On Generations, South Africa's most popular soap opera, "suspense, intrigue, passion and power plays are the order of the day." But for seven episodes last month, another theme was written into the mix of "rivalry, treachery and blackmail": maternal and child health.
It's a plot twist that could prove lifesaving. In South Africa, 300 women die for every 100,000 babies born and the neonatal mortality rate is 19 deaths for every 1,000 live births, according to the WHO's latest report on world health statistics. Many of these deaths are preventable with the help of simple interventions – but in the developing world, many women lack access to health care and potentially-lifesaving information.
To bridge this gap, an organization called MAMA, or Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, is using mobile technology – a strategy that is quickly gaining traction in the global health world. The idea is simple: pregnant women sign up and MAMA sends them texts and voicemails timed to the various stages of their pregnancies – blasts of information on everything from folic acid supplements and breastfeeding to reminders about tetanus vaccinations.
The service is free but not everyone in South Africa knows it's available. Enter Generations, the country's most popular soapie which has launched celebrity careers, once featured a Samuel L. Jackson cameo, and draws 10 million viewers every night.
"As a show that is mostly watched in the country, we feel responsible to inform the public of any good service that could help their lives," head writer Bongi Ndaba explained in an email. "We are a show that is watched by people from varied economic standing (and) some of our viewers are not privy to certain information because of various reasons. That is why to use the show as a vehicle to pass on that information in an entertaining manner is very important.
"We are hoping that our viewers will adhere to this information and use it. It is out there, for free, for them. There is no need for extreme baby fatalities anymore when such a service is available."
MAMA's debut on Generations came about after Ndaba discovered the initiative at a press launch earlier this year, said Marcha Bekker, head of business development for the Praekelt Foundation, one of MAMA's partners.
The storyline – written with MAMA's consultation – involves a hustler named Choppa who learns of the initiative and tries to scam pregnant women by charging them for the free service. When another characater Khethiwe catches wind of Choppa's deception, she decides to spread the word about MAMA on the radio – a broadcast that causes another woman to relive the depression she experienced after giving birth.
Ndaba says Generations is often used as a platform for organizations looking for publicity. The show also has a mandate from its channel, SABC, to inform the South African public on information that could help improve their lives, she said.
Over at MAMA, Bekker says feedback has been positive so far but the organization is still trying to measure the impact from their 15 seconds of soapie fame. She said MAMA will be looking at whether there were any spikes in user registrations or website activity following the MAMA-themed episodes.