Four puppets are sitting in a hair salon having a frank conversation about sex.
“Family planning is encouraging people to go for sex at such a young age,” one grey, Muppet-like character tells her orange companion.
“If I don’t go in for family planning, and I go in for the live sex, there’s so many chances of me becoming pregnant,” says a younger, yellow puppet, using the local phrase for unprotected sex. “If I’m still in school, I’m not yet prepared for these pregnancies.”
It’s a scene from Chicken & Chips, which is “Africa’s first puppet reality show,” according to its producers, and a novelty in a region where puppets are usually reserved for kids’ television. Currently airing on Ugandan TV, the half-hour, weekly program uses cuddly puppets to educate and inform viewers about safe sex, reproductive health and other issues that particularly affect people in Uganda. In a country where 55 percent of the population is aged below 18, the hope is that by putting sensitive topics into the mouths of puppets, young people will feel more comfortable talking about those issues in real life.
“If you look at the kind of culture we have in Uganda, most people are scared to talk about sex, especially on camera,” says comedian Veronica Tindichebwa, 35, who voices the show’s host, a feisty, frizzy-haired female puppet. (None of the puppets have names.) “It’s a challenge for most women to suggest family planning to their husbands, because they have the mentality that a man has the right to have as many kids as he wants from the marriage, or even outside the marriage.”
Named after a much-loved meal in Uganda, Chicken & Chips also addresses negative gender stereotypes and promotes positive attitudes and behavior toward sex. Producers hope the show, which airs every Sunday afternoon on NTV, a channel that reportedly attracts 52 percent of viewers in Uganda, will be particularly popular with young female viewers.
The fertility rate for Ugandan women in urban areas has declined from seven children per woman in 1960 to 5.8 per woman in 2014, according to World Bank data. And yet, the east African country still has one of the continent’s – and the world’s – highest fertility rates.
But women don’t feel empowered to talk about family planning with their husbands. “You can’t tell a man, ‘We’ve had one, two kids, you and I have to use contraception.’ It is unheard of,” says Tindichebwa.
Adding to the problem, she says, is the fact that most parents don’t feel comfortable talking about sex with their children: “It’s believed that the school has to cater to that.”
Now even that isn’t happening, thanks to a national crackdown on sex education that was launched just a few weeks after Chicken & Chips’ debut in September.
In a statement published in Ugandan newspapers on October 28, the government said it had banned comprehensive sexuality education, with gender minister Janat Mukwaya saying that learning about sex could “poison the minds of our young people.”
The move has drawn criticism from NGOs, health experts and many of the nation’s young men and women. At a recent conference in the capital Kampala, over 3,000 young people and students gathered to discuss sexuality and reproductive health rights, with several youth leaders expressed their anger over the ban.
Ibrahim Waiswa Batambuze, communications and advocacy officer for Reach a Hand Uganda, a youth-led NGO focusing on sexual reproductive health and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, calls the ban “a bad move.”
“When sex is not talked about and kept behind closed doors, young people are forced often to grope around in the dark, so to speak,” he says. “It leaves young people confused. The state thus owes an obligation to its citizens to prepare them adequately for their interactions in society, including those of a sexual nature.”
With parents uncomfortable talking to their kids about sex and schools unable to teach them about it, more and more Ugandan girls and boys risk growing up ignorant about sexual health and family planning. So Chicken & Chips takes real-life discussions gathered during focus groups, uses puppets to address controversial issues and tries to teach through TV.
One show sent a reporter onto the streets to ask Ugandans about their condom use. Another addressed cervical cancer, now the most common type of cancer in the country. And in another episode, the puppets discuss their HIV status. According to AVERT, Uganda’s adult HIV prevalence rate was 7.1 percent in 2015 and the majority of new HIV infections occur among women aged between 15 and 24.
“Right now I have no idea,” says one female puppet, laughing loudly, when asked what her status is. “I’m existing, I’m not yet sick.”
Even as Chicken & Chips clashes with some of the more conservative views in Uganda, Tindichebwa says she would be more than happy for her 12-year-old daughter to watch the show. If only to help her daughter tell the difference between the facts and the playground myths.
“The truth is that she’s growing up. The bitter truth is that she’ll need to know about these things one way or the other,” says Tindichebwa. “And I won’t be the first person she hears it from.”