Curious Kids and the Coronavirus

In these days of the coronavirus, how on earth do you convince a child about the need to keep social distance? I’m glad I no longer face that kind of challenge. But if I did then my friend Darren Collins has a brilliant answer I would use.

Darren – comedian, conjurer, magician and puppeteer – you might have seen him as an avuncular Santa at the Hub for the last two Christmases. But he has a more serious – but also fun – job to do. He is the International Director of Project HAND UP. This is a puppet project that for a number of years has been delivering health messages in Kenya – in an entertaining as well as a powerful way. Entertaining, because puppets can do knock-about stuff; powerful, because they can say things about sensitive subjects much easier than we real people can.

The project has taken puppet shows around the country, entertaining and educating large groups of people on subjects such as HIV and AIDS, health, sanitation, and child safety. Their slogan is ‘Laugh. Learn. Live.’

With the coming of the coronavirus, such travelling and group shows have had to stop. Yet the need for HAND UP messaging was more urgent than ever. So Darren and his colleague from the Kenya Institute of Puppet Theatre, Fedelis Kyalo (as Darren says ‘arguably the two biggest puppet freaks of them all’) acted on an idea that had been churning in their minds for some time – they turned to video. And in this they have been greatly assisted by Ross Franks of Buni Media, the producers of the XYZ Show.

They are making five short videos, targeting Kenyan kids and helping them to understand what is going on right now. Each video focuses on one of the joint WHO/FIFA campaign messages: Wash hands frequently; Keep social distance; Cover your nose and mouth with a bent elbow when coughing; Avoid touching your face; If you feel unwell, stay home. All five videos feature Dr. Pamoja and Bali, the little monkey friend.

The second in the series – the one on the importance of keeping social distance – came out last weekend. I watched it on Facebook. The opening scene is a matatu – the Ask Dr. Pamoja Express, which has been decorated by a real matatu artist.

Bali has a question to ask Dr. Pamoja. But he immediately goes off-script. ‘I have a question,’ he says. ‘May I have a banana?’

The Director calls ‘Cut!’

In Take 2, Bali asks ‘May I have half a banana?

‘Cut!’

In Take 3, Bali changes it to ‘May I have a plantain?’

Exasperated, Dr Pamoja gives him the social distancing advice anyway. Bali, still anticipating a banana, demonstrates that he understands well enough. And he is showered with a whole load of bananas.

It’s quick. It’s colourful. It’s fun. And the message gets across.

The initial request for the series came from the National Business Compact on Coronavirus, and the distribution in Kenya is on behalf of the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus. Darren is a committed Rotarian, and he has secured support for this initiative from the De Soto Rotary Club and the Plano East Rotary Club of the United States.

The videos are already in five languages: English, Swahili, Luo, Kamba and Kikuyu – and if the Dr Pamoja series gets more resources then more vernacular languages will be added. The videos are showing on TV channels, YouTube and social media. ‘We’ve also created radio versions,’ Darren says. ‘Anyone can have them if they want. We just want to get the word out, we are in this for the long haul.’

Darren calls it an ‘opportunity from adversity’. It must have been very hard to get this work done with the curfew on, but Project HAND UP has shown itself to be one of the first responders when it comes to disease prevention in Kenya.

If you want to know more about this very timely initiative – whether to offer your support or to find it for your children – then just Google ‘Project Hand Up’.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation