The MARCH (Modeling and Reinforcement to Combat HIV/AIDS) project was initiated in Guyana in 2006 to specialise in Behaviour Change Communication. Interventions with the aim of inspiring behavioural change are imperative. Many social issues demand such interventions. In many instances, the issues exist because people are ignorant or ill-informed. Many Guyanese have a disinclination to access services and would rather let their issues escalate to the point of crisis, resulting in much of what we are witnessing with murders, suicides and abuse.
It is not, however, a situation of sheer hopelessness. Government has some measures in place and will presumably continue to work to create improved and additional services with competent personnel. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been significant in helping to alleviate many of our issues. Merundoi Incorporated is one such organisation.
Upon the project’s establishment, it was supported by the US PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). Merundoi, which was chosen as the name, is an Akawaio word which means hope, strength, stamina and energy. In November of 2007, the project was registered as an NGO.
Merundoi Inc. remains the only NGO in Guyana versed in Behaviour Change Communication with a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved methodology.
Much of Merundoi’s work is towards strengthening communities, with special care to young adults and vulnerable populations. People are encouraged to take ownership of their behaviours, actions and attitudes. It is a message that is universal and, if adhered to by most, would probably result in many of the issues we face diminishing.
Merundoi Inc. is made up of several components. There is the radio serial drama, which is in its fifth season. In 2006, after three weeks of training in the Behaviour Change Methodology, three fellow writers— Richard Pitman, Kojo McPherson and Trevor Smith—and I were selected out of a group of about thirty persons to work as writers on the radio serial drama. It was a great opportunity for learning and launching careers. The radio serial drama became popular and still has a faithful audience, with hits from over forty countries every month through its website, www.merundoi.org.gy.
Today, the Executive Director is Margaret Lawrence, who has been with the project from its inception. Dereck Springer, PANCAP Director, also played a vital role in launching the project in 2006.
With 12 years and five seasons, the radio serial drama remains the longest running in Guyana and the Caribbean. Recently, the 200th episode was celebrated for Season Five, and over the five seasons a total of 1,150 episodes have been aired.
The radio serial has tackled a number of issues over the years: HIV/AIDS, as was aforementioned, Alcohol Abuse, Parent to Child Communication, Chronic Diseases, Access to Services, Gender-Based Violence and Suicide Prevention. Issues such as the Cervical Cancer and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the Green Agenda, Governance, Voter Registration and Elections Participation, and Income Tax Compliance have also been included in the drama.
Merundoi Inc. is unique and powerful because there is no limit to the issues that can be addressed using the Behaviour Change Methodology. It is that uniqueness and the intellects and the talents of all involved that have kept it running all these years.
Another component of Merundoi is the interpersonal community-based reinforcement.
This aspect encourages exposure to the radio serial drama, conveys accurate information and dispels misinformation. It helps individuals to apply and integrate new ideas into their lives. It also fosters positive expectations for healthier and responsible behaviour, as well as developmental and negotiation skills, while creating a supportive environment and reducing barriers to positive changes.
Street Theatre is another component of Merundoi. The power of street theatre is that it allows the thespians and facilitators to communicate with the audience. Many organisations have benefited from and commended Merundoi for its effective execution of Street Theatre. Diabetes, Housing, Suicide, Domestic Violence, Malaria and Filariasis are among the topics that Street Theatre has covered.
Merundoi Inc. has also conducted training over the years in areas such as Playwriting and Stage Production, Street/Forum Theatre. It has also produced education and sensitisation infomercials for the Guyana Safer Injection Project (GSIP), the Guyana Elections Com-mission (GECOM), and the Governance Enhancement Project (GEP), as well as documentaries, jingles and songs, a weekly print media feature, maintained a website and Facebook page, and soon there will be a television drama.
No doubt, the work of Merundoi Incorporated has made a great impact in our communities. Though the organisation has had its challenges over the years—mainly difficulties in accessing funding—the fact that its executives and staff have persevered and continued to work effectively is commendable.
The work has not been without reward; besides the fact that many lives have been changed and people continue to look for not only entertainment but education through Merundoi, the NGO has been recognised for its excellent work by noteworthy organisations. The Award for Business Excellence on HIV/AIDS in the Community/Media in 2008 was received from the Guyana Business Coalition against HIV/AIDS (GBCHA). In 2010, Merundoi was presented with the PEPFAR HERO certificate. In 2014, a PAHO/WHO Media Awards for Excellence in Health Journalism Certificate of Merit was awarded to the organisation and an Honorable Mention was received at the GBCHA Awards for Business Excellence Partnerships Category in 2015.
In December of 2017, the organisation was awarded a PAHO/WHO Media Award and also the European Union Human Rights award.
Merundoi has collaborated with Private and Public Sector civic organisations and regional and international institutions. These include: NCN, GTT, and the ministries of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Public Health, Social Protection, Social Cohesion, Communities, Tourism and Natural Resources; Women Across Differences, the National AIDS Programme Secretariat, the Region Six Health Authority, CARICOM, the Jamaica Debates Commission, the Guyana Prison Service, the United Nations Peace Association of Guyana, Help and Shelter, Associates for International Development Incorporated – Barbados, the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS, USAID, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNAIDS, PANCAP, PAHO-WHO, IOM and the EU. Sponsors such as Republic Bank Guyana Limited, the Guyana Lottery Company, Spads Incorporated, Edward B. Beharry and Company Limited, the Small Business Bureau, NCN, 93.1 Real FM, the North Rupununi Development Board, Stabroek News and Romona Khan (web designer) continue to support the organisation.
We are constantly reminded about the issues. We debate, we mourn, we write, reenact and continue to feed the problems that are stifling us. Many are trapped in a circle of despondency and never find solutions or peace of mind. Often it is because they do not possess the skills, do not want to access the resources, are unaware of their options or believe it is easier to remain in their condition.
The power of Merundoi must be emphasised because though the issues are and must be highlighted, it also focuses on the fact that there is hope. Anyone can listen to Merundoi, participate in interpersonal facilitation or be ‘edutained’ by street theatre and leave with the confidence that they possess the power to not only change, but maintain that change.
Merundoi will continue to stand out as a medium for change. The organisation is one of the lights in our country and should be celebrated.