By Kim Ridley
Steamy tales of sex, betrayal and suspense can carry important social messages
Young and poor, Fikirte is in many ways Ethiopia’s Everywoman. Her life takes a turn for the worse when she meets Damtew, who is so obsessed with revenge against Fikirte’s innocent grandfather that he kills him and then begins to prey on her. He swindles Fikirte and 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. Still not satisfied, Damtew tries to murder Fikirte—twice.
Does Fikirte’s life sound like a soap opera? It is. The saga of Fikirte, Damtew, and the other captivating characters of Yeken Kignit (“Looking Over One’s Daily Life”) kept millions of Ethiopians glued to their radios for two and a half years. It also persuaded some of them to change their lives.
Yeken Kignit isn’t your run-of-the-mill melodrama. It’s a different kind of soap opera created to deliver life-saving messages in an entertaining way. These programs reach millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America with support from the U.S.-based Population Media Center (PMC), which uses the story lines of soaps to promote family planning, reproductive health and the elevation of women’s status in developing countries.
With the human family expected to grow from 6.5 billion to 9 billion in the next half-century, the need to stabilize the planet’s population is urgent. Scientists say we’ve already depleted 60 percent of the world’s farmlands, grasslands, forests, lakes and rivers. They constantly warn that we’re exceeding the planet’s capacity to support us. One effective way to lower birth rates, any family planning expert will tell you, is to empower women.
As unlikely as PMC’s strategy sounds, it’s working in places where more conventional efforts have failed. Demand for contraceptives skyrocketed 157 percent in Ethiopia during the 30 months that Yeken Kignit and a similar soap Dhimbibba (“Getting the Best Out of Life”) were broadcast, according to the PMC. Male listeners sought HIV tests at four times the rate of non-listeners, and use of family planning measures rose 52 percent among married women who listened to the programs.
To Dr. Negussie Teffera, former director of the National Office of Population in Ethiopia, it’s not an overstatement to say that programs like Yeken Kignit can help save lives. “In this country, family planning is not simply controlling fertility,” says Dr. Negussie, now PMC’s representative in Ethiopia. “It’s really saving lives, the lives of women.”
The more-than-15,000 letters that have flooded Teffera’s office in Addis Ababa speak for themselves. One woman wrote about how her husband had been pressuring her to have more kids even though her doctor had warned that it might kill her and the couple struggled to care for the five children they already had. Through listening to Yeken Kignit, she learned about birth control and the importance of family planning. The woman repeatedly discussed these matters with her husband until he relented. She now receives counseling and contraceptives at a nearby clinic. “I have regained my health,” she wrote. “Your program has benefited my husband and me and [my] family.”
Social-content soaps use storylines loaded with sex, love, betrayal, suspense and other standard soap-opera themes to keep audiences coming back for more. But beneath the steamy stories is a rigorous methodology developed in the 1970s by Miguel Sabido, then vice-president of the Mexican broadcasting network Televisa. Sabido pioneered new techniques for designing and producing telenovelas (the Spanish term for what Americans call soap operas) that captivate audiences while delivering important messages promoting literacy, family planning and other goals. Sabido says he aims to design programs for commercial television that “achieve a proven social benefit without lowering the ratings. If the ratings are low, few people are watching the program.”
At the heart of Sabido’s methodology is the development of characters who are good, bad, or like most of us, somewhere in between. It is these middle-of-the-road characters who typically have the strongest effects on audiences because we identify with them. As the stories unfold, these characters change and grow, and we come to see the value of the program’s underlying message.
Audiences form emotional bonds with these characters over the course of many episodes. This connection is key to the success of these programs, says PMC President Bill Ryerson. “Emotion is an aid to memory,” he says. “When people get information in a perfectly cognitive, dry form, they tend to forget it. So when ministries of health say, ‘Be faithful, use condoms,’ it’s not changing behaviour because people don’t internalize those messages. The long-running nature of soap operas allows audience members to get to know the characters on an emotional level and fall in love with some of them. They often start to model their behaviour after those characters.”
Epilogues following most broadcasts give audiences information on where and how to obtain more information and resources. This combination of emotion and information can produce powerful results. After watching a telenovela Sabido helped develop in the late 1970s to promote literacy, more than 800,000 Mexicans enrolled in adult-education classes. During the decade that his five telenovelas addressing family planning issues aired, population growth dropped by 34 percent. The United Nations presented its Population Prize to Mexico in 1986 as a result.
During that time Ryerson was working at the Washington, D.C.-based Population Institute, where his colleague David Poindexter learned of Sabido’s work and helped promote it in Asia and Africa. Poindexter eventually created his own non-profit and hired Ryerson to help with fundraising and evaluating the effects of new social-content soap operas.
Studying the effects of a radio soap in Tanzania in the 1990s about a philandering truck driver who contracts AIDS and the gradual awakening and empowerment of the character’s wife, Ryerson was struck by its far-reaching impact . His research found that 82 percent of listeners said the program had caused them to change their behaviour to avoid HIV. The cost of reaching those listeners: about 80 cents per person. “That data made me see the worth of forming an organization to take this program globally,” says Ryerson, who created the PMC in 1998 with the retired Poindexter serving as a consultant and honorary chair.
Today, PMC introduces talented young playwrights and scriptwriters around the world to Sabido’s methodology to help them create meaningful dramas for radio and television in their home countries. Following Sabido’s model, programs are aired only in places where social infrastructure already exists to deliver services that address the problems these socially conscious soaps explore—for example, adult education classes or family planning clinics. All the soaps begin with research into the important issues in people’s lives, which helps explain why these gripping dramas often become the most popular programs on the air.
Do the positive effects of social-change soap operas last? In Mexico, Miguel Sabido is examining that question 30 years after the broadcast of his first telenovela about literacy. He’s candid about what he is finding. “It was only a temporary change, so it will be important to write and broadcast new programs,” he says. “The main problem now is convincing network executives to air them.”
In the meantime, his methodology, which is being incorporated into graduate level entertainment-education courses at universities in the U.S., the Netherlands, and South Africa, continues to spread, leading to programs that touch millions of lives.
Although Yeken Kignit has ended, Fikirte’s triumphs and Damtew’s downfall still inspire people in Ethiopia. Hundreds of women are naming their daughters Fikirte. And responding to the powerful stories from the series, many Ethiopians are publicly denouncing the widespread practice of taking a bride by means of abduction and rape. Partly as a result of this public outcry, a crime that went largely unpunished now carries a minimum sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison, according to Dr. Negussie.
Findings from Ethiopia and elsewhere suggest that soap operas can be a powerful force for social change. “Entertainment media is an unusual way to address a serious problem,” Bill Ryerson admits, “but it’s the most effective thing we can think of to do to change the global situation.”