By: Maya Adam MD
A new star is lighting up the production team at Digital MEdIC South Africa’s office in Cape Town. Her name is Qhawe Nkopane and she is DMSA’s youngest voice actor. Without any formal training, this 10 year-old, who narrates Stanford health education content in English and isiXhosa, is winning the hearts of academics, government health officials and philanthropic donors around the globe — not to mention the community members for whom her videos are created.
Qhawe, currently a fourth-grader, lives in Khayelitsha, an informal settlement that is home to 391,749 people. Living just 23 miles away from the sleek, modern mansions of Bantry Bay and Clifton, over half of the residents in Khayelitsha don’t have running water or electricity in their homes. Two hundred and fifty-six portable, outdoor toilets line the outer edges of a 15 square mile sea of corrugated iron shacks. Qhawe’s mother is a preschool teacher at the Educare Center affiliated with the Philani Maternal Child Health and Nutrition Trust, a non-profit organization serving 10,000 families with health promotion services, skills development programs and early childhood education. Lerato, Qhawe’s mother, is also studying in her spare time to earn her diploma in primary education. Thanks to Lerato’s hard work, her family was able to move into a home with basic resources like running water and electricity.
Local community mothers, like Lerato, who have managed to successfully raise families despite resource shortages, are recruited by Philani and trained to serve as Mentor Mothers in their neighborhoods. These frontline health workers visit the homes of pregnant woman and mothers in their communities offering health advice, social support… and hope. In a part of South Africa where hopelessness is an epidemic, manifested in high rates of violent crime, alcohol and drug abuse, health education empowers caregivers and hope can save lives.
From November 2018, 84 of the Philani Mentor Mothers will carry teaching tablets loaded with health education content produced by Stanford’s Digital MEdIC South Africa Program. The content is story-based, short and animated — aimed at touching an emotional chord in the viewer. Research has shown that enhanced engagement in the health promotion messages can stimulate the kind of behavior change that leads to improved health outcomes. Qhawe has starred in videos used to promote Kangaroo Mother Care (a life-saving practice for premature infants), as well as encouraging pregnant mothers to seek prenatal care in Thembi’s Story, a series produced in collaboration with the Western Cape Department of Health. She has also narrated content that is being used by the DG Murray Trust as part of their Grow Great campaign.
Digital MEdIC’s health education content, featuring Qhawe, is being disseminated in South Africa by the National Department of Health as part of the South African Road to Health initiative and, in 2019, Qhawe and the Digital MEdIC team will be collaborating with UNICEF on a complementary feeding series aimed at reducing growth stunting in a country with a worrying 25% rate of stunting in children under 5.
But Qhawe isn’t just a clever 10 year-old with a sweet voice. Sitting in the recording booth with her one afternoon, we both got the giggles when she had to deliver a line about remembering the sweet smell of her mother’s milk. “Yech”, she said, before dissolving into peals of laughter. Unable to help myself, I joined in. (It had been a long recording session and we were both getting a little tired.) Actually, the way in which she had delivered the line the first time was fine, so I assumed we were done for the day. As I started packing up the recording equipment, Qhawe stopped me and said, “Maya, I want to do that line again. We need to get it just right. Let’s try to be serious and finish this before we leave today.” There I was, a 44 year-old being managed by a 10 year-old who loves popcorn, lipstick and mathematics. This is “little Qhawe” — a force to be reckoned with. When I asked her what she wants to be when she grows up, she said an actress and a doctor. Look out world: about a decade from now you may well see Qhawe Nkopane’s name in lights — and on the door of a top-notch South African health facility. Whatever she ends up doing, I have no doubt she’ll continue her habit of getting it just right.