Thursday, January 12, 2012

'What Do Writers Do? They Write'

In my last post I referred to a busy and exciting week in work. What was I doing? Well I was in a 5 day workshop hosted by UNICEF, MTV and an organisation called HIV Free Generation, where the overall objective was to write a 12 part radio drama serial for young people dealing with messages around HIV/AIDS to be broadcast in at least 7 African countries.

As you do.

So to give you some background on the project. In 2010 MTV, UNICEF and partners broadcase 'Shuga' a 3 part TV series filmed and based around Nairobi detailing the trials and tribulations of a group of young people in Nairobi. In dealt with issues of sex, relationships, HIV/AIDS, navigating the transition from college to working life. And it was HUGELY successful. Its messages around staying safe, knowing you HIV/AIDS etc reached audiences that seemed to be ignoring traditional On the back of Shuga 1 a second series was commissioned which premieres on MTV channels around the world on Valentine's Day of these year (I've had a sneak preview, it's very good).

And yet, the main audience of the MTV shows thus far has been a largely urban one, those with access to TV and/or the internet. It has been screened at sports tournaments, universities and youth group meetings, but not in any systematic way (though the plan is to do more of such events and screenings with Shuga 2). And so to reach out to more rural audiences a radio spin-off of Shuga was commissioned by UNICEF and partners. The idea is that the drama serial would run on radio stations in 7 countries to begin with - Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria Lesotho and South Africa - and in 3 languages - English, French and Swahili. And so this workshop was organised to try and put together a plot and characters that would get across the messages we needed to get across in a way that young people found believable and compelling. There would also be 2 'magazine shows' which would include interviews, vox pops etc on the same key messages.

The workshop was facilitated by 3 people from the UK, Lawrence, Russell and Mel. Lawrence and Russell's background is in radio, and radio journalism and Mel has produced radio dramas for British radio (mostly BBC Radio 4) for many years. So we were in safe hands. The participants were 20 young people (17 - 24) drawn from 6 countries (all of the aforementioned countries apart from Nigeria) who were mainly drawn from UNICEF Talent Academy/Mentoring Schemes in their countries.

In the workshops we spent some time developing our 4 main characters, discussing the issues and messages that we needed to weave into the story before getting down to the serious business of writing. After writing, re-writing, and re-writing some more, we finished the 5 days with good drafts of 6 of the episodes, an outline for 6 more, and some ideas around the music and sound effects to be used. Over the next fortnight the scripts will be refined and worked on some more, with the intent that the recording will take place at the end of January. The radio shows will then start to be broadcast at the end of February.

The workshops themselves were an absolute blast. They were tiring and intense but I learned tons. Not only about the key techniques in writing good radio drama (a great but random by-product of this job) but just about young people, and the challenges they face in Africa. Some of them are very similar to the challenges young people face in Ireland, decisions about what to do when they leave school, difficulties in getting jobs/experiences. But some of them are more specific to here. Like the risks around HIV/AIDS or the number of them who spoke about knowing people who engaged in transactional sex. I don't mean prostitution as we know it. But young people who sleep with people, often older than them to get a job, or even just food. 'Sex for fish' is a huge problem in Kisumu and other town along the banks of Lake Victoria where women, usually young women, will have sex with fishermen in order to feed their families. Just one of a number of reasons why the HIV prevalence rate is far higher in that region than it is anywhere else.

In more practical and light-hearted terms I learned about the new cool music and bands that the 'yuff' listen to here, I was given the low-down on the trendy places to go out in Nairobi and where to buy the best 2nd hand clothes.

Outside of the workshops I attended meetings with the UNICEF and partner organisations' representatives to discuss how best we could integrate the Shuga shows into our existing programmes for young people and how we could measure the impact of the shows. From the first TV show we know that lots of the audience stated an intention to get HIV tested but we have no evidence to tell us whether we did or not. The hope is that the more screening sessions of Shuga that are run alongside Counselling and Testing Services, the more people we'll definitely know have been tested.

To watch Shuga 1, or to find out more about the Shuga project please go to

(The title of the post comes from a catchphrase that the facilitator Mel would use to rouse our enthusiasm in the (rare) moments we were lagging. I thought Claire H in particular would appreciate it)

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE THE TITLE OF THIS POST SO VERY VERY MUCH. Ahem. The workshops sound really fascinating - as does the programme overall. Great to get young people involved, too, rather than preaching 'at' them. And glad you're getting down with the kids. (No one says that anymore, do they? So unhip am I.)