In a large open field, hundreds of parents, elders, children and teenagers, sit or stand behind wooden benches set in a rectangular shape. All eyes are on a stage in the centre.
It’s just past noon, and the midday sun is glaring as a bus winds up the rocky path and squeals to a halt.
They’ve waited more than two hours for Urunana to arrive, and now the people of Nyabitare, a village in the Kirehe district of Rwanda’s eastern province, will enjoy an afternoon of live performances, games, and an open discussion about health concerns.
Urunana is a Kinyarwanda radio soap opera set in the fictional village of Nyarurembo.
Through the show, its producers aim to spread messages that encourage positive behavioural change in the area of sexual and reproductive health, specifically targeting youth and rural women of reproductive age.
The 15-minute episodes teach lessons about safe sex, attempt to counter stigmas about people living with HIV and AIDS, and address misconceptions around family planning and contraception.
The soap program started as an initiative of the UK-based organization Health Unlimited in 1999. But over time Urunana evolved into it’s own national non-governmental organization, Urunana Development Communication.
Sylvia Muteteli has been working for Urunana Development since it launched.
“Urunana in English means hand in hand,” she explains. “And to us it means we produce our program hand in hand with our audience.”
Muteteli says a decade ago there was a major gap in Rwanda when it came to sexual health education. Urunana’s mission has been to fill that gap and break taboos that cause people to make poor health decisions.
The visits to communities like Nyabitare are part of the organization’s rural outreach plan, and are meant to further the health education that people get from listening to the radio program.
Urunana educates by inserting lessons into funny, engaging stories with memorable characters. In order write stories that truly reflect rural life, Urunana producers visit communities to pre-test their stories and host discussion groups with people about health issues and daily life concerns.
Samuel Kyagambidwa was Urunana’s head writer for eight years and is now the show’s production manager. He says it’s the combination of real-life lessons and comedy that keeps people tuning in week after week, and year after year.
“The humour is about getting the audience hooked,” Kyagambidwa explains.
“But when it’s combining both – the education and the humour – somebody will receive the serious message but at the same time wait for the humour.”
Urunana’s cast is currently made up of 35 active characters, including several teenagers, a few children and a pet dog called Makasi. Many of the characters have been with the show since the very beginning and have become household names.
As the live performance begins in Nyabitare, Muteteli reacts enthusiastically along with the audience. Between hearty bursts of laughter, she narrates quietly in English.
“She doesn’t remember her age,” Muteteli explains, as the woman onstage argues heatedly with a doctor.
“She’s trying to tell her maybe in such and such a drought I was a young girl,” Muteteli says, laughing at the actors’ dramatic gestures.
But Muteteli becomes serious when she explains the lesson in this skit.
“The medical practitioner told her you should always defer to the health centre, whenever you fall sick. You should not wait, and this is why the situation has got worse.”
Muteteli says many Rwandans in rural communities have a hard time trusting doctors, and misconceptions about health issues are often the hardest thing Urunana has to counter.
“Maybe they hear a rumour and it saturates, it becomes a grapevine, and usually we encourage them, instead of referring to your neighbour you should refer back to the medical practitioner who can get the solution for you.”
It’s especially important, Muteteli says, to spread these messages to young people.
“The other biggest part is to talk about youth – children – and hear their concerns on sexual health and respond to them,” she says.
“Because in Rwanda there are very, very many orphans. Even those with parents don’t share or they don’t often give them positive message. But there are those that don’t even have someone to turn to.”
At question period, half a dozen young males huddle around a wooden table to write private questions on slips of paper. A health worker reads their anonymous questions to the audience and answers them on the spot.
The questions address everything from menstruation to wet dreams, and contraception to conception.
Audience members are also invited to the stage to share stories about lessons they have learned from Urunana.
A young mother takes the microphone and explains that she gave birth to three children in three years during her early 20s. After learning about family planning from an Urunana episode, she and her husband decided to start using a birth control injection.
Next, a teenaged boy walks confidently to the stage and tells the audience that he used to think the size of his penis depended on how many people he had sex with, until Urunana taught him otherwise.
Sandra Mukantwari, 17, retells the story of an Urunana character called Mugeni, who was tricked into having sex with Muhire, a man who offered her gifts and attention.
Mugeni contracted HIV and had to quit school. Mukantwari, who is third in her class and wants to be a teacher, says she is determined not to end up like Mugeni.
“I received the lesson from Muhire and Mugeni and I made the decision to be in good health,” she says.
The sun is beginning to set when the last skit comes to an end, but the crowd has swelled and the spectators still laugh and cheer.
When it’s over, people gather to watch the actors board the bus. Some, having recognized the voices of their favourite characters, call out their names and wave goodbye.
As the bus rolls back down the dusty road, the people on it begin to sing. Though it’s been a long day, they laugh and chat animatedly the whole way home to Kigali.
For Nyabitare it’s over. But for Urunana there will be many more communities to reach.