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Can Soap Operas Save the World?

Have soap operas become a method of healing societies at war? In some battle-fatigued areas, they have.

Golden Kids youth reporter working at Search for Common Ground in Liberia. Photo courtesy of Search for Common Ground
Golden Kids youth reporter working at Search for Common Ground in Liberia.
Photo courtesy of Search for Common Ground

Soap opera as the key to world peace? It's a stretch. But not as big a stretch as you might think. Because we humans—even we digital, post-modern humans—absolutely adore a good story.

Consider for a moment the pervasiveness of narrative in our lives. American adults watch an average of 33 hours of television per week—which is nothing but stories. We make about 1.4 billion trips to the theater each year to see movies, and we spend $24.3 billion to rent or buy movies on DVD and video. What's more, we identify so strongly with the imaginary heroes of these stories that we weep, laugh,and have nightmares about the imaginary things that happen to them.

As literary scholar Barbara Hardy has noted, “We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.” In short,we humans are creatures of story.

And that can be a very good thing. Through story we climb inside the skin of someone whom we might otherwise never meet or talk to. We live their lives for a few vicarious hours, feel their suffering, their longing, laugh or maybe cry with them. In a world where hatred of “them” is the leading cause of death, empathy is a powerful tool.

That's why soap opera has become “one of the most widely recognized methods of healing societies at war and mobilizing people to work across divisions,” say conflict resolution practitioners and scholars Marco Konings and Ambrose James.

And that's why career peacemaker Susan Collin Marks—executive vice president of Search for Common Ground and a woman who learned the importance of stories while ducking tear gas canisters and rubber bullets in the townships of South Africa—now finds herself making radio soaps.

Conflict resolution 101

If there is a “classic” model for the relatively peaceful transformation of violent conflict, South Africa is it. Not because they did everything right, but because they did it first. When South Africans decided, in 1990, to transform their culture of race-based violence and oppression to one of egalitarian democracy—and to do it by employing conflict resolution techniques on an unprecedented scale—they were sailing bravely into uncharted and treacherous waters.

The world eagerly followed their progress. Television screens and newspaper pages around the globe were filled with stories of the Nobel Peace Prizewinning partnership of two enemies, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, and the high-level talks in which the Nationalist government negotiated itself out of power.

But by focusing on the top, the media not only missed the best stories, they missed the real lesson from South Africa. Peace, it turns out, is not made by national leaders in high-profile negotiations. The real heavy lifting in the peace process occurs well below the radar of the international media, at the regional and local levels.

Marks was a member of the Western Cape RegionalPeace Committee, set up under South Africa's 1991 National Peace Accord. The ground-breaking accordset up a country-wide structure of national, regional, and local peace committees. “In the interests of defusing the violence,” Marks says, “people from nearly every sector were willing to work with, rather than against, one another.”

Committee members wore beepers so they could be summoned day or night. And they repeatedly were. They intervened in crises, sometimes physically standing between enemies in a confrontation. They monitored demonstrations, mediated conflicts between the police and the local residents, between provincial representatives and squatter warlords, between youth and the education department, between taxi organizations and commuters, and between competing civil and political organizations. They established peace committees, lobbied government ministers, trained people in conflict-resolution skills, and introduced peace education into the schools. But again and again, no matter what kind of work the committee was doing, Marks and her fellow committee members found themselves listening to stories—hundreds of them.

“Everyone has a different truth,” Marks says. The work of peace building in South Africa and elsewhere, she has found, is largely a rehumanizing process, calming fears by destroying dehumanizing stereotypes. When two enemies truly hear and understand each other's stories, they discover their shared humanity. And that, says Marks, is the common ground they can build on.

Turning on to soap opera

South Africa's democratic elections in April 1994 were a stunning achievement for the thousands of peace makers, like Marks, who'd worked so hard for four years. But they had no time to celebrate. That same April, ethnic divides between Hutus and Tutsis, whipped up by hate radio, ignited a slaughter in Rwanda that killed 800,000 people within 100 days. And in the Balkans, the death toll from ethnic conflict and genocide in the former Yugoslavia climbed to over 200,000.

Search for Common Ground (SFCG) quickly set up field offices in both Macedonia, a multi ethnic and still peaceful region near Kosovo, and in Burundi, Rwanda's Golden Kids youth reporter working at Search for Common Ground in Liberia.

The work of peace building in South Africa and elsewhere is largely a rehumanizing process, calming fears by destroying dehumanizing stereotypes. When two enemies truly hear and understand each other's stories, they discover their shared humanity, Search for Common Ground neighbor to the south. They planned to apply the lessons they'd learned in South Africa to keep the violence from spreading.

But in these countries there was no National Peace Accord, no structure of local and regional peace committees with hundreds of organized, trained peace workers. How could one organization with a small staff and limited resources transform an atmosphere of violence in a nation verging on lethal conflict?

The easy answer to the big-impact-with-a-smallstaff dilemma is to use the media to promote your message. The hard part is getting people to listen, especially in conflict zones.

“People in conflict zones quickly tire of political speeches, debates, and reports of more violence,” observes Francis Rolt, radio director of Common Ground Productions. They face a steady diet of bleak, discouraging, frightening news, and they simply lose hope.

So they tune out the news—and tune in to the soaps. That's how it happened that SFCG opened a radio station in Burundi in 1995.There are others who use soap operas to educate or to change behaviors: Wear condoms. Don't beat your wife. Send girl children to be educated, and so on.

But Burundi's Studio Ijambo pioneered soap opera for peace with Umubanyi niwe Muryango (“Our Neighbors, Our Family”), a show that follows the daily lives of two neighboring families, one Tutsi, one Hutu. And, in a country where 87 percent of the people listen to the radio, the strategy worked. Burundi remained relatively peaceful, and 82 percentof those responding to a recent survey felt that the programs of Studio Ijambo had greatly helped reconciliation.

Then in 1999, SFCG discovered another story-based format that became spectacularly successful. In Inkingi y'ubuntu (“Heroes”), individuals who had risked their lives to save someone of a different ethnic group told their stories—Tutsis told of saving Hutus, and Hutus described rescuing Tutsis. Just telling these stories was an act of bravery. Admitting that you saved an enemy exposes you as disloyal to your ethnic group; in the same way, publicly thanking someone who saved you exposes that person as a traitor to his or her ethnic group. Nevertheless, 200 heroes have come forward to tell their stories.

“We thought this show would run for six months, maybe a year,” says Marks. “It's been running now for five years!”

In Macedonia, SFCG created a television drama for children. In Nashe Maalo, families from three ethnic backgrounds—Macedonian, Albanian, and Roma—live together in a magical, talking apartment house. The building advises the children who live there on the problems and conflicts in their lives. The children of the three families become fast friends, despite differences among their parents.

Both the popularity of Nashe Maalo and its impact have been remarkable. Almost three-fourths of the children in Macedonia watched the show, and research has shown that before viewing the series,only 30 percent of them would have invited a child of another ethnicity into their home; after watching just eight episodes, that figure doubled. Although the last episode aired in 2003, SFCG has found ways to develop outreach activities based on the show: live theater, puppet theater, a magazine with a parent-teacher guide, a music CD, and a knowledge quiz.

Former child soldier Emilia Taylor now is a youth journalist with Talking Drum Studio in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of Search for Common Ground
Youth journalist Emilia Taylor.
Photo courtesy of Search for Common Ground

In Sierra Leone, the problem was not ethnic conflict but the complete failure of government. Former child soldier Emilia Taylor now is a youth journalist with Talking Drum Studio in Sierra Leone. The studio's radio soap opera, Atunda Ayenda (“Lost and Found”), is aimed primarily at youth, tackling such hot-button issues as elections, truth and reconciliation, and human rights. It has achieved an astonishing 90 percent listenership.

A decade of vicious warfare had left 50,000 dead, thousands mutilated, and 2 million displaced. An estimated 27,000 children had been used as child soldiers. Gangs of youth—bored, destitute, hopeless,and furious—roamed the streets.

So SFCG's Talking Drum Studio created AtundaAyenda (“Lost and Found”), a radio soap opera that airs five times a week. Aimed primarily at youth, it tackles such hot-button issues as elections, truth and reconciliation, and human rights. It has achieved an astonishing 90 percent listenership, according to an independent evaluation; more importantly, 80 percent of its listeners regularly discuss the issues it raises with family and friends at bars, markets, and meeting places.

Two thousand episodes later

SFCG now produces hit soap operas not only in Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Macedonia, but in Liberia, the Congo, Angola, Indonesia, Ukraine, and the Palestinian Territories. In each of these places, the staff of SFCG use the shows as jumping-off points for other projects—for raising issues that can't be talked about on a personal level, as starting points for community meetings, and as catalysts for focus groups on national issues simultaneously addressed through other SFCG radio programs. Through the humble soap opera, they've opened dialogue between bitter enemies in countries around the world and helped all sides understand their differences and act on their commonalities.

But perhaps you're not convinced—maybe you still think soaps are only for couch potatoes with too much time on their hands. One last story, then, for you.

One day the generator broke down at the radio station that broadcasts Atunda Ayenda, the most popular radio soap opera in Sierra Leone. As station staff tried to fix the problem, two military vehicles pulledup outside the station, spraying rocks and dust. Armed soldiers jumped out and came running into the station.

Their demand?

Hand over a tape of the day's episode of Atunda Ayenda. If the soldiers didn't get to hear it, the officers told them, they would certainly mutiny.The folks at the station handed over the tape, the soldiers sped off , and a catastrophe was averted.

Or was it? Tune in next week to find out.


Carol Estes is a YES! contributing editor. Learn more about Search for Common Ground at www.sfcg.org.

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