Zambia: A Soap Opera That’s Changing Lives

World Pulse community member Nancy Handabile on her role in the Zambian edutainment drama Love Games.

Zambia 2013

By Corine Milano

July 28, 2013

Also published at World Pulse

If there’s such a thing as a soap opera with a social good mission, then Zambia’s popular television drama Love Games is it.

Airing every week on ZNBC, the soap is designed to get the country talking about the risky behaviors that contribute to the nation’s steep HIV/AIDS rates. A landlocked country in the middle of Southern Africa, Zambia claims one of the highest infection rates in the world: 14.3% of its population is HIV+; in Lusaka, where Love Games is set, that number shoots to 20%.

How can a television show reduce infection rates? I sat down with World Pulse community member and actress Nancy Handabile, who plays Progress on the popular drama series, to find out.

How did you get involved in Love Games, which hopes to address the multitude of issues your community faces?

Media 365 produces the show, and they called me about the role because I speak three local languages. I’ve done a lot of work with them on their campaigns, which we call “edutainment.” Basically, the idea is to educate people using entertainment. Love Games is a change campaign, and I like that. As an activist, if I had to choose between something that teaches and something that’s pure entertainment, I would rather take a role that gives a lesson. To be part of something that is entertaining but still gives a lesson—that’s what drew me to this project. Sometimes when you watch HIV/AIDS programs they’re boring, so predictable. With Love Games, it’s not. There are a lot of twists.

Also, the dynamics of Progress’s character attracted me—I don’t like straight-laced characters; I grew up in theater! I like roles that are a challenge, that are dramatic.

Tell me a bit about your character’s story line.

Progress is Tamara and Hamoonga’s maid. She has no money to go to college, so she starts working for them, and then she starts seducing Hamoonga—in an understated way. She starts by being respectful to him; she washes his hands; she wears traditional beads; she bends subtly. She’s very intelligent. For her, this seduction is an escape. Later, she becomes pregnant, and she starts using charms, slipping herbs and things into his food. She wants to keep him to herself, but she’s sharing Hamoonga with his wife and another girl. Eventually, she becomes Hamoonga’s second wife.

Progress is an ambitious woman; she’s very driven. She’s in a position she doesn’t like, and she wants to get out of it. [Having an affair] might not be the best way to get out of it, but it’s the only way she knows how. She’s very intelligent, and she’s been put in positions where she can’t use her intelligence.

I like learning things from my characters, and I’ve learned that Progress is a woman of action. She’s been unfairly treated, and she’s had enough. I’m not saying I agree with her actions, but I can’t judge her. She’s ambitious, driven, and intelligent. Bottom line, she’s a woman, and women globally have had to do things that they are not proud of.

Love Games intends to mimic life in Lusaka. Do you think it succeeds?

I think it does—there are a lot of men right now who cheat on their wives. In Zambia it’s sort of like an open secret; it’s basically something that’s expected. We have a saying “A man’s infidelity, does not destroy a home.” What it basically means is that when a woman cheats it can break a family, but with a man—it usually doesn’t.

We live in a country where people know that married men have girlfriends on the side. It is called an “ATM”—“Assistant to Madam”. Some men do sleep with their maids. My story line is not something that’s fiction; it happens a lot, actually.

What implication does this have for Zambia’s women?

When it comes to HIV, which affects women more than men, cheating husbands generally are responsible for infecting their wives. You can’t tell your man to be protected during sex—this is something Love Games tries to address.

Because cheating is so widely accepted, you can’t really leave when your husband cheats. If you ask any woman they will say every man cheats. We have grown up with this. It demoralizes you. If he hits you maybe you can leave, but even then it’s difficult.

If you’re a maid, you might be fired if you don’t sleep with your boss. There are power dynamics at play.

What issues does the show attempt to address?

It looks at HIV and its consequences, its causes. It looks at infidelity. It looks at sexual networks—how many partners you’re actually sleeping with when you sleep with one.

A lot of campaigns have focused on telling young people not to have sex. Who are we kidding? Many will still have sex; We can try, but it won’t end HIV. We should be pushing the message “Be Faithful. Get Tested. Use Condoms.”

Love Games also looks at how hard it is for women to use condoms. In my personal life, I do a lot of mentoring of young girls. I always tell them to look in my bag so that she’ll find rubbers. It’s a way to get them talking about it; they get very shy and very afraid. But its also a way to get them talking. Love Games addresses the fact that women should take their sexual health seriously and shouldn’t assume that her partner has protection. Really, condoms should be in every purse and wallet!

Are you seeing impact from your involvement in the show?

For me, the fact that a lot of young people are watching means we’ve done something right. Everyone has a character they can identify with. “Oh my god, that was me last week!”

It gets people thinking, “If I meet a girl at the club, am I putting people at risk?” People are realizing that every action you take has a consequence. People have heard the rhetoric but watching characters you can identify with makes people say, “Did I have sex with my boyfriend without protection?”

Of course, it’s not an immediate “I see the light! Hallelujah!” moment. But people are thinking about it; they are talking about it. That’s the important thing. It’s triggering discussion, which is leading to action.

What do you hope your involvement with Love Games will achieve?

I hope more people use protection. That’s one thing I’m really passionate about, more people using protection. More people getting tested. More people realizing that love and trust are not enough. If it can help bring about a generation free of HIV/AIDS, if it can help get us a step closer to that—I’d be happy.

On a personal note, I want to see strong women celebrated in this country so that our young girls can know that you can be a woman and be powerful. Our young girls need to know you can be both a woman and a powerful person, without having to compromise.

I was raised by a single mother, a strong woman. One of the first things my mom bought me was a bookshelf, with books about my heritage, books that made me feel good. She talked to me. I think more parents need to talk to their kids, about the right things.

Let’s talk about Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, let’s talk about Wangari Maathai. Let’s tell our girls that they should aspire to be more than the wives of great men.

I would rather be the one ruling a country than be married to someone ruling a country. That’s the best dream we can give our girl children: Dream of being a ruler, not the wife of a ruler.

This story was produced in collaboration with the International Reporting Project and World Pulse. In July 2013, Managing Editor Corine Milano traveled to Zambia as an IRP Fellow to meet with experts on global health issues; go on site visits to some of this country’s most successful projects; and to work with World Pulse community members to tell their stories about global health in their country.