Sunil Pokherel, Nepal\'s foremost street theatre director, has been preoccupied lately trying to shake up Nepali policy-makers who believe AIDS is not yet a problem for the country. He had his chance on Tuesday when his group, Arohan, was asked to stage a drama event in front of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, government ministers and bureaucrats on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the United Nations, and this year's theme: "Race Against Poverty: Breaking the silence on HIV/AIDS".
After the speeches were over, half a dozen people sprang up from the audience, shouting: "What's all this noise? Why are you wasting time discussing an invisible disease?" Another ran up to the podium and said: "AIDS is an Africa problem, not a Nepal problem." Another angry man said: "We don't have roads, there is encephalitis, diarrhoea, those are our problems, not AIDS."
Who were these hecklers? Wasn't security going to take them away? No, it turned out, these were actors from Arohan, and this was the dramatic medium they chose to highlight the problem of denial. Later, the audience is told that AIDS is a real problem for the country's health and everyone is vulnerable. The aim of the drama, which was staged in a street-play format, was to tell Nepalis and their rulers that they are not as safe from HIV infection as they think, and how to avoid being infected. Perhaps street theatre is the way to take the message to the grassroots, and to spread the message about an epidemic that is going to be the biggest killer of Nepalis in the 19-45 age group in the next decade.
Says the Nepal Resident Coordinator of the United Nations, Henning Karcher: "There is no room for complacency, and the window of opportunity to invest in effective interventions to prevent the spread of HIV is closing fast." The UN says the AIDS virus is increasing poverty in poor nations and undoing earlier gains by draining away resources from education, farm growth and other development sectors, and the danger is Nepal could face the same crisis. Conservative estimates put the number of HIV-infected in the country at 32,000, while the real figure could be five times as many. And it is a number that is growing. A recent estimate indicated that nearly one in every five sex workers in Kathmandu is infected, and so are half of all intravenous drug users. Equally at risk are large numbers of poorly educated, young village men seeking low-paid seasonal work in India's big cities, and to some extent in Kathmandu also, where they visit brothels.
Makwanpur, the district south of Kathmandu, is one of the nine districts where various non-governmental organisations are staging street plays in the run-up to World AIDS Day on 1 December. Here, the local Taranga cultural troupe will perform Junge Hawaldaar, a one-hour street drama, which uses comedy to convey its serious message. "We have to ensure that spectators enjoy the show. At the same time, we provide information that will make them think," says Taranga's Ujwal Sharma. Enlivened by improvisations, the play shows how young and unsuspecting village girls are lured by organised bands of traffickers with offers of jobs in India's big cities. Its main protagonist is a policeman and it depicts the tough brothel life and the threat of HIV/AIDS that commercial sex workers are exposed to.
The AIDS education street plays are expected to create greater awareness among those at risk and generate popular demand for the government to act. But the artistes admit that imparting the message will not be easy. "The sexual connotation associated with AIDS, and the fact that it is a disease that takes years to show up makes it difficult to express through plays," says Arohan's Sunil, who with his actress wife Nisha has travelled extensively across Nepal performing plays on various health and development themes. "At times, performers have to sacrifice the artistic element to hammer home the message, but it is rewarding when people want to know more about the issue after the performance."
His Kathmandu-based group often uses local village performers and trains them in staging plays. "Street theatre is a powerful medium for spreading awareness. But there have to be follow-up programmes. You can't expect one performance to bring about change overnight," he says.
One of the great successes in the street theatre genre was another AIDS education play that was staged earlier by Taranga for truck drivers along Nepal's highways. Guruji ra Antare is about a truck driver and his helper, in which the driver shows his assistant how to use condoms. Recalls Taranga's Sharma: "We performed at highway stops. It became a hit. Fathers and daughters could watch the same play without squirming with embarrassment."
This is also what the new plays aim at-to get Nepalis out of the mode of denial that has marked the general response to AIDS.