Prince Michael Meama has two daughters, aged five and two. By the time his eldest child reaches voting age, if not before, he hopes there will be no need for the kind of street theatre he helped create for Sierra Leone’s 2018 elections.
As secretary of the Calabash company, Prince co-organised a travelling show designed to encourage all Sierra Leoneans, but particularly women and young women, to vote.
Calabash performed the show, Women Use Your Power!, at three locations in eight districts before the 7 March poll. Their 17 actors have been back on the road before the Presidential run-off vote on 31 March.
With women forming 52% of the population, but still under-represented in Sierra Leone’s national politics, making sure they vote in the largest possible numbers has been a major priority for the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and its international supporters.
Women Use Your Power!, coordinated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) electoral support project and performed by local theatre companies, received large crowds and an overwhelmingly positive reception everywhere, says Prince.
It delivered key messages about the electoral process, which, he said, is often not properly understood in villages. It was also a great opportunity to deliver NEC voter education leaflets.
We wanted them to know that everybody above 18 can vote, that women have an equal right to vote, and that no one should interfere with your vote,” said Prince, who by day is an inspector with the Sierra Leone Police’s Gender Unit in central Freetown.
“We wanted them to know to follow the rules of the responsible election body – the National Electoral Commission. We told them that certain categories of people have to be given priority in the queue to vote, such as pregnant women, the physically challenged and the aged.
“We told them an election is the only way to have a real and pure democratic process. People really wanted to listen.”
As they arrived in a town or village, the troupes would do a few comedy or circus-style routines to attract attention performing in easily accessible open areas. It involved several vignettes. One story featured an older father with two children who were voting for the first time. As head of the family, he assumed it was his right to vote for his wife and children, and insisted on holding on to their voting cards as they arrived at the polling station. His wife objected strongly and, ultimately, the father learned that every voter has one just one vote and must cast their own ballot independently.
Another company the Freetong Players performed nine Women Use Your Power! shows in the capital over the three days preceding the run-off. At the main junction in Goderich, the company of 12 arrived in a pick-up truck and quickly gathered a large crowd around them. After some juggling and a few jokes, they launched into four sketches about voting, and ended with a rousing song. Afterwards, people thronged the manager Tutie Haffner to say thank you. “We call it edu-tainment”, he said. “We always get a good reaction. We help people understand how to vote, so they don’t spoil their ballot, and encourage women not just to vote but to get involved in a good and peaceful way.”
Annetta Flanigan, Inclusion and Gender Adviser to the NEC, said: “The project is important as it reaches those who might otherwise not be reached by voter education.
“We believe it was effective and people liked to receive messages in this way. It was important that 50 percent of actors were women, who were delivering the messages. It’s not just men telling women what they should do.”
Prince was delighted to receive maximum cooperation from the local authorities and tribal heads, some of whom came to watch the shows. It was very encouraging that after every performance audiences had plenty of questions for the players.
“The show really got them thinking and asking so much,” he said.
In response to a request from the Government of Sierra Leone and the National Electoral Commission (NEC) UNDP established a multi-donor project to support the technical preparations for voter registration and the 2018 elections. This follows a successful project that supported the NEC in the drawing of new electoral boundaries in 2016.
Previous Sierra Leone elections received large amounts of donor support, not only for technical assistance but also through meeting the cost of processes such as voter registration and polling itself. Recognizing the maturation of Sierra Leonean institutions, the project focuses only on key processes and areas that require support or improvement.