DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Of all the colorful wall murals that surround her school, Usta Rukaka, a petite 19-year-old, says her favorite is the one with the fat lady.
“The one where the guy is staring at the girl with the big butt,” she says and stretches her arms three feet wide. The mural shows a couple walking down the street with the man turned around to check out another woman who is noticeably more gifted from behind. The sign above them says, roughly translated from Swahili: “Be happy with what you’ve got.”
Voluptuous women hold a cherished placed in Tanzanian society and many less curvy women, like Rukaka, are often intimidated by them. “The big mamas,” says Rukaka, are more successful in attracting sexual partners because “men can’t help themselves when they see a butt that big.”
While the messages behind all the public sex education campaigns in Tanzania aren’t always clear to people unfamiliar with East African culture, to Rukaka, the lesson stemming from this particular mural is obvious.
For women, it is: “better to dress modestly and not tempt men,” she says. For men, “do not let you heart get tempted by the big mamas.”
Good advice. It’s also part of a trend here in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city.
More than a dozen different sex education murals are painted on the wall around the all-girls Jangwani Secondary School in the city’s center.
Throughout Tanzania, wall murals have long been popular as a form of cheap commercial advertising — Pepsi has ads painted on walls here, so do Coca-Cola and Kilimanjaro beer. But public wall spaces are now becoming platforms to spread safe sex messages to as many people as possible.
Alex Ngaiza, HIV program manager at the health communication organization PSI, said that painted pictures are an effective way to get through to people, even better than using photographs. “If you use a photograph, people don’t identify with the person. They will say, ‘Oh, it’s just that man. He’s got HIV. Not me,’” said Ngaiza. “But with a mural, everyone can relate.”
A couple of years ago, PSI organized a competition among secondary schools, asking students to describe the various negative types of behavior that contribute to the spread of AIDS. The most common behaviors were then translated into murals and painted on the empty wall around Jangwani Secondary School, the school which also happened to win the contest.
Thanks to that competition, some of the most troubling issues surrounding the lives of Tanzanians are now painted on one of the most visible walls in Dar.
The cartoons show it all: low condom use, female genital mutilation, religious inflexibility, too much partying and not enough studying, teenage pregnancy, adultery, pornography, polygamy, sugar daddies and sugar mamas trying to seduce young students using gifts, especially cell phones and electronics, or money. The wall has become so popular that other schools and organizations are now trying to create their own sex ed walls.
One of the most visible public sex education campaigns, called “Fataki” (sugar daddy), by the National AIDS Control Program, has focused on a single issue — stigmatizing cross-generational dating. The goal is to dismantle the powerful aura of older, wealthier men who seduce schoolgirls.
It featured radio spots, print ads and, of course, painted billboards of a large — and presumably rich — man hitting on a school girl in a uniform. The fictional “Fataki” figure came in different variations to address the different sugar daddy types lurking out there: urban Fataki, ATM Fataki, rural Fataki, Fataki and daughter-in-law, Fataki caught by his wife.
While the tongue-in-cheek sex ed murals often make locals pause and smile, the official statistics on the lives and sex lives of Tanzanians are chilling. According to Unicef, the current HIV rate in Tanzania hovers at about 6 percent. Life expectancy is 56 years. An estimated 15 percent of Tanzanian women have undergone female genital mutilation. Lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 24, one of the highest in the world. Forty percent of 18-year-old girls in Tanzania are mothers already or pregnant.
Because it is uncommon for parents in Tanzania to talk to their children about anything having to do with sex, teenagers get most of their information from their peers or online, some of it from school.
“We Africans have issues with privacy. It’s not so easy for parents to talk with their daughters about these matters,” said Geraldine Mwanisenga, Jangwani Secondary School’s academic mistress, as they poetically refer to administrators here.
According to Mwanisenga, the school wall mural has been a huge success with students, their families as well as the public. Only a few people criticized some of the messages. “Our religious studies teacher didn’t like the one with the woman pushing the man off,” she said. “He thought it portrayed men as always ready to sleep with women, like they can’t help themselves.”