Soaps for social harmony

John Marks President and Founder of Common Ground

Years ago, as part of the idea of transforming conflict, I set up a media production division called Common Ground Productions. Right now, we make soap operas in about a dozen countries. All these have social messages: soap operas for social change. We use media to send out new messages for people to think about. We started with radio soap in Burundi, which was on the brink of genocide. There was a soap opera about a Hutu family and a Tutsi family; they had problems and their kids had problems, and there was violence all around them. Somehow, in each 20-minute episode, they worked through the problems. We did 835 episodes, by the end of which we were getting about 90% listenership of the country.

Then we graduated into television. Right now we’re doing TV soap opera in Egypt, Nigeria, and Palestine, and we’ve just had a major grant from the British government to take a new format into twelve new countries. We have a soap opera about a football team. In every country in which the local population has religious, ethnic, or tribal divisions, the football teams always have people from all these groups. So they play together, and the core metaphor is very simple: if they don’t cooperate they don’t score goals.

We use this as a platform to give instructions on other social issues. For example, a star striker acts irresponsibly and becomes HIV positive. He’s found out and there’s a big drama and eventually he becomes an important spokesperson, like Magic Johnson.

You can use this as a platform to teach any issue. We only use local writers. I am the entrepreneur here, or my organization is. We organise the deal and find the money; the international funders are sometimes more comfortable with us as internationals. We find a local producer or partner who can actually make the program; we are not such cultural imperialists that we think that anything beyond a core idea should come from outside. It needs to come from whatever the local experience is; but usually, the idea that a star striker acts irresponsibly and becomes HIV-positive works in every culture, because it happens everywhere, particularly with football players.

So we are able to put these lessons across, and it works.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that the unexpected results are often just as interesting, or even more so, than the expected ones.

In Nigeria, we have a soap called “The Station.” It’s about a fictional TV news station located in Lagos. The reporters, instead of being whites from the BBC, represent the various ethnic groups of Nigeria. So they are North and South, Muslim and Christian, and so on. We did it because we wanted to build ethnic harmony and put out messages of mutual understanding. But what the Nigerians were taking away from it was that this was the way the media were supposed to act. We got hundreds of thousands of SMS messages saying “Wow! What Nigeria needs is more reporters acting in this way”–not being corrupt was the major theme.

We’ve been working mostly in the less developed world and right now we’re developing programming for Europe and the United States. Frankly, the United States needs this methodology as much or more than people in the developing world.

I am an American, and I notice that Americans are totally convinced that people in faraway lands need to resolve their conflicts peaceably. This applies to Hutus and Tutsis and to Israelis and Palestinians, but at home it is a different story. As a people, we are as adversarial as it comes. I would like to be able to do much more inside my own country, which we might call working in the belly of the beast