Africa, Changing Lives: Making Research Real, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, IBSA, Poverty & SDGs

SOUTH AFRICA: Who Says Research Can’t Be Dramatic?

Nyasha Musandu

JOHANNESBURG, Mar 28 2011 (IPS) - In the early 1990s, a group of researchers set off for a small rural village in the eastern part of South Africa. Their intention was simple: teach the community how to rehydrate sick babies.

Armed with a one litre soda bottle, a simple rehydration recipe, posters, pamphlets and talks, they spent weeks sharing their knowledge as part of a national initiative to reduce child mortality.

But months later, there appeared to be little change in the village. Researchers sent to document the campaign’s success were surprised. The instructions were correct and had been distributed; the message had been received… but no one in the community had a one-litre bottle.

It was a simple oversight, easily rectified by changing the guidelines to use a different container to make up the recipe – every kitchen in the village had a cup.

Soul City’s Dr Sue Goldstein tells this story to illustrate how it’s possible to fail to communicate simple, useful scientific knowledge without an adequate understanding of your target audience.

Tailoring the message

The Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication, a non profit organisation, was started in 1992 in a bid to reduce child mortality caused by dehydration. “Children were dying unnecessarily and it was because people did not know what they were supposed to be doing,” says Goldstein.

Information was widely available on the process of rehydration but it did not seem to be having an impact on the desired audience. After studying the situation, Soul City decided to launch a television soap opera to capture their target audience. A radio show and newspaper series quickly followed.

In trying to describe the relationship between research and mass media campaigns, Goldstein uses the phrase “simplification versus complexity.” At one end stands the scientist who seeks in-depth knowledge and at the other the ordinary non-scientific individual who prefers a simple explanation.

Melissa Meyer, Project Coordinator for the HIV/AIDS and the Media Project, says, “Research and entertainment need not be at odds with each other. With just a slight adjustment in perspective, they can be used very effectively to complement each other.”

Programmes such as Soul City reinsert real people into research. “Truly good entertainment is well-researched,” says Meyer.

Signs of success

Soul City appears to have found a formula that successfully conveys important health messages while grabbing the attention of its audience through a dramatic storyline containing all the elements of a prime time soapie.

Rumbidzai Musiyarira, a fan of the show, says, “Soul City opens your eyes to taking precautions and protecting yourself.”

HIV and AIDS-related issues have been a recurring theme in the series.

“The show is very enlightening” says Musiyarira. “I realised how easy it is for HIV to spread within a family or community.”

One storyline followed a woman unknowingly infected with HIV by her husband through several episodes. She believed her husband was being faithful, but as things unfold, he proved to have had multiple partners. The readily identifiable scenario highlights research showing that multiple concurrent partners play in the spread of HIV in Southern Africa.

“It is my absolute passion to get scientific knowledge out,” says Goldstein. Through an intensive nine step process, scientific research is translated into Soul City content by a team of creative agencies, researchers, test groups and others.

“We not only measure our reach, but we also measure what people understand from the campaign and whether they have actually made any changes in their lives in relation to the show,” says Goldstein.

Issues such as depression, tuberculosis, housing and alcohol abuse have all featured in the series.

Deborah Ndlovu, another long time follower of Soul City, believes watching the programme can change behaviour, having seen changes in her own life.

“It teaches you to be honest to your partner,” she says. “You must be fair and you should know your status and practice safe behaviour.”

More than just tv

Soul City is a marriage between education and entertainment. A booklet is released after each thirteen episode series has been aired, to reinforce the basic messages and provide supplementary scientific information. Soul City also has a Facebook page and a website, but Goldstein admitted that the organisation has yet to truly harness the power of the web. “I think we are still in the learning phase with that kind of media.”

The television show reaches approximately 16 million South Africans and has drawn the attention of numerous organisations who hope to get their messages across via this medium.

It is not always easy. “We currently have a meeting with a group of people interested in climate change and they want the scientific evidence to go out in quite a scientific way,” Goldstein says. “it’s not necessarily going to speak to people. You have to reach people, otherwise they are just not going to listen.”

She admitted that not all the show’s themes have been successful. No changes in people’s attitudes were recorded after an episode in series 6 focusing on xenophobia was aired. “It wasn’t negative change but there was no change, we made the local character too sympathetic and that was a problem,” says Goldstein.

Careful testing prior to the show being aired has reduced the number of failed attempts.

Goldstein emphasised the need for innovation, research and a thorough knowledge of the intended target market for any organisation that was seeking to create a similar programme. “Identify who needs this information and what media they consume.”

Television, newspaper, radio and magazines are available to organisations to reach broad audiences. South Africa’s Public broadcaster is a powerful partner, although it sometimes presents a problem for the edutainment model as it tries to dictate that the show will air at a less than optimal time.

“Journalists are always looking for material, and if you can provide it in an easy to read way they will be very happy with you,” says Goldstein.

Research, dedication and a firm belief in the importance and relevance of its messages have enabled Soul City to put research findings, scientific knowledge and life-saving messages into broad circulation.

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