When last we left the love-lorn Sipho, he was torn with guilt: How could he possibly stay with Chantal now that he knows she has HIV? Then again, could he abandon his one true love? As he makes up his mind, 30 million people will suffer right along with him. Soul City, a nighttime soap (think Passions meets Angels in America) premiered in 1994 and has become South Africa’s most popular program, boasting more viewers than any U.S. series besides American Idol. It melds entertainment and HIV education with plotlines that push the lifesaving power of condoms and HAART. The program airs in nine African nations. “With soap opera viewers, there is no [literacy] barrier,” says Akinyele Dairo, a United Nations HIV prevention adviser. “Viewers can gather around a TV or radio in the remotest village, and the message will get across.”
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested $127 million in promoting international “edutainment” efforts, including Soul City. USAID partners African TV and radio producers with American creative think tanks to develop shows that highlight AIDS issues. “We’re trying to capture the choices and decisions a person has to make,” says Michael Castlen, executive director of nonprofit firm Populations Communications International, which produces soap operas that promote social change. USAID, in conjunction with other organizations, has sponsored hundreds of HIV-themed shows across Africa. The results are encouraging: Viewers of Tsha Tsha, a South African drama for teens, were 12% more likely to get tested, delay sex or stick to monogamy, according to a survey of regular viewers. “Tsha Tsha increases awareness and discussion in the community,” says Dairo. “The week after a show about the importance of testing, people flooded the health centers.”
Meanwhile, nongovernmental organization (NGO) FilmAid International imports AIDS films from around the world to African refugee camps, where health workers often find it difficult to establish an HIV dialogue. With the drama Fur Indhahada/Open Your Eyes last year, the organization hoped to break the silence around HIV in Muslim communities. The film tells the story of a Somali girl whose husband mysteriously dies of AIDS. She is forced to marry his brother, who then also falls ill with HIV. “You have to get creative,” says Emily MacDonald, communications director at FilmAid. “There’s a lot to be said for reaching 30,000 people in one night for the cost of a projector and a screen.”
Even in the U.S., where HIV plots remain minor (see the previous page), thousands dialed the Centers for Disease Control hot line to inquire about HIV after a man told his fiancée he had the virus in a 2001 episode of The Bold and the Beautiful. “People respond to storytelling, and the modern incarnation of storytelling is the serial drama,” says Castlen. This season on Soul City, there was certainly no shortage of theatrics. A man dies, and his neighbors shun his struggling family (though they eventually pitch in to help). A positive woman can’t convince her boyfriend to get tested. What about Chantal and Sipho? They decide to stick together and start grappling with whether or not to have children. Such are the days of our lives.