(May 2002) Since 1997, almost 22,000 young people in Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Mali have written screenplays on HIV/AIDS as part of a project that allows youth in these West African countries to take the lead in educating their peers and the public about HIV prevention and about the epidemic’s impact in their communities. With a distribution that tops other African cinema, the short films that are being created from these screenplays by Africa’s most distinguished directors reach tens of millions of television viewers on the continent, in Europe and, occasionally, as far away as Fiji.

Scenarios for the one- to five-minute films are submitted as part of a competition by people 24 years and younger. As most participants can affirm, even if their screenplays are not chosen, they are winners in one way or another. “Everyone working on ‘Scenarios du Sahel’ has fun,” said Dan Enger, co-founder and co-director of the project. At the same time, surveys have shown that these young people are learning about HIV/AIDS and that some are making behavior changes that could save their lives.

“Scenarios du Sahel” is organized by Global Dialogues Trust, a nonprofit organization founded by Enger and Kate Winskell in 1996. Enger said they were inspired by the successful project, “3000 Scenarios contre un virus” (3,000 Scenarios Against a Virus) that used screenplays by French school children to make 30 short HIV prevention films with celebrated French filmmakers. In 1995, Enger saw the “3000 Scenarios” films transform a group of bored French teenagers who had sat stony-faced through other sex and HIV/AIDS education films that “generated no questions, no discussion and plenty of ceiling analysis.” Then came the films from “3000 Scenarios.” The group broke into noisy laughter as they watched an elderly couple buy condoms. The laughter turned to tears as a young woman told friends at her birthday party that she had HIV. The films sparked lively discussions among the teenagers about their own lives.

Enger and Winskell set about to adapt the project to a developing country setting. They carried out feasibility studies in 10 countries on three continents and learned that the absence of culturally appropriate audiovisual material in local languages constituted a major obstacle to HIV prevention programs in the Sahel. This region south of the Sahara and north of the savannas includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

AIDS and Young People

According to UNAIDS, an estimated 10.3 million people ages 15 to 24 are living with HIV or AIDS and half of all new infections — 7,000 daily — occur among this age group. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 70 percent of young people with HIV/AIDS and 90 percent of AIDS orphans (some 12 million children).

In many communities, young people lack the most basic information on HIV: how it is spread and how to avoid infection. At the same time, those who have the information often fail to use it to protect themselves.

Mass Media Projects on AIDS

Mass media have been particularly effective in reaching young people with health information. One study of an AIDS media project carried out by Population Services International in Zaire from 1989 to 1991 found that repeated exposure to AIDS messages on television, radio spots, talk shows, music videos, and comic books was associated with increased reports of abstinence and fidelity, a 1,000 percent rise in condom sales, and an increased awareness that people with HIV may not show any symptoms of the virus.

Experts also know that getting youth involved in designing and implementing a project is key to its success. Stella Babalola, a senior program evaluation officer at Johns Hopkins University Center, said, “For any program to be successful the target has to be involved and involved at all stages, from the design to the evaluation.”

In “Scenarios du Sahel” young people take part in every step of the process, from writing the scripts to selecting winning films and advising the filmmakers on the film sets. In Senegal, it is the first time that youth are in charge of creating the messages that are aimed at them. Gabriel Diouf, 29, who has been an advisor to the Scenarios project since 1997, said, “Maybe, just maybe, our teachers or parents talk to us about AIDS, but nobody ever listens to us. In this society the emphasis is on listening to our elders, but we need the wisdom of young people. We want to be actors in our own prevention [strategies].”

This project gives young people a voice in societies where they usually do not have one and a role in public life that is often difficult to achieve in countries with high youth unemployment.

A young Senegalese filmmaker, Hamet Fall Diagne, who made the Scenarios film “Le Sida, c’est quoi?” (AIDS, What Is It?), said, “I learned what I can do and what I want to do because of Scenarios du Sahel. Here you’re useful and can use your knowledge.”

Olga Ouedraogo, a 24-year-old student from Burkina Faso, said, “The project empowers young people who never knew they had power.” She has written two prize-winning screenplays — one shot by Idrissa Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso, who has won major prizes at the Cannes film festival for his feature films and the other made by Malian director, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, winner of the best film award at FESPACO, the pan-African film festival.

Olga said she wanted to use humor to get her message across. Her formula worked: One night as Olga was leaving work, she heard the security guards laughing uproariously. “I saw these men, not known for their sense of humor, watching television and making a lot of noise. I stopped in the shadows and saw they were watching my film.”

The film is about a young man whose girlfriend has asked him to buy condoms. Intimidated by the other customers in a grocery store he buys package after package of cookies until, finally, an elderly man comes in and confides to the storekeeper that he has a new wife and has come to buy a dozen condoms. The last scene shows the young man running home, laden with condoms and cookies, just in time to see his girlfriend ride off on her moped, yelling angrily at him, “It’s too late!”

Olga said that hearing the laughter of the “stoic” security guards as they watched her film was the “greatest reward I could have had.”

The 13 completed films in the “Scenarios” project transmit a variety of messages about HIV/AIDS: from the need for more prudent sexual behavior to the need to support people with HIV and their families. The films are packed with other culturally acceptable messages. One film reinforces a woman’s right to protect herself when a shopkeeper says he has no more condoms because another woman just bought the last one.

