Sarah and the African Oscar

Chichester-based actress Sarah Badel enjoyed the honour of presenting an Oscar - not at a glittering LA ceremony but in the landlocked south-east African republic of Malawi.

On a trip with Midhurst-based charity Angels International, Sarah was privileged to reward acting of a kind very different to the Hollywood movies.

Founded in 1990, the charity (www.angelsinternational.org.uk) supplies medical aid and promotes education and training for doctors, nurses and health workers in the African state.

Early projects were in hospitals in Eastern Europe and most recently in Belarus, but since 2008 the focus has been on two mission hospitals in Malawi.

And it there that Sarah was able to watch drama being put to the very best of uses.

As she explains, because of high levels of illiteracy, the hospitals train actors to act out the health messages the communities vitally need to know.

“They’ve got an educational drama project which isn’t exclusive to these hospitals, and they use it in education about HIV and about the practice of old traditional habits and rituals that should be avoided now (for health reasons).

“To me, it was almost like watching the medieval mystery plays. Suddenly so many people would appear and there would be so many people sat around the actors watching.”

The results were startling, crumbling away the stigma which attaches to Aids.

“It was astonishing. The actors just perform the play, and it was really amusing. They are so clever, especially with HIV. They use a lot of humour. Everybody is so tense thinking that they are going to get a lecture, but it was so entertaining. There was a lot of serious stuff, but there was laughter too.”

By the end of the afternoon, there were long queues for HIV testing: “It was very moving to see all these people going up, particularly the men, showing that there was no stigma to being tested.

“The chiefs watched it and co-operated very well with the hospital. One stood up and made a speech of thanks to us and then he told everyone that he was HIV positive, that he was on the hospital programme and that he was leading a normal life. For him to stand up and say that was just amazing.

“And then I presented the Oscar at the end. The Oscar is presented to the best group, the village where the chief has worked closest with the hospital, where the play has had the most effect - and they fight like hell for it! It was so enlightening, so admirable the work that they do.”