ACCRA- Nii Kwartelai Quartey is a student at the University of Ghana, a human rights activist and a playwright.
As I sit chatting with him about the future of his productions, he recites a poem from his most recent play that has yet to be performed, a piece on the cycle of violence in his community:
I had a flower today, and it wasn’t my birthday, because the previous day I was insulted.
I had a flower today and it wasn’t Valentine’s Day because the previous day I was slapped.
I had a flower today and it wasn’t mother’s day, because the previous day I was kicked.
I had a flower today and how I wish I didn’t get the flower, because it was my death day.
I am struck by the astounding impact his words have on me. Nii has written the play, titled ‘I had a flower today’, to spread awareness about issues of spousal abuse in his community.
“I want to tell the silences in our lives,” he says.
Nii resides in Ga Mashie, a neighbourhood that experiences one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. To add to the problem, according to a report by the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Ghana) , almost seventy-five percent of these women remain unaware of their human rights.
“I want [people to know] that violence doesn’t stop until it IS stopped- if you are in a violent relationship [and] you don’t move out, you’re dead.”
His hope is that one day his play will come to life and empower women to take charge of their own lives.
Literacy rates in Ghana are less than 50 percent for women and just under 70 percent for men, presenting a need to educate people through interactive learning.
Nii is aware of how powerful a tool theatre can be.
When he’s not attending class or making plans to defend his thesis, Nii is working part-time for the Centre for Population Education and Human Rights Ghana, a not-for-profit dedicated to combating HIV/AIDS in the country and advocating for the rights of the LGBT community.
His role as a training officer means he is heavily involved with one of their core programs: the use of theatre to create social and political change.
Adopted from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, the organization uses interactive theatre to address challenges facing the LGBT community, particularly among sex workers.
Clients are encouraged to write their own stories which are performed by a drama group in front of the ‘spect-actors’; audience members who actively participate and voice solutions to the acted out scenario. According to Nii, this method forces Ghanaians to think critically about human rights issues.
“One thing you don’t want to do with the ‘spect-actors’ is to interfere in their process because as a facilitator you are supposed to be a midwife who is guiding people to give birth [to] their ideas. So you don’t deliver, they deliver. You are just helping them.”
The drama program is viewed as a success. Not only do the sex workers feel empowered by sharing their stories, audience members are able to reflect on their behaviour towards this stigmatized population.
With 2015 on the horizon, the United Nations still has a long way to go to fulfill their Millennium Development Goals. Theatre has played an important role in spreading awareness and creating understanding on many of these issues.
Performing arts has always been an integrated part of Ghanaian culture, however performing arts with a purpose is what human rights advocates like Nii is practicing.
Theatre is being used as a tool for social change all over the country. In Ada Foah a community-driven drama group has been formed to tackle issues surrounding resource governance, particularly concerning the Songor Salt Lagoon.
Many feel the lagoon should not be privatized but instead should be placed back into the hands of its original caregivers- the women of Ada.
“The ideas coming out [of our community meetings] were all the cherished values people have; communal owning, caregiving, making sure that the women can give to their children and children can grow healthily,” says Kofi Larweh, an Ada community member and former director of the community-run Ada Radio.
Any community member with concerns can perform. One woman wrote a few songs campaigning against the privatization of the lagoon.
“In her songs, she was telling people [what] life used to be and what it is now, and the fact that leaders are looking [to solve problems] elsewhere when what they should be looking at is how the resource is helping the community, and not helping just one person,” Kofi stated.
The performances and ensuing public response have yielded incredible results. So far, two members of parliament who were unsupportive of the women’s initiatives have been voted out of power and a woman has been voted in as an MP for Ada.
Meanwhile, the Alzheimer’s Society of Ghana is enlisting students from the University College of Winneba to put on a half hour play explaining signs and symptoms of dementia to its audience.
“Drama drives the understanding [of dementia] very deep using local languages to put the disease into perspective,” says the organization’s co-founder Venance Dey.
The Society is hoping the success of a play performed by the students on cholera awareness will be reason enough for theirs to create awareness in Ghana on dementia related diseases.
“Most people who are not aware are marginalized and stigmatized,” explains Dey.
The play is set to be performed end of February, before rolling out to other parts of the country.