As Seen on TV…

Fikirte is a young and poor Ethiopian woman, with many problems whose life goes rapidly downhill when she meets the handsome Damtew. Damtew, is obsessed with wreaking revenge on Fikirte’s (innocent) grandfather and so he murders him and then begins to prey on poor Fikirte.

He swindles her of what little she has and then seduces her half-sister, giving her HIV. He spreads vicious rumors to turn Fikirte’s family against her and to crush her dreams of finishing school. And as if that’s not enough he tries to murder her – twice.

If you think poor Fikirte sounds like a character in a soap-opera you’d be correct – she is one of a cast of characters of Yeken Kignit (“Looking Over One’s Daily Life”) who kept millions of Ethiopians glued to their radios for two and a half years. It also persuaded some of them to change their lives.

Because Yeken Kignit isn’t your run-of-the-mill melodrama – it’s a drama created to deliver life-saving messages in an entertaining way.  And it’s not the only one.

In 1993, a radio drama—Twende na Wakati—began to air in Tanzania.  At that time, myths about HIV and Aids were rampant in Tanzania, many of them causing actual harm such as a belief that HIV was transmitted by mosquitoes and that using condoms could cause you to become infected.  Two years later, Tanzanians who followed the drama talked more about AIDS, reduced their number of sexual partners, understood the dangers of unprotected sex and increased their use of condoms.

These soap operas are part of a concerted effort to use drama as a strategy for education and social change. And it all began in the 1970s…

(cue exciting music)

At that time, Mexican TV research executive, Miguel Sabido hit upon the idea of using long-running TV drama – telenovelas – to promote social change.

From 1977-1986, Sabido produced six telenovelas each of which contained a number of social messages – this was very effective, especially in the area of family planning. During this time Mexico’s population growth went down by 34% and a lot of research has pointed to the influence of Sabidos telenovelas on this social trend.

These telenovelas are very much in the style of the soap-opera, but planted within the melodrama are characters and story-lines designed to increase understanding and thereby engage the audience as agents of social change in their own lives.

Nowadays known as the Sabido Method – the goal of these dramas is social change and they are thought to be one of the cheapest and most effective strategies that can be used for this purpose.  This method – widely used now in all forms of entertainment – is proving particularly effective in disseminating education about family planning, HIV, teen pregnancy and gender equality.

Stay tuned for further developments in this application of technology and the arts to help effect social change.