Sunday, 1 November 2009

South for Winter.

Its reading week so I've grabbed the opportunity to come South to Malawi and consolidate our partnership with Theatre for A Change and begin to thrash out in more detail the way in which this can develop in preparation for the Level 3 visit next year. Tfac generously funded the airfare for one of that cohort to come along on a fact finding week to establish a point of contact between the office in Lilongwe and our students - Jack is here with me.

We set off on Friday and flew South overnight to Addis Ababa - warm and bright, compared with the mellow mist of London, from here we connected to the four hour flight over Mount Kilimanjaro and the equator down to Lilongwe where Patrick and Lyn met and drove us the short distance to old town and the Tfac house. I was here eighteen months ago when Patrick was putting together a core team, training an initial group of facilitators - now the organisation has grown and the make up of the house reflects the development. Eric, the ever graceful Ghanaian facilitator, is still here, but logically now promoted to deputy director. He's been joined in the house itself by the charming and thoghtful Ryan from Iowa, brought on board to explore performance opportunities within the programme.

At the bottom of the garden the small stable block has been renovated and is home to new members of the team, Yorkshire woman Linda and her husband, financial director John. Mira the dog completes the menagerie.

We settled in, set up our mosquito nets and headed off for a welcome dinner in town, accompanied by chorus of frogs. The conversation led by Lyn, focused on ways in which an arts based organisation could attract the kind of development funding that a science or research based initiative might expect. It's simple to measure the effect of a new drug, or to project how investment in establishing a sustainable infrastructure might bring tangible results, but it's harder to measure the effect of interactive education and even if you can do it - and Tfac have been absolutely rigorous in devising ways to produce quantifiable evidence that can equate to a serious reduction in HIV/AIDS infection - it's hard to gain credibility with major funders who are more used to trusting pure data rather than narrative and metaphor.

One of the most impressive aspects of Tfac's work is that it's inherited by the participants. They train in an initial group of twenty or so, but as part of that training these participants recruit their own focus group of twenty or so further participants - and so the methodology and curriculum are rolled out. This year, just three years into the project, it's hoped that 72,000 primary children in Malawi will be taught about sexual health and gender assertiveness through forum based drama activity. It's absolutely central to the ethos that eventually Patrick can withdraw, leaving the organisation run by Malawians for Malawians, free of cultural bias but prepared to evolve and face the inevitable changes that the future will bring.

I wonder whether ultimately it's a question of sensibility. I've always been drawn to theatre because I think it reveals the truth and in this I don't doubt for a moment that it's a subtler indicator of impact than a balance sheet or needs assessment document (which often feel manipulable). How to convince others that it's a perfect tool to highlight need and to propose sustainable solutions?

Eventually the wine, conversation and the balmy evening came to an end and we fell tired but happy into our beds.


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