Tag Archives: development

Development Through Drama

Since jhr believes in the power of the media to change lives and aid development through awareness of human rights, while in Cape Coast, I decided to take a look at a particular medium that is often overlooked, theatre, to see how it has been contributing to Ghana’s development agenda.

Although performance has always been a part of African culture, especially here in Ghana, today’s theatre is focusing largely on contemporary issues even when performances retain traditional stylistic elements.  I sat down with Kelvin and Maxwell, two students of the Theatre Department at the University of Cape Coast (UCC), to talk about the potential for theatre to create positive change both on campus and throughout the nation.

Kelvin, a directing major as well as the president of the Association of Students of Performing Arts, described two distinct programs at UCC.  The first, Theatre for Development, focuses specifically on plays that educate audiences about social issues such as the transmission of HIV.  The department’s coordinator touted the program for tackling controversial topics such as female genital mutilation.  In this instance, students use theatre to explain the dangers and effects of the procedure and urge communities to stop the practice.  “They look at the situation and then they act on it, be it political, [about] social life or cultural,” the coordinator said of the program’s students.

The second program, Theatre in Education, teaches both how to involve young school children in theatre as well as using theatre as an educational tool in their classrooms.  As a final project, students go into junior high schools to involve the students in the creation of a play.  Using both traditional and contemporary plays, young students learn about their culture as well as contemporary issues.  These students are also empowered to speak out and have their voices heard, a useful skill for children growing up at a time when many traditional norms must be challenged in society.

UCC theatre students are also starting to reap the benefits of a theatrical education both on and off the stage.  Employers in Ghana are beginning to hire theatre students for their inherent public relations skills.  Many theatre students at UCC, where one can major in sound and lights, costuming and makeup, set design, production marketing and management, as well as acting, directing or playwriting, are finding jobs in Ghana’s quickly expanding television and film industries.  The coordinator also said that banks are now some of the leading employers of theatre graduates because of their ability to effortlessly address large crowds of financial executives as well as their excellent stress management skills.

Kelvin knows all about the importance of stress management.  As a final year directing student, he is about to be given only four weeks in which to produce a play.  Not only does that require rehearsing a cast of anywhere from 5-25 members, coordinating costumes, lights and sound, but also fundraising any costs over the allotted 200 cedis (about $150) provided by the department.  All of this is even more challenging when the play is an example of “total theatre”, the African productions that seamlessly blend theatre with music and dance.

A poster for a recent production of "Tartuffe" at UCC

Though Maxwell and Kelvin feel that the Ghanaian theatre scene is not as vibrant as it could be, a problem that  the coordinator links to the current take-home culture in which it is easier to pop a Ghanaian DVD into a player at home than to go to the theatre for the evening, they recognize that society has a lot learn from the medium.  The two recently acted in a radio play written by Efo Kwadjo Mawubge, the current director of the National Theatre and one of Maxwell’s favourite playwrights.  The play, Aluta Continua, is about the National Service which every graduate of a tertiary institution must complete.  For one year, graduates are placed in banks, local government offices and the like all over the country, but it is common practice for elite members of society to influence where their children are placed, often opting to keep them in Accra rather than sending them to the rural regions.  This comedy, depicting a meddling minister trying to influence the placement of his son, explores the possibility of a National Service scheme where placement distribution is fair and equal.

The play Maxwell is currently working, “The Family Affair”, is a family drama about two sisters in a broken home.  He wants to focus on issues of morality with play.  “Most of Africa’s plays are very traditional, but the times are changing and it’s time for Africa to change.  I want to write social plays for the new Africa, not the old,” he said.  However, no matter how eager the playwright is to send a message, there still needs to be an audience.  Passionate students like Kelvin and Maxwell are working hard to keep the spirit of theatre alive in Ghana.  “I think that people here don’t know what good theatre can do,” said Maxwell.  This is why they believe theatre for development is so important.  It brings theatre to the doorstep of the people and spreads an important message along the way.

The Benefits of Weaving

The colourful yarns used to make handspun fabrics for handbags and mats.

The shelves of the weaving centre in Bangwe are filled with spools of brightly-colored yarns, making a colourful backdrop to what would otherwise be a dreary scene: rows of weavers sit silently at their looms, staring blankly ahead as they mechanically work the spools into tightly-woven fabric.

Their expressionless faces seem eerily robotic. Then I learn that, as most of the weavers here are blind, their eyes simply focus unseeingly on whatever lies ahead. The Bangwe workshop, where about 100 visually-impaired weavers are employed, is one of many centres in Malawi where people with physical impairments are trained and employed in various artisanal crafts.

First established over thirty years ago by missionaries, this centre and others like it offer opportunity where before there had only been charity. Now government-run through the Malawi Council for the Handicapped (MACOHA), the centres employ hundreds of disabled people throughout the country.

“These people were begging on the streets,” says Henderson Nyondo, the Bangwe centre’s acting manager. “So the idea was, why don’t we take them, train them and give them something to do?”

The handbags and mats spun produced by visually impaired weavers.

Without the centres, people living with disabilities in Malawi would be faced with virtually no options to support themselves. Making a living in Malawi is hard enough, even for those who don’t face the added burden of disability-based discrimination. The MACOHA production centres work to narrow the inequalities that would otherwise leave people with any kind of disability clinging to the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

Still, considering the general impoverishment of the average Malawian, even achieving a standard of living equal to the non-disabled majority means a threadbare existence. In Bangwe, the weavers earn 13,000 kwacha (about 90 CAD) monthly – a meager wage, but one that is actually higher than the Malawian average.

Thirty-three year-old weaver Andrew Chitenje lost his eyesight when he was a child as a result of measles. Before he began working at the Bangwe centre in 2005, he was eking out a living by hawking charcoal on the streets. Few people were willing to take on a blind man.

Andrew Chitenje deftly weaving homegrown Malawi cotton into fabric for a handbag.

“Before I came here, it was difficult to feed myself,” he says. “When I wanted to work, others would say, ‘He is a blind man. How can he do this kind of work?’ Even in some other organizations, they won’t allow me to work.”

The MACOHA program offered Chitenje valued training at a specific craft, which is hard to come by, even for Malawians without a disability. Now skilled as a weaver, Chitenje has been able to reclaim his sense of social worth.

“I just want to show to the country that a disabled man can bring a good thing to the world,” he says.

Chitenje is bringing revenue not just to himself but his country. The Bangwe centre is a self-sustaining enterprise, bringing in about 25 million kwacha annually, which allows the centre to break even. The economic benefit of the factory, however, extends beyond only helping people with disabilities. All the fabric used in the products is spun from locally-grown cotton. The MACOHA production centres are thus a valuable support to Malawian cotton farmers, addressing one of the fundamental problems in the development of African economies: raw commodities are exported – without added value – to foreign markets, where they are then processed and often resold to African consumers at inflated prices.

The weavers here might not see the broader benefits of the handbags and floor mats they mechanically turn out each day. For his part, Chitenje is simply happy that he has a job, a pension, and a secure food supply. But in having been given an opportunity to realize his innate ability to support himself, Chitenje is actually benefiting the national economy, showing how development can be achieved simply by giving people born into difficult circumstances a chance to work for themselves.