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How soap-opera-style videos are helping educate couples in northern Nigeria about maternal and child health

Posted by Alanna Mitchell on June 20, 2018

Two women share maternal and child health information during a home visit in Bauchi state, Nigeria. (Photo: Federation of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria)

The peppy music starts, and all of a sudden we get a glimpse of life in a northern Nigerian village. Three women are sitting cross-legged in the shade against a wall, heads covered with colourful scarves. One strips leaves from a branch; the other two are preparing food in large shallow dishes. Behind them, two men in long tunics and matching loose pants are standing, energetically tearing branches into lengths. You can almost feel the heat.

Slowly, a fourth woman enters the frame. She is heavily pregnant, struggling under the weight of a bowl on her head. The other women eye her carefully, and then one begins to talk to her. The men eventually get into the act, gesturing animatedly to each other. Finally, the scene shifts to the village chief, resplendent in a turquoise tunic and light head covering, white scarf trailing over his left shoulder. He looks directly at the audience, explaining earnestly, one arm resting on a wall as the music fades.

The scene being played out is neither from a documentary nor an ad. Rather, it’s a four-and-a-half-minute video on possible pregnancy complications resulting from heavy physical work, and it’s just one part of an innovative five-year, $943,000 pilot project aimed at forestalling problems during pregnancy by educating couples in their own homes in the Toro region of the northern Nigerian state of Bauchi. The project, which began in 2015, is part of the seven-year, $36-million Innovating for Maternal and Child Health in Africa initiative funded by Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the International Development Research Centre.

Nigeria’s maternal death rate is one of the highest in the world, with about 58,000 deaths per year, says Anne Cockcroft, an associate professor in the department of family medicine at McGill University in Montreal who works with the NGO Community Information and Epidemiological Technologies and is one of the project’s leaders.

The impact of that number of deaths cascades through Nigerian society, says Nafissatou Diop, a senior program specialist in the maternal and child health program at the International Development Research Centre who helps oversee the project and manages the Innovating for Maternal and Child Health in Africa initiative. “The whole community suffers if the mother is not there,” she says.

The videos are perhaps the most inventive element of the project, which takes a different tack than the traditional aim of increasing access to formal obstetric care. Each video is modelled after the soap operas that are so popular among Nigerians. That means not only do they have a cheerful soundtrack, but also a recurring cast of characters.

Rather than lecture on such subjects as vaccination and domestic abuse, the characters act out scenarios in which both men and women in the village discover health facts. The village chief, a respected leader, appears at the end of each video to present evidence about the video’s topic.

The project has other novel elements, too. It focuses on both men and women rather than on women alone, with male members of the project team conducting home visits to speak to husbands and female members visiting mothers-to-be. It’s during these house calls that couples watch the videos on the visitor’s smartphone. Multiple visits are made to each home during each pregnancy, which reinforces how couples can make a big difference in their own households to the fate of mothers and babies. This partner-focused approach will be provided to every pregnant couple in the six wards in the Toro region where the pilot project is taking place. By December 2017, the program had already reached nearly 18,000 pregnant couples, says Yagana Mohammed Gidado, branch president of the Bauchi state chapter of the Federation of Muslim Women in Nigeria and leader of the project on the ground.

Gidado says that the program is helping husbands and wives communicate better. One 58-year-old father of 12 told researchers that the program had encouraged him to listen to this wife, who felt more comfortable sharing ideas and sitting with him whenever she wanted.

Meanwhile, early findings on the project’s impact on the health of mothers and babies are encouraging, says Cockcroft. Nigerian state governments are examining the results to see whether the pilot project could be expanded — something Gidado believes there is a demand for. “People are begging us to come and do it in their wards,” she says.

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at

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