October 8, 2015 |

Oby uses “SWAG” to reach young Kenyans

This PATH employee uses art and performance in Kenya to engage communities and improve health in lasting, meaningful ways.
Men performing street theater in Kenya.
In Kenya, street theater is often more than entertainment: it’s used to communicate important messages, too. Photo: PATH/Liz Gilbert.

Editor’s note: Oby Obyerodhyambo is a strategic communications professional with our Kenya country program. He draws on his long-standing experience as a writer, playwright, actor, and cultural commentator to engage communities and improve health in lasting, meaningful ways. This Q&A originally appeared in Spotlight, PATH’s internal newsletter.

Q: In addition to your communications role at PATH, you are a writer, playwright, and actor, and you contribute to cultural forums (among other projects). How did you get into public health? 

I got into public health through community education and mobilization for uptake of health services. When the HIV epidemic hit, I was very involved in using theater for sensitization and in developing information, education, and communications products using comic strips, performances, storytelling, and radio.

Q: What is SWAG, and how is the approach reaching young Kenyans?

SWAG is a youth-targeted interactive engagement effort that builds on the idea of youth attitude, or “swag.” The acronym also means Smart Wise Afya (Health) Generation. The initiative builds on a youth microculture of defiance to build social acceptance for low-risk sexual behavior. It has helped young people to celebrate practicing abstinence, using condoms, being faithful, seeking prompt health services, and shunning stigmatizing behavior.

Q: What do you see as Kenya’s greatest opportunities in health and development in the next five years?

A recent decentralization of health services will bring essential services closer to the people. Health services that were only available in Nairobi are now being established at least at the county level. In the next ten years, there will be better access to specialist health care services all over the country.

Q: What does it take to reach Kenyans, in particular, and people, in general, with public health messaging—in a way that doesn’t feel like just another “lecture”?

Kenyans love folk media and are better reached with creatively packaged content. When health education, mobilization, and promotion are “packaged” in a performance, the messages are accepted better. The interaction and engagement are at a higher level. The possibilities for engagement provide for dialogue, which is essential in societies that are essentially oral. People prefer this dialogue to lectures (which talk at them rather than with them).

Q: What else is on your mind these days in relation to health and development?

I am passionate about ecologically friendly and sustainable development, land reclamation, and sustainable mixed agriculture to enhance food security and build rural economies.

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