Participatory Communication by Alfonso Gumucio

Photos from a Theater Project in Nigeria to encourage innoculation against polio. Most rural and urban communities in the Third World do not have a voice. The globalisation of communications during the last decades has imposed over the world not only biased information but also a daily culture that very often is in conflict with local traditions. The communities that have resisted to changes that may annihilate their moral and ethical values have based their strength in their own culture. But many were not strong enough to resist, so they have disappeared as cultures. They only remain as people, added to the margins of the globalised economy. Communication has a very important role to play in defending and promoting cultural identity. In my work I have always kept in mind that communication is tool for participation and organization. Only organized communities, that use communication to strengthen their traditions and to preserve a live memory of their past, can face the challenge of resisting to a uniform and globalised world. I have supported communities to build their own communication systems in several countries, using all possible communication tools, from community radio to popular theatre. I have used film to support the organizational activities of workers in Nicaragua and peasants in Bolivia, rural theatre to promote immunization in Nigeria, audiocassettes to help networking among rural communities in México. Each concrete situation has brought me to develop different communication responses, strategies and tools.From a report on theater for health initiatives:The advantages of popular theatre in Nigeria is that it can be built on existing ritual manifestations, taking advantage of local culture to communicate new messages of benefit for the community. Gumucio (2001) reported that the important and immediate impact of the popular activities resulted from marrying the dramatic performance with service delivery. For cultural reasons, many women in Nigeria did not immunize their children. However, after Jimmy Solanke's performance of The Postman Calls, nurses had to deal with hundreds of women and their children of all ages lining up to get their immunization shots or drops. This had a double benefit: on one hand it created greater awareness among the people in the villages; on the other hand it ensured that the health staff from the local government would go out to the villages on a regular basis, which they were often reluctant to do. ********************************************************** This is Alfonso's contribution to a "chat" about folk culture and development from The Communication Initiative: In my understanding, folk media is closer to communication than mass media. And there is a simple reason for that: mass media deals with one-way information, whereas community media and folk media deal with two-way communication. We shouldn’t even be specifying that communication is a two-way process, but many still don’t get it. From the Greek and the Latin origins of the word itself, “communication” means sharing and participation, the same as dialogue. Communication that doesn’t involve dialogue and participation is just information. Why do we have two words, “information” and “communication” if people keep using them randomly, as if they were the same? Maybe some do not really like the word “folk” because it relates to “folklore”, which, as we all know is a devaluated and frozen-in-time form of cultural expression. However, the word “folk” means “people”, and we need to rescue it from any distortion in its use. In Spanish we use “popular theatre” or “popular communication” to refer to it, however in English “popular” has become a synonym of popularity, in a frivolous sense. Folk communication (as I prefer to call it, rather than “folk media”) has been around for many years as a tool for development. Brazilian Luiz Beltrao wrote several books about it in the early 1960s and explained in detail its relevance to development. It doesn’t include just popular or street theatre, it also relates to other forms of local cultural expressions, including songs, drums, poetry, puppets, dance, and a wealth of other creative expressions. Durgadas arguments are more than convincing about it, so I won’t repeat. I’ve personally supported community theatre in programmes in Nigeria, Haiti and Papua New Guinea, in isolated localities in those countries where mass media had no reach or impact at all. It they had reach, their impact was null because it didn’t speak the language and the local culture. This is precisely why folk communication is so relevant in development, because it interacts with local culture, in the language and themes that are important to the communities. While mass media “campaigns” are aiming larger “publics” with very general messages, folk and community based communication is addressing issues in specific ways and is doing it through local engagement and participation. And we know already that only participation in development leads to ownership of the programmes. You don’t get communities to have ownership by bombarding them with mass media messages. Information does not contribute to sustainability, communication does. One important issue rose in my own experience with folk media and community theatre: the question of continuity. Communication, as a process, has to be sustainable and sustained. If we want sustainable social change and development, then we also need sustainable communication. In Nigeria we had trained one local theatre group in each Local Government (46 by the time I left) so they could go around the 300 communities within the geographical area covered by the Local Government. I was so enthusiastic about it that I wrote a book: “Popular Theatre” (1995). The above is to say that folk media has to be a permanent exercise, not just once in a while. It has no impact if performances and activities are conducted once a week, or once a month. It has to be a regular communication activity, built into education, culture and social development. Impact of folk media can only be noticeable if experiences are multiplied by hundreds. Message to development agencies: spend less in your own visibility through mass media and think about development that can be sustainable through participatory communication, including folk media. --Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron