The Lion’s Den: Lessons from Communicating with Communities

by Felister Nyaera Nkangi and Juliet Atieno Oduor

Felister Nyaera Nkangi and Juliet Atieno Oduor won the top prize for the 2016 International Lion’s Den Student Competition, which invited undergraduate and graduate students, primarily from low-to middle income countries, to submit proposals for an innovative, feasible and sustainable health communication intervention targeted at real-life community health challenges.  Juliet and Felister’s team was one of three (the others were from Indonesia and Nigeria) invited to receive mentoring to improve their proposal and then pitch it before a panel of experts during the first-ever International SBCC Summit in Addis Ababa. Felister is currently a graduate student at Maseno Unversity in Kenya and is expected to receive her master’s degree in Communication and Media Studies (Health Communication) in 2017. Juliet recently competed her master’s program in Communication and Media Studies (Peace Journalism) from Maseno.

Felister Nyaera Nkangi (right) and Juliet Atieno Oduor (left).

You require a sharp knife to sharpen a blunt one” is a common saying among the Luo community of Kenya. It is used to advise people when they are taking up new tasks that they might have little to no skills and need to seek expert knowledge before delving into the task. After our proposal was named a finalist for the Lion’s Den student competition at the International Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February 2016, we sought the help of not only our SBCC mentors and judges there but also other speakers and presenters before the competition was judged.

A presentation on developing SBCC materials helped us improve upon our Lion’s Den proposal, which advocated for the use of theater in promoting appropriate hand-washing techniques. After attending this session, we revised our communication approach from mere theater to community participatory theater. David Neal’s keynote from the opening session on habit formation provided an insight that we needed to understand both the problem and our target audience to successfully communicate and influence social behavior. This helped us understand that for sustained behavior, we needed to change our target audience’s thinking. We captured this in a second draft of our script, which highlighted the misconceptions that people in rural areas hold on to that can be a hindrance to the practice of appropriate hand washing.

After we won the competition, we had the challenge of applying the knowledge and skills learned from our Summit mentors to the implementation of our theater project in Bondo district in Kenya. Bondo district is located in the Nyanza province in the western part of Kenya. Conditions related to sanitation and nutrition are poor and diarrhea-related infections are reportedly high. A small percentage of the population has access to clean piped water while the rest of the population draws its water from dams, rivers or the lake. Bondo is a few kilometers from Lake Victoria. Thus, the common economic activity practiced is fishing. The residents also grow crops and rear animals such as cattle and goats. The six months we spent in Bondo was a learning period on what needs to be done to effectively reach communities and realize social and behavior change.

We started the project with an analysis of the area and its people. Our focus was to understand the cultural values of the community members and we came to understand that the community valued men more than women. For example, husbands are considered the head of the family and they are to be respected despite all odds. We even experienced this during our theater performances as male performers were reluctant to take up feminine roles in the plays.

Apart from knowing the cultural values of the community, it was also helpful to understand the social norms that guide the interactions between community members. Among the Luo people, the community living in Bondo district, women and men don’t interact freely. Thus, women shied away from the theatrical performances whenever they would see men gather to watch the performances. This can hinder acceptance of messages by both sexes in cases where both are targeted.

When communicating with communities, it was also vital to note the proper time at which to communicate to reach the target audience. During the implementation period, as a team, we preferred working in the morning and afternoons but after a number of performances, we realized that evenings were better because most men would gather in groups at the shopping centers to catch up on the latest news and happenings.

Bondo community members watch a theater performance.

In our African communities, various levels of government and civil society organizations are struggling to bring equality between men and women. The government in Kenya has passed legislation on the representation of more women in government offices to bring about equality. This is far from a reality. During our assessment, men alluded that women are responsible for poor hygiene-related practices among the communities. In addition, they felt those kind of interventions should target women as opposed to men because they are the ones who should avail soap and water, and even guide on how hands should be washed because that is their role as per the cultural norms. The women who were interviewed agreed that they purchase soap and avail it when washing hands. The role of men is to provide funds for the same purpose. Hence, they should be a center of focus on matters to do with hygiene.

During the program, it was evident that the local administration lacks adequate information on hygiene standards in the area to provide formal guidance. During our interaction with the district commissioner, he was pleased with our activities in the area and even requested that we share the findings with him to support legislation on matters relating to hygiene in the area.

While our sole intention was to educate and reinforce the existing knowledge to enhance sustained handwashing practices, we created part-time work for the six young men we engaged in the region. They were able to plan and budget for the remunerations in advance. During one of our outreach activities, one theater group member confessed that the engagement had changed his life because he started a small retail business with the money earned from the performances. As you communicate to communities with the aim of influencing them to change their behavior, always remember that you may be doing more than the ordinary work of sensitization.

In the end, the team realized that changing people’s behavior requires more than good communication skills. Engaging with community members under an initiative aimed at improving community health enabled us to fully understand and appreciate the impact that communication, in its many forms and through various media, can have in promoting behavior change. For Juliet, this experience sparked her interest in health communication and she intends to pursue her Doctor of Philosophy studies in this area. For Felister, this engagement further reinforced her existing interest in behavior change communication. To this end, we want to acknowledge that the experience has been worthwhile and we never tire from sharing it with our student colleagues. The interactions we have had with the Lion’s Den mentors gave us a different perspective of audience research that we have used in other studies.

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