Farming for Change in Malawi
Over 500 farmers in Malawi and Tanzania spent two weeks this summer learning strategies for adapting to climate change and improving their communities’ health and social equity. Local farmers and other partners worked with a team of researchers from Cornell, Michigan State, and the University of Manitoba to develop the innovative curriculum, facilitate the training, and continue to teach the curriculum in their regions.
The Farming for Change participatory curriculum teaches farmers about climate change, health and nutrition, agroecology, soil health, gender equality, and other household issues, such as family planning and budgeting. Drama is central to the project, both during the two-week training and as a creative way for farmers to pass along the information to other farmers. The project, funded by an Academic Venture Fund grant led by Rachel Bezner Kerr, was created in 2015 and builds on more than 15 years of work by the Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities project in Malawi.
In June 2016, I had the opportunity to travel to Malawi to speak with farmers firsthand about their experience with the curriculum training and how they responded to the use of drama. Half of the farmers had drama as part of their training, and the other half had more straightforward small group discussions in place of drama. I met with nearly 40 farmers, drawn from both groups, in the regions of Ekwendeni and Dedza where the curriculum training had taken place.
Both groups’ training day might begin with a morning lesson in which farmers learned about the impact of climate change on their local weather, including increased flooding, drought, and unpredictable rainfall, followed by a lesson on the importance of growing foods that provide nutritional value and techniques for growing those crops. The instruction might conclude with an activity on the importance of planning together as a family and respect for one another in the household.
Farmers would then break into small groups of five to ten. Those who participated in the drama pilot testing created their own short skits based on what they had learned and how this information would play out at home or in their villages. The small groups presented their dramas to the entire group to launch discussion. During these discussions, additional challenges and solutions would often arise, and complex topics could be further discussed.
Nearly all of the farmers in the drama group described being very shy prior to the training, but felt increased confidence levels after participating in the drama. They found the skits to be a fun and light way to practice getting up in front of people, despite the serious content. Since the training, some of the farmers had traveled to as many as 12 villages to share information in the form of drama.
Most farmers had the village headman announce their arrival. They said that often a small group would gather when they arrived, but the crowd would grow as they began acting out the drama. One farmer reported the audience growing from 100 people to around 300 when the drama began. Many told me that this is a teaching format that everyone, regardless of education level, can understand. They believe drama to be an effective way to grab and keep the audience’s attention. The farmers said that if they just stood there and taught point by point without the use of drama, people would quickly lose interest, but the drama held the attention of the audience, entertaining them and teaching them at the same time.
Following the pilot testing in Malawi, Farming for Change was also tested in Tanzania, spearheaded by Cornell researchers, Action Aid Tanzania, and the Nelson Mandela African Institute for Science and Technology. While some local experts initially thought that the use of drama might be a distraction from the curriculum’s important content, reports from trainers after the testing revealed a similarly successful experience in this country with this creative form of communication.
We hope that this unique opportunity to test the effectiveness of drama around these important sustainability issues will lead to other project teams having the proof they need to adopt this valuable—and entertaining—teaching method.
Carrie Young is a Department of Communication PhD candidate, focusing on environmental, health, and science communication. She thanks Communication chair Katherine McComas for her guidance and support on this project.
Photos: Carrie Young. Banner photo: Curriculum facilitator Esther Lupafya talks to farmers in the Ekwendeni region of Malawi during training.