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Art effective in dealing with Malawi’s health woes —Thodi

Art and Global Health Center Africa is an organization that fosters creative leadership and implements innovative art-based oriented programmes that inspire and mobilize. In this interview with Nyasa Times,  Pius Nyondo engages the organization’s communications and development officer, Simeon Thodi, for more.

Excerpts;

Simeon Thodi

 What is Art and Global Health organization all about?

Art and Global Health Center Africa is an organization that fosters creative leadership and implements innovative art –based health oriented programmes that inspire and mobilize .Our vision is to serve as an incubator for arts based approaches to actionable social change, creating replicable models that challenge barriers to healthy living .It is an organization that uses the most unique approaches in tackling issues of national importance.

 There seem to be several organizations working to support Malawi’s health sector, how different is your organization?

We use participatory art based approaches to create space for communities to bring about actionable social change. Our approaches target the attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and practices of the individuals, health service providers, community leaders and policy influencers through artistic participatory activities that resonate with common practices and trigger reflections on their personal role in achieving or not achieving healthy communities. Our uniqueness also comes about in the sense that we don’t impose solutions on communities but rather facilitate a process in which the solutions to the identified problems come from the participants themselves.

 Malawi’s Health sector has a lot of problems despite the fact that it is one of the sectors which receives most funding and donor support. So far what are some of the things your organization has managed to change in the health sector?

We managed to convince more men to get tested for HIV. A huge investment into the health sector by both the Malawi government and the donor community cannot translate into quality health care and improved standards of living if there is no change in attitudes, beliefs and social norms by the community receiving such services. One of the major barriers to quality health services is the fact that many men do not want to go for HTC( HIV Testing and Counseling ).It is against such a background that Art and Global Health Center (ArtGlo) initiated the Make Art ,Stop AIDS project. Community members worked collaboratively to create a play based on real life experiences- including a male character who initially refused to test for HIV but later tested and was able to access treatment. A film was created based on the play, and screened along with facilitation by the actors from the play and action planning in rural communities.  Through this process more men than women voluntarily tested for HIV- compared to MoH data which showed far more women than men testing in the previous quarter. 

You have indicated that your organization also has a program which provides youth leadership to college students and also provides training, mentorship and seed funding to develop innovative projects that address pressing social issues. How many students have you reached out to?

In a country where young people under the age of 30  form 70% of the population ,it would have been expected that innovation and creativity  would have been the norm and not the deviation. However, the situation is very antithetical for Malawi .The youth are facing a litany of challenges ranging from unemployment, higher incidences of HIV/AIDS, drug and substance abuse and early marriages among other pressing social issues .Such pressing social issues prevent the youth from realizing their potential to the fullest .Indeed, the level of contribution of young people to the socio-economic development of the country leaves a lot to be desired .

It is against such a background that Art and Global Health Center Africa came up with the Students with Dreams programme. The first youth leadership programme of its kind in Malawi, Students with Dreams inspires college students to become agents of change .With training, mentorship and seed funding, young leaders develop creative and innovative projects that address pressing social issues. The programme  has just clocked 5 years since the first students graduated with  innumerable successes registered. So far we have worked with 133 students to develop and implement their own projects . Among the many successes of the programme is the Arts for All project implemented  from 2013 by students of Domasi College of Education Andrea Kadammanja,Frank Kaliati and Paul Dziko . The Art for All project aims at empowering primary and secondary school students living with disabilities to shine and show out their artistic skills, promoting self-expression and challenging negative perspectives surrounding disability.

 Art and Global Health organisation is on record to also have been doing participatory film and theatre which strive to break social cultural and structural barriers to HIV testing, treatment and care. What’s your view on the role that these features play in the war against HIV?

It is an open secret that people normally express themselves better when the setting is a bit relaxed .This why Art and Global Health Center believes in the role of participatory film and theatre to break social and cultural barriers to HIV testing ,treatment and care. By working with communities to develop their own messages and performance pieces to suit the requirements of the audiences, the use of film and theatre is proving very useful in breaking the social ,structural and cultural barriers to HIV testing ,treatment and care .

 Do you think people will ever change their attitudes and beliefs on issues the perpertuate the spread of HIV?

People can change their attitudes and beliefs on issues that perpetuate the spread of HIV through a process of engagement rather than giving them flat and boring messages like ‘AIDS kills’ .It is also very important to look at issues of HIV with a human face rather than focusing on the negative issues.

The Make Art, Stop AIDS project for example has been working with people living with HIV/AIDS to promote positive living .We have also  initiated peer education programmes in which selected tertiary students train their peers on HIV prevention and challenging stigma and discrimination, using creative approaches such as plays, music and dance.

  Please share your experience on these issues from the areas you have been working at.

Approaching issues that look tough to achieve like everyone going for HIV testing can only be achieved if we use participatory approaches and not imposed solutions and boring messages. So far we have found arts to be effective in engaging a wide range of people- from rural community members to college students.

 Your organization through Umunthu project aims at addressing issues of stigma and discrimination against LGBTIs. This seems to be a controversial issue in our society. Tell me, why do these issues matter?

Umunthu is a pan African philosophical of humanity often defined in a phrase I am because we are. Umunthu celebrates the interconnectedness and the interdependence of humanity. Lesbians,Gays,Bisexuals,Transgender and the Intersex(LGBTI) community members  face stigma and discrimination in all social settings in the country .Through the lens of the Umunthu Philosophy ,every human being is the same and deserves respect and dignity .It is very important to recognize everyone and not discriminate or marginalize anyone based on aspects of their identity such as sexual orientation or gender identity .LGBTI community members deserve access to quality health services just like everybody else .It is in that vein that Art and Global Health Center is concerned with the issues surrounding the discrimination of LGBTI community members . 

Others say issues of LGBTIs are a foreign culture phenomenon aimed at imposing Malawians to ‘unchristian’ things. What’s your comment on this perception?

Our workshops are developed from Umunthu, an African philosophy, and help people to develop their own understanding of issues of discrimination from an African perspective. We note that homosexuality has existed in Africa ever since times immemorial, and believe there are many misconceptions around homosexuality in Malawi. We aim to facilitate a new discussion of these issues from an African perspective.

 What challenges does your organization face in the course of its duties on various projects in the country?

Take the Students with Dreams project for instance which aims at fostering creative leadership and supporting tertiary students. This is a project which can directly contribute to the socio-economic development of this country. However, it faces an annual challenge for continued funding, therefore we appeal to the corporate world to support us in this project.

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