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Listening to the community

Theatre for development brings empowerment by Yvonne Mabille

Within development co-operation, how can the participation of local people be improved? One of the many ways is 'theatre for development'. The author describes experiences from Africa.

They don't want to push a particular message and don't want to annoy anybody. "Theatre for development is a new form of communication among people in a village, a dialogue with its own language, in which the community specifies and analyses its problems and seeks solutions." That is how Alex Mavrocordatos describes the theatre work which he has tested and developed in Africa.

In Namibia, Mavrocordatos has worked with the staff of the organisation RISE and shown them the techniques of development theatre. The project, financed by the British NGO Oxfam, also supports farmers when setting up networks such as the South Namibian Farmers' Union. Through theatre the people involved develop new ways of expressing themselves and critical understanding - with concrete consequences. A village community dared for the first time to protest against the ruling clan when the clan tried to prevent sanitary improvements. They organised a protest march. In the end the majority of the village people sent a petition to the government.

The medium of theatre has found its place in development co-operation since the 1970s, often as a didactic instrument. Central topics such as alphabetisation or family planning have been taken up. The most prominent example is certainly Augusto Boal, who developed a whole range of forms of theatre from the "theatre of the oppressed" to his latest project - the "legislative theatre". Through the latter the Brazilian theatre producer who was in 1993 surprisingly elected to the Rio de Janeiro city council - aims to bring democracy into politics.

Democratisation of development co-operation

The experiences of development theatre show that theatre play can add the process of democratisation to development co-operation by enabling and supporting participation and empowerment of those concerned. However, its potential relies not only on the break-up of internal village structures and the development of new forms of dialogue and exchange. Also, the other participants - such as the staff of the project and the donor organisations - have to work on it and actively create and support re-orientation from top-down to bottom-up. This is the least successful part of a very promising theatre project in Mali.

In 1989, the British development organisation S.O.S. Sahel started an environmental project in Tominian in Mali in support of the Bobos, in many aspects a disadvantaged minority within the country. The aim of the project was to improve the soil which had been largely destroyed by the long use of agro-chemicals and by erosion, in order to restore and maintain the fertility of the soil.

S.O.S. Sahel, which already had practical experience with participatory methods, provided the environmental project (Community Environment Project, C.E.P:) in Tominian with a "Drama Unit". The task of the theatre group was to support the project in its practical work - by activating the people to openly and freely express their opinions through improvised theatre.

Since this process could be politically sensitive, the Drama Unit - Alex Mavrocordatos and his Malian colleague Bianivo Mounkoro, working as an interpreter - remained independent from the project. "It was our aim", says Mavrocordatos in an article in a book about his work in Tominian, «to give a voice to those in the village who do not normally express themselves, without having didactic intentions or preconceived convictions."

Problems acted out on stage

One of the basic principles of this type of theatre is that the sketches never offer solutions but only open issues for debate. Solutions are to come from the audience, who always have the opportunity to add their own commentaries and contributions. They can also be asked to think of an ending for a play, or to invent a new ending.

Prior to the theatrical work there was a period of getting to know each other. Since the Bobos do not have a theatre tradition of their own, the Drama Unit picked on the different forms of religious and secular dances and songs. In former times, every village had a singer, a "griot" who accompanied the collective work tasks with songs and music and who was cared for by the village community. Today, griots are only sometimes asked to sing, and then during harvesting, to motivate the harvesters with texts and melodies.

The singers became interested in the content of the project, the environmental issues, and made new texts for old songs about water collection ditches and anti-erosion measures, about rich harvests and green rolling hills. The new songs were publicised and also reached farmers who never came to a meeting. Finally, the griots started to accompany certain tasks of the project such as the digging which led to considerably better results. In late 1990 a audio tape of several griots was produced, containing songs on anti-erosion measures which was then publicised far beyond the boundaries of the project.

After this period of making contacts and preparation, in which the number of villages participating in the project increased - after four years there were 40 - the Drama Unit suggested to start the theatrical work. The village people were willing to join in, although they did not have much idea of what it would involve.

At first it was mostly young men who wanted to act. The women were allegedly too shy. To loosen up they started with an ONI-yo dance which seamlessly turned into improvised sketches - the work in the fields, hunting, romantic match-making and weddings were acted out. In this way, the workers in the project learned a lot about the life in the village.

"How to find a wife"

After a while, a lively debate arose - among the men of the village. During this the women were silent. « One day, the men came", Mavrocordatos said, "and wanted to do act out 'how to find a wife'." It is so difficult to find a wife. The teachers asked whether they wanted to ask the women to participate. "No, they won't do it right." On the theatre nights of the following weeks only the men acted out the search for a wife: How difficult women are and that they only want rich men from the cities who have got a car ... The women were deeply hurt, and refused to react to this immediately.

In the following week, they stood on the stage for the first time and answered the complaints of the men with their own play. Women, who never talk publicly, showed very intimate problems of their married lives: how they are hit by their men; that they have to go and get their men from the bars every night, about the difficulties they have with the mistresses of their men. A long discussion followed.

Growing self-confidence

From now on, the women joined the discussions more often and took part in the plays. This was made public in other villages and encouraged women to get involved more actively. The theatre work developed into a new form of communication among the village people. They found their own new language in order to specify their problems, to analyse them and to find solutions.

Some Bobo women gained so much self-confidence that they insisted on their rights in a conflict with the forestry administration. For the first time, a conversation between the forestry administration and the village people took place.

"The dialogue between the village community and the project did not evolve in the same way», says Mavrocordatos. The workers in the project had to learn through the theatre plays that the village people saw the environment project as their own initiative to a far lesser extent than had previously been supposed. They were willing to participate because they assumed they would gain from it in different ways. In official assemblies or in the reports of the project workers this has never previously been a topic. Many project workers, the majority of them Bobos, welcomed the revival of their dances, but preferred the form of didactic theatre. The possibility to gain a more complete understanding of the overall situation was not understood or not used. A planned training course for the project workers about the role of the Drama Unit failed because the training programme was already full of more technical aspects. "If a project is prepared to really listen, it can immediately check the validity of its work», Mavrocordatos says. The theatre play is a mirror of the development of the project. It can be used for corrections and for planning and realising the further proceedings in a dialogue with those concerned. This however assumes the willingness of the participants.

A long breath is necessary

During the first two years of the project, a regular exchange between the leaders of the project and the Drama Unit took place, but this altered after the leadership of the project changed and new priorities were taken up. The practical successes in the village had to be increased and the importance of the Drama Unit diminished. "In our project, like in most others which have a participatory approach», Mavrocordatos emphasised, «the slow and not easily accessible results of participatory working has a difficult status, the face of the pressure for legitimacy of the project in relation to the local authorities, other people and of course the far-away donor."

The development organisation must also be interested in a close relationship with the project and in a regular exchange and dialogue. Often this occurs in the beginning but later on the dynamic gets lost. Then the tone of a project turns from being open into being manipulative, as a reaction to impatient donors, who want to see quantifiable results. "With this pressure and the question: 'are enough trees being planted?' the participatory approach is always endangered."

Further Reading

Mavrocordatos, Alex: Listening to the Community. In: Nelson, N. and S. Wright: Power and Participatory Development. Theory and Practice ITP London 1994