By Frederick Philander WINDHOEK A five-pronged puppet theatre project to pragmatically help fight the AIDS pandemic on the continent is one of the resolutions taken by the 18 African Theatre for Children and Youth Centres at its recently held annual meeting in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. This project is designed to enable the African centres of ASSITEJ to contribute to the alleviation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa by supplementing the efforts of the national governments of the countries involved. The project is targeted at artists and nationals of Southern Africa, West Africa and East Africa, and will be implemented around the theme, “Save this Generation”. The Southern African countries include: Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique, Mauritius, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In East Africa the countries include: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, while the West Africa has countries are Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and Benin. The 18 countries are all part of the African network of ASSITEJ International, also known as the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People. The African network and cooperation programme is funded by SIDA through ASSITEJ Sweden and has been running since 1999. A workshop for playwrights was held in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, in June 2004. This was followed by a workshop on one-person plays centred on HIV/AIDS, in Windhoek, Namibia, in October-November 2005. During their meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, held March 6-12, 2006, the centres agreed to develop a proposal on the subject of HIV/AIDS, whose theme would be “Save this Generation”. It is general knowledge that the HIV/AIDS pandemic has hit Africa more than any other continent. Within the continent, southern and eastern African have been affected more than other areas, with some countries having HIV infection rates of as high as 25 percent of the population. While the infection rate among children is significantly lower than among youths and adults, there is no reason to bypass the children in the efforts to tackle the pandemic. Some children get infected through mother-to-child transmission, while many children in Africa have become single or double orphans due to the death of their parents. The uptake of this has been a drastic increase in the number of street children and other vulnerable children in Africa. Statistics show that the age group most affected by the pandemic is between 15-40 years of age – the most productive group of any nation; also, the group that holds the future of any nation. In the absence of a cure or vaccine for aids, little can be done for the infected individuals. However, something can be done to prevent those that are not yet infected, especially among the children and youth, from getting infected. There is need to save the current generation from being completely lost to the HIV/AIDS disaster. Those already infected must not be ignored or stigmatised – yet that is the reality of the situation in Africa: infected persons suffer a lot of stigmatisation both from within and outside their family circle. The reality is that those who have avoided getting infected cannot avoid getting affected by the ravages of the HIV/AIDS catastrophe. Many people either know or have lived with someone who is infected by the HIV virus. The main thrust of most HIV/AIDS campaigns in Africa, therefore, has been on three main fronts: (i) prevention of infection; (ii) encouraging the infected to live positively; (iii) sensitizing the general public on the folly and dangers of stigmatising, discriminating against and ostracising those living with the virus. This threefold approach has been necessitated by a number of factors, among them: (i) the need to reduce the number of infections; (ii) the need to help the infected live longer by having a positive outlook on life despite being infected; (iii) the need to remove stigmatisation of the infected. While theatre is used extensively and intensively in most African countries, it is worth noting that puppet theatre is not widely used for HIV/AIDS advocacy, yet it is an innovative way of reaching children and young people with any message. At the meeting in Tanzania the African ASSITEJ centres proposed to use puppet theatre as a means of addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa. The main target of the project will be youth and children. “This is a difficult constituency, not just because they are many, but also because not all of them are in school, for example, meaning there is need for a multifaceted approach to reaching them, otherwise many will be left out. Ways and strategies must be devised to reach children both in the schools and on the streets. In addition, the strategies must also be tailored to the specific needs and cultural peculiarities of each society or country,” says the collective statement. In devising this project, African ASSITEJ centres are fully cognisant of the fact that no two cultures are the same, and no two countries have the same socio-cultural or socio-political features. “Factors such as levels of literacy and language use will play a pivotal role in the country strategies. Even the infection levels differ according to regions, with the southern part of Africa being most affected, while western Africa generally has much lower infection rates than the southern and eastern parts. These differences beg for a pragmatic and culture-specific or culture-friendly approach to the project.” In view of the geo-cultural differences of the various regions of Africa involved, the project will be approached in phases and according to regions. “Under Phase One, three regional workshops will be held in the Eastern Region (Kampala, Uganda), the Western Region (Lagos, Nigeria), and the Southern Region (Harare, Zimbabwe), while under Phase 2 national workshops will be held in each of the countries that will attend the regional workshops,” the release from Assitej-Zambia said. According to the release phase 3 will be characterised by the performing of the puppetry productions developed by the national workshops. Local artists interested in being part of this theatre outreach programme can contact the chairperson and or the secretary general of Assitej-Namibia respectively at telephone numbers 277300 and 0812567591.