HIV/AIDS cultural activism: popular tanzaniian tv show spotlights HIV prevention (014)

Auditioners

chers—

an excellent example of HIV/AIDS cultural activism.

namaste

—rk

JULY 2009 — Like American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent in the US and the UK, Bongo Star Search is all the rage in Tanzania. On Sunday evenings, television sets across this country of 44 million people are tuned to the show, and its finalists are instantly recognized by young people and adults alike. However, unlike the British and US shows, Bongo Star Search aims to be a “change agent” for its audiences, not just for the competitors. It accomplishes this because of a unique partnership between Benchmark Productions, the show’s creators, and HIV experts at Family Health International (FHI) and UNICEF.

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After seeing the popularity of Bongo Star Search in its first season in 2007, UNICEF and FHI recognized its potential for disseminating lifesaving HIV-prevention messages in Tanzania, where about 1 in 15 adults are infected with the virus. Benchmark was thus approached with a plan to sponsor the show through FHI’s UJANA project, an HIV prevention program for youth in Tanzania funded by USAID and UNICEF.

Contest, quiz, ringtones, and road shows
Ishi volunteerDuring Bongo Star Search‘s second season, UNICEF and FHI introduced a parallel competition, in coordination with Benchmark. FHI trained the top ten Bongo Star Search contestants on the basics of HIV and behavior change communication and helped each of them to compose an original song with an HIV-prevention message. The contestants performed the songs as part of a special show devoted to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS. Bongo Star Search judges and youth HIV experts cast votes on the song they considered the best, as did over 40,000 viewers across the country. The 2008 winning song, whose writer and performer was also the eventual winner of the overall competition—warns young women against taking up with “sugar daddies” and encourages listeners not to stigmatize people living HIV.

Between May and August 2009, millions will see the top-rated weekly broadcasts of Bongo Star Search‘s third season. FHI and UNICEF will again support an HIV song competition and air public service announcements on HIV prevention, during the show and on radio. In addition, the winning songs will be recorded and promoted to radio and television stations, featured on the Bongo Star Search website, and made available for download as ringtones.

An HIV quiz will be introduced this year. Viewers who answer the greatest number of HIV-related questions correctly via their mobile phones will win tickets to the final Bongo Star Search show, free air time, and other prizes.

Though the television cameras will eventually stop rolling, the benefits of FHI’s involvement in Bongo Star Search do not. Finalists become pop idols who young people are avid to see in person, and FHI employs them to go across the country—particularly into rural areas where the need for HIV education is greatest—to headline educative road shows and outreach events. The Bongo Star Search finalists always draw huge crowds for messages that are critical to slowing the spread of HIV in the country, including on the need to be tested for HIV and to reduce stigma against people living with HIV.

HIV education for thousands of would-be pop stars
Youth line up to auditionSponsorship in 2009 has allowed FHI to reach about 12,000 youth auditioning for the show across the country. The contestants—mostly young men—line up for hours for their chance to step into the limelight before four Bongo Star Search judges for what can be a very short and demoralizing moment. While they are waiting, FHI and UJANA’s youth volunteers engage them and other spectators in health talks, question-and-answer sessions, and interactive theater presentations that highlight major issues that youth confront in relation to their sexual behavior, the risks they might be taking, and the truth about HIV infection.

These large crowds read and carry away a range of publications from UJANA and other projects, watch condom demonstrations, listen to testimonials from young people living with HIV who urge them to know their status, and decide whether to be tested for HIV in tents that are brought onsite for that purpose. This year some 1,500 people were tested while they waited their turn at three of the audition sites.

Other benefits
The benefits of FHI sponsorship go both ways. Benchmark Production’s Managing Director Rita Paulsen (who is also the Bongo Star Search chief judge) says she is pleased with the results of the collaboration and that the show is “even better” with FHI’s support. As she told the composer of the winning song in 2008, “Through your strong messages in your song, you have rescued thousands of Tanzanians who are watching the program now.”

Rita Paulsen and Bongo Star Search judgesPaulsen also said she appreciates the educational activities conducted among those waiting for auditions. She noted that many contestants appear before her clutching UJANA materials.

Paulsen added that many contestants are from very poor families and are desperate to improve their lives; her show provides opportunity for people who really need it. By working with Benchmark and using the platform of Bongo Star Search, FHI, UNICEF, and USAID are also providing opportunities to those who need them the most to benefit from HIV education and improved knowledge that enables them to reduce risky behaviors and live healthy and productive lives.

— Hilary Russell

PHOTOS: (Top) Young men hoping to audition for Bongo Star Search are captivated by UJANA-sponsored participatory theatre that conveys HIV-prevention and behavior-change messages. (Top middle) Ishi volunteers like this one conduct health talks for the would-be stars as they wait their turn. (Bottom middle) Heavy rain does not discourage the long line-up for the audition in Dar es Salaam. (Bottom) Rita Paulsen and other Bongo Star Search judges enjoy an audition moment. (Photos by Hilary Russell, Top middle by FHI/Tanzania)

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