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Out and About with ‘Together! ACT now!’

Last Saturday I went on tour with MCV/Gracious’ touring HIV/AIDS awareness theater troupe…

We were ‘supposed’ to leave at 1:30pm, but sat and waited around until finally our transportation huffed its way into the driveway an hour late (which is really pretty prompt by Malawi standards). At the same time as the truck chugged to a halt in front of us, I received a phone call from the director, David Mtemang’ombe, telling me, essentially, that I was in charge until the truck could pick him up at his house. Uh, ok? This would have been all well and good except that I had no (nine, zip, zero, zilch) idea what was going on. No idea who was supposed to be there, when we were leaving, or where we were going. Sure, no problem!

Eventually all the performers and groupies were loaded into the back of the truck (I’m still not 100% sure which was which). To my surprise, we stopped at the gate to pick up another director. Seriously. She was sitting right around the corner (maybe 100 yards) from where I had just been trying to ‘herd cats’. I could only sigh and smile.
With all the students piled into the truck, it heaved to a start and we trundled slowly in search of our most esteemed director. David (or Davie) is an energetic man with a sharp wit, a clever mind, and a snarky sense of humor. He is the head of our language department at Gracious and speaks fabulous English. In addition to his responsibilities at Gracious, he also teaches English to the staff at Open Arms (the orphan nursery program next door), and directs the Together! ACT Now productions. On this day he squished himself into the back of the truck with the rest of us and we were finally on our way. Whew!

The students performed in a dusty open space on the outskirts of a small village. There were 100+ people in attendance, which evidently is fairly poor. Nonetheless, there was enough work for everyone to do. Each production is staffed by Davie (director), Florence (community organizer), a doctor (from a rotating cast), several trained volunteers (Dixon Malakula, another teacher from Gracious is one), and a cast of youth currently attending and recently exited from Gracious. Additionally they always “…try to have a white person along. It makes us look serious.”

The program begins with singing and dancing by the students (in Chichewa of course). The songs are usually written by the students (often on the spot), and cover a variety of topics from HIV/AIDS to the anticipated success of their production. From here they launch into the actual play “The Three Spirits”. It was written by Alaskan college student, Together! Act Now Founder & Director, Kyle Horne and translated into Chichewa by Davie. The plot is based on the classic “A Christmas Carol”. In this case a young couple has decided they’re ready to ‘sleep’ together. They are not planning to use a condom. Enter the Spirit of the Past who tells the boy (Kenny) that he has HIV, given to him by his mother at birth. The next spirit, that of the Near Future, shows Kenny that he will soon become ill with full-blown AIDS. The last spirit, the Spirit of the Distant Future, flashes them forward three years. Kenny is still suffering, and the girl (Shakira) has died from the disease after having been infected by Kenny. In the end, naturally, Kenny and Shakira make the right decision.

Following the performance the volunteers pull people from the audience to participate in small discussion groups. The groups talk about prevention, treatment, and making safe choices for yourself and your family. When the groups return there is more singing and dancing by the students. Each group takes the stage to present their findings. Between groups, the cast entertains with songs, short plays, poems, etc of their own composition. Much clapping and cheering is done, and each village volunteer is rewarded for their participation with a bar of nice laundry detergent (bestowed in a slightly bumbling fashion by the resident white person). More singing and dancing brings the ‘curtain’ down.

During the performances, discussions, etc. the doctor privately tests all those interested to see if they are positive for HIV/AIDS. On this particular day 34 people (of 100+ in attendance) agreed to be tested. Of that number, one was infected with HIV/AIDS. Anyone interested (whether positive or negative for the virus) receives counseling on the spread of the virus, and everyone is given free condoms as party favors.
As there are almost no props (just a drum, some sarongs, and a banner) clean-up is a breeze. The hooligan performers and groupies, flush and buzzing with their performance high, piled into the back of the truck; whooping and singing all the while. The staff walked home, with less whooping, but equally pleased.
I was blown away by the skill, motivation, and conviction expressed by the youthful performers and tag-alongs. Their performance was honest because they believe in what they’re teaching. It was truly a pleasure to see such talented kids in action, and I wasn’t the only one impressed. As the cast and band-aides drove away, I handed the remains of my soda to a group of young children who had seen the performance. They took the bottle with smiles, and promptly turned big eyes to watch the departing figure of a matola loaded down with a new batch of heroes.