More than a decade ago – before the rise of the Internet – public health educator Kate Winskell and her husband were searching for innovative ways to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among young Africans. The old ways of trying to stop the spread of the disease, focusing only on medical aspects of the epidemic or relying on educational materials that were not culturally adapted, were clearly limited.
Instead, Dr. Winskell, assistant director of Emory’s Center for Health, Culture and Society and visiting assistant professor in the Rollins School of Public Health, launched a new kind of HIV/AIDS communication program along with her colleagues. Known as “Scenarios from Africa,” the program involves a series of short films about HIV/AIDS written solely by young Africans. Scenarios began in three French-speaking, West African countries: Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. The program has since expanded to reach almost every country in sub-Saharan Africa, says Dr. Winskell. Dr. Winskell became acutely aware of the urgent need to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS among young Africans during her first visit to the continent in 1996 as part of a research project. Recognizing the key role communication could play in combating AIDS, she decided to forego medical school to focus on “Scenarios from Africa.” “Working with hundreds of community organizations in Africa, we hold contests inviting young people to come up with ideas for short films to educate their communities about HIV/AIDS. The winning ideas, which are selected by juries of young people, people living with HIV, and specialists in HIV prevention, are then transformed into short fiction films by top African directors,” says Dr. Winskell. The films are donated to television broadcasters across Africa, dubbed into local languages and then used as a discussion tool at the community level, says Dr. Winskell. So far, more than 105,000 young people, ages 5 to 24, from 37 countries have taken part in these contests, and 33 films have been produced. The films have been broadcast on more than 100 television stations in or serving Africa. Dr. Winskell cautions that it can be misleading to focus only on the audio-visual component of the project. “The program is so much more than that. It’s a very rich process. It’s about community development, about empowering young people to address the epidemic on their own terms, and about local organizations having an opportunity to learn from one another and learn from the young people they’re serving,” she says. The contest also motivates young people to go out into their communities and search for information about HIV/AIDS. That may mean first-time visits to local information centers or asking older brothers or sisters’ advice. “Yet, all the while, the young people have the protective cover of fiction,” says Dr. Winskell. “It enables them to ask about hypothetical situations that may be related to what they’re experiencing themselves.” Likewise, the project gives those who are HIV positive an opportunity to be part of something life affirming. People living with HIV are often mentors, working with the young people to develop their scripts. “The person doesn’t need to reveal their HIV/AIDS status, but it’s very empowering for them to be involved in those educational efforts,” she says. Last spring, thanks to a grant from the Emory Global Health Institute, the first of three team members of Scenarios arrived at Emory to serve as a visiting scholar. Travelling from Nigeria, Benjamin Mbakwem attended classes, delivered guest lectures, and began analysing the enormous archive of scripts on HIV/AIDS written by young people over the last ten years. “The archive is a remarkable source of information about how young people think about HIV/AIDS and how their thinking about the disease has evolved. Really, it’s a constantly evolving epidemic with constantly evolving communications needs,” says Winskell. (Source: Holly Korschun : Emory University : August 2007)