At the time, Sithor didn’t know enough to see the unfortunate connection between her woozy headache, the coconut juice from which she had just taken a sip and the man sitting next to her.
Not realizing that the man had slipped drugs into the drink to make her weak, Sithor’s friend asked him to take Sithor to a health clinic. But instead he took her to a guest house where he forced himself on her, making her pregnant. Later, Sithor’s uncle demanded that the two get married to avoid the cultural shame of a baby born out of wedlock.
While this is a fictional storyline of “Lotus on Muddy Lake,” a serial radio drama, it is a series of events that could happen any day in Cambodia, the show’s creators say. The drama, produced in a Phnom Penh sound studio on the third floor of British NGO Health Unlimited’s office, is part of a radio program that is educating rural Cambodians on health, sex, relationships and the real-world dangers that unsuspecting villagers often encounter.
Home again in the fictional, rural Bong village, another character, Sarem, reflects in a recently-recorded show on her experiences as a waitress in Phnom Penh.
“I wanted to become a singer, but I was almost tricked into becoming a prostitute,” Sarem tells another character. “Nowadays, it is very hard to trust people. That is my lesson.”
Many other lessons are given through the actions of the show’s eight main characters and about a dozen other smaller characters. In the case of Sithor, the show continues to educate listeners by following her through her pregnancy. Reminders to young, expectant mothers to eat the right foods and to try to see a doctor are built into the script.
“Lotus on Muddy Lake” can focus on domestic violence during one show, HIV prevention in another show and malaria on yet another show. Characters have had to deal with sexually transmitted diseases, laziness among family members, dengue fever, abortion, family relationship problems, diarrhea and “broken hearts.”
Studies have shown that large numbers of Cambodian youths are having premarital sex and have mistaken beliefs about many health care issues, including contraception. Many still believe, for example, that traditional doctors can cure AIDS. Cambodia’s high illiteracy rate and shyness toward sex and health matters have been major factors in this ignorance.
“Cambodian traditions are very strict,” said Sours Sokchan, a law student who plays the role of Kosal. “When the girls and boys grow up, their parents don’t tell them how to take care of themselves and how to prevent HIV.”
This is especially the case in the countryside, where many children cannot attend school and girls are often tricked into becoming prostitutes. So, the show has made young rural villagers its target audience.
Actors are told to affect a rural accent and colloquialisms are written into the script. Slang is in. Technical language and Phnom Penh-sounding talk is out.
“I have gotten calls from parents who have said the show helps them because they do not want to speak directly about these things with their children,” said Rith Chettra, deputy general director of Bayon Radio and TV, which broadcasts the show on FM 95 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 11:30 am to most of the country.
Presenting issues through a radio drama is more culturally acceptable and perhaps more effective than speaking directly to listeners, said Sea Sovityea, the show’s head writer.
“If we only said things straight away, people wouldn’t like the show as much,” she said. “Through the drama, we can touch their feelings and emotions….When they listen, they can say, ‘Yes, that has happened in my life or in my village.’”
Although Health Unlimited produces a similar show in Rwanda, educating people through a drama is unique for a developing country, according to Alma Rivera-Abraham, who oversees “Lotus on Muddy Lake” through Health Unlimited’s Cambodia Health Education Media Service.
Health Unlimited has been producing a radio show on health and sex matters in Cambodia since 1999. At first, it was a 30-minute discussion show, with listeners calling in to ask questions of health workers and expert guests.
Last year, the show expanded to one hour and included “Lotus on Muddy Lake” for the first time.
The drama plays for 20 minutes of the hour, with discussion, call-ins and letters from rural villagers who don’t have access to a telephone taking up the rest of the show.
There’s also a few minutes of “straight talk” from the show’s presenter to reinforce messages given in the drama.
One recent show posed questions to callers, such as “Would you prefer an educated man to a rich one?,” “What is the difference between people who have HIV and AIDS patients?” and “What characteristics should a man have to make a girl love him?”
An upcoming installment of “Lotus on Muddy Lake” will reveal whether Sarem can persuade Kosal to love her. Before, Kosal had admired Sithor. Now that she is married, Sarem is hoping Kosal will turn his attentions to her.
However, they must first help their two troubled friends. Avi, a young, unmarried village girl, consented to sex with another young villager, Vuth. Now she is pregnant and angry that Vuth seems to be avoiding the problem.
“What would you think if someone did this your sister?” Kosal tells Vuth. “You must be responsible if you are a real man.”
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)