the end of a year and the completion of a series of their own informational sessions for other prisoners, the peer educators receive a certificate from Themba showing that they are now trained peer educators.

During the training for peer educators, Themba’s staff facilitators use theatre to make the educational process interactive. Sne Makanya said that many other organizations seeking to provide information about HIV/AIDS will show up with a PowerPoint presentation and a lecture, condescending to the prisoners as they pass along information rather than seeking their partnership in combating the epidemic. Makanya also noted that theatre enables folks in prison to take on a role other than that of a perpetrator, enabling them to discover that they have both agency and responsibility in their own lives and in their communities. She emphasized that ensemble work in the theatre teaches us to be respectful to and inclusive of others–the opposite of the isolating effect of the social stigma attached to positive HIV status. Theatre also helps the peer educators in training to rehearse their roles as leaders before they facilitate sessions of their own with others in the prison. Storytelling, role play, and team building games are all a part of Themba’s training, as are exercises in music and visual art. The program works in both English and Zulu to make the training accessible to as broad a population in the prison as possible.

Themba Interactive’s process is remarkable in its longterm follow up to the initial performance work. Interestingly, the theatre component fades with time. Though Themba’s initial encounter with a given population takes the form of a performance and much of the peer educator training is done in theatre games and role playing, theatre is not essential to the peer education work led by prisoners for other prisoners. Themba’s staff members told us that while the theatre games function effectively when led by Themba facilitators, the peer educators are reluctant to use them in their group work with other prisoners and often defer to the separate drama group within the prison when Themba staff suggest that peer educators incorporate performance into their sessions.

Since Themba is so actively engaged in fighting the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, the organization has more avenues for funding than your average nonprofit theatre organization. In fact all of Themba’s funding comes from agencies with interests in public health rather than the arts, including USAID, the South African government, and a health organization based in Germany. The public health focus of the work also helps Themba to maintain positive relationships with South African Correctional Services. Rather than gaining entry to the prisons through a staff person who works on recreation or special activities, as many other prison theatre companies would, Themba works with the staff of the health clinics at the prisons. Themba staff members reported to us that when they cease programming at a particular facility, the prison nurses are sad to see the folks from Themba leave because their work really does improve the health of the prisoners and lightens the load of the nursing staff by encouraging prisoners to take their medications. Apparently, in the fight to curb the AIDS epidemic, many health care providers in South Africa spend inordinate amounts of time convincing people to receive treatment rather than actually treating them, so the work of groups like Themba proves invaluable to those who would prefer to put all of their resources into providing health care. The South African prisons not only support Themba’s work but also enable (and encourage!) the peer educators who come out of this program to hold group sessions with their fellow prisoners.  In fact the prisons will actually pay wages to the peer educators and count this work as their prison jobs or sometimes give them positions as caregivers in the prison hospitals. In the United States prisoners are often punished for gathering in groups for purposes other than sanctioned religious services, and the ability for prisoners to educate one another in U.S. prisons remains rare. The idea that the work of Themba’s trained peer educators is readily accepted and supported in South African prisons may be an indicator of the profundity of the AIDS crisis here rather than a trend toward progressive empowerment of incarcerated people. Regardless, it provides enormous benefit to the prisoners and should be used as a model for educational programming in prisons around the world.

Like most nonprofits, Themba’s funding comes in term-limited grant cycles, which at present means that their work in the prisons ceased on the Thursday before our arrival and cannot begin again until they secure another grant. Like the theatre itself, this kind of grassroots work is all about the embodied moment, and the experience of it can be fleeting and ephemeral if the proactive public health message that Themba conveys is not maintained and supported. If people stop speaking publicly about the facts about HIV/AIDS and retreat into the myths and stigmas that have contributed to the epidemic, then the disease will continue to spread, particularly inside prisons where infection rates are high and unsafe sex a common practice.

Not all peer educators trained by Themba continue to do the work of HIV/AIDS education for prolonged periods after their certification, but some do. The Themba staff told us about a woman who has been leading peer education groups in her neighborhood since her release from prison and about others who have helped a great many of their fellow prisoners.  Empowering the incarcerated to become well-informed leaders in their own communities provides a lasting and potent strategy for fighting the war on this epidemic. South Africa’s greatest human rights victories were won because of the extraordinary work of formerly incarcerated people like Nelson Mandela, and undoubtedly Themba Interactive is making critically important interventions–what Jorge Huerta calls “necessary theatre”–in this fight for the very lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.

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