- What's the matter? Don't you love me?
- Of course I love you, my darling, but you promised not to hurt me...
The audience's eyes are glued to stage - a girl and a boy who find themselves alone in the boy's apartment. He says he doesn't need a condom – everything will be just fine. Besides, he loves her very, very much.
The boy is blue with yellow-greenish hair, the girl is orange with purple hair.
That's all right – it's all make-belive. The boy and the girl are puppets, given movement and voices by young Red Cross volunteers from Pacific countries who have gathered in the Fijian resort town of Nadi for a two week Federation-sponsored workshop on puppetry and HIV/AIDS awareness.
This is the last day of the intensive workshop and they're rehearsing for a performance for a local community group and a secondary school this afternoon.
Not only have they made the puppets from scratch, they've also written the script and built the stage. Now they're heading home to make puppets in their own National Societies and to take their HIV/AIDS awareness puppet shows to local communities.
"Puppet theatre can be a very good tool in our communities," says Norman Ben from the Vanuatu Red Cross. "Puppets are a good source of entertainment and therefore a good way to convey powerful messages to the public."
And the message certainly needs to be conveyed. HIV prevalence is on the increase in the remote and isolated communities of the Pacific island countries – but there is still a lot of stigma.
The tiny country of Kiribati, which has a population of 90,000, is a case in point. Of 17 people who have died from AIDS there, only one died in the hospital. The rest died secretly at home. Studies and observations have shown that HIV-positive people are generally not accepted by the deeply religious Christian communities of the Pacific.
"Even just talking about sex and condom use is not acceptable," says Chiengmai Fakatouato, a school teacher and Red Cross volunteer from the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa. "Our parents are very strict when it comes to such things."
It is a similar story in Fiji, where the Fiji Red Cross has been using puppets to spread various messages to local communities for a number of years. It has been diffcult to get the church to accept the HIV/AIDS-prevention message. The one time Fijian Red Cross puppeteers performed in a church setting, they were stopped in the middle of the show – and haven´t been invited back.
"We are hoping to be able to support a number of societies in the region to develop relevant programmes in this field," says Milja Heinonen, the Federation's regional health delegate in the Pacific.
"So far - sorry to say – the Red Cross it not really recognized in the Pacific as an important player when it comes to HIV/AIDS. Puppetry is one of the tools we have and that appears to have an appeal here," she says. However, she points out that the National Societies need to commit themselves to this work, in collaboration with other actors.
The young puppet masters from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu and Cook Islands who have been learing the art in Nadi are fully aware that theirs will not be an easy task. Gradually, they say, as more puppeteers are trained and their message is taken to local communities, attitudes may begin to change.
Pacific: Appeals, reports and programmes
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