While the messages are clear, they are not “brutally frank,” as one young Scenario winner said. The screenplays reflect the specific local contexts of their young authors. By contrast, Enger described the furor in Dakar over an AIDS film made in Côte d’Ivoire in which a woman gives condoms to her daughter. “Some colleagues feel that a film like that could have a negative impact on all AIDS prevention activities in Senegal,” said Enger.

Steps to a “Scenarios du Sahel” Film

The 1997 and 2000 “Scenarios du Sahel” contests concentrated on drawing participants from Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Mali, but the contest planned for the end of 2002, “Scenarios from Africa,” will include Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Togo, and Ghana. Young people throughout Africa will be able to join. The number of participants decreased from 13,000 to 9,000 between 1997 and 2000, mainly because organizers concentrated their efforts on including teenage girls, hard-to-reach young people living in rural areas, and those who do not attend school.

Contestants may write about any aspect of HIV/AIDS, but to spark their imaginations a list of topics is included in the instructions. Their choice of topic and their approach to it can become a valuable way to measure their knowledge and attitudes about HIV/AIDS, said Winskell, co-director and co-founder of the project. She said that the screenplays offer a window into young people’s worlds and can indicate where more HIV/AIDS information is needed. Submissions from the 2000 contest, for example, showed that participants did not always realize that someone with HIV could appear in good health. Also, many of the scripts emphasized an association between HIV/AIDS and foreigners.

As the organizers of the Scenarios point out, each step of the process leads young people to learn more about HIV/AIDS. They often work in teams that may include non-French speakers and that allow them to discuss HIV/AIDS with their peers, often for the first time. They are also encouraged to talk to experts to gather information. More than 50 percent said they had sought out teachers, health professionals, and staff at nongovernmental organizations for HIV/AIDS information.

Juries in each country — composed of AIDS experts, young people, people living with HIV, and filmmakers — select 50 national winners. An international jury then reviews the scenarios and selects 30 to be made into films.

Even the filming is an opportunity to talk about AIDS. Hamet Fall Diagne said the entire crew became involved in the topic when they were making his film. “The sound man would stop working and correct someone who said something wrong. It was like a training session.”

The care that goes into making the films — from selecting the scenarios to the filming by prize-winning directors — results in high-quality products with a lot of AIDS information that get prime-time spots on television. As Diagne said, “In lots of AIDS films the quality of the cinematography is sacrificed, but not here. These are art plus message.”

The films, translated into Wolof, Bambara, Moore, and Pulaar, as well as English, French, and Portuguese, are distributed free of charge and have been seen by a phenomenal number of people. They have been broadcast by national television stations in almost all sub-Saharan African countries and by international stations. The Paris-based network TV5, with a potential audience of half a billion people, shows the films on International AIDS Day. CFI, also based in Paris, has distributed the films by satellite to 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Showing them at strategic times — during the World Cup and popular soap operas — has helped the films expand their viewing audience. To reach people in areas without electricity, members of the French nonprofit association Cinomade have traveled from village to village with their own generator, showing the films on a sheet hung between trees. Mobile cinema units operated by organizations like Plan International have also reached large numbers of viewers in remote areas.

Evaluations of the Films

In an evaluation of three of the films, 83 respondents in Senegal were asked to complete identical questionnaires at four points during a six-month period. By the end of the study, 86 percent had seen at least one of the films, and all said that the films had caused them to think about HIV. Some 83 percent of the men who responded said they had bought condoms after seeing the films; 63 percent of both men and women said they had used condoms or had insisted that a partner use them; and 97 percent said they had sought out more information about HIV/AIDS.

Knowledge about AIDS also increased. Certain facts seemed to make a particular impact on viewers. Only 48 percent knew that mosquitoes did not transmit HIV the first time they took answered the questionnaire, while on the final round 62 percent had the correct answer. By the final questionnaire, 94 percent knew that condoms were a good way to protect against HIV, a 16-point rise from the first questionnaire. The questionnaires also found that participants’ compassion for people with HIV had increased.

Perhaps, most importantly, the evaluations found that the films promoted discussions about HIV/AIDS. Among film viewers, 87 percent said they had talked about HIV/AIDS with someone and 42 percent of that group had talked with a teacher or a health professional. As Enger said, “This is the main achievement. It’s what it’s all about, getting people to talk.”

Victoria Ebin is a freelance journalist and consultant to PRB, based in New York City. 


J. Convisser, The Zaire Mass Media Project: A Model AIDS Prevention Communications and Motivation Project, PSI Special Report 1 (Washington DC: Population Services International, 1992).

UNAIDS, Children and Young People in a World of AIDS (Geneva: UNAIDS, August 2001). 

For More Information

To watch “The Shop,” “Only Once,” and “The Warrior,” visit www.jhuccp.org/topics/enter_ed/eeprojects/07-22.shtml.

To read more about the project, visit the homepage of Global Dialogues Trust: www.globaldialogues.org.

A UNDP report, Scenarios from The Sahel: Working in Partnership to Stop AIDS Replication Guide, is available at www.undp.org/hiv/publications/sahel/Table_of_Contents.htm.