Minister of Health Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked actor Fekadu Teklemariam to act in four PSAs on TB
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Celebrities have often latched on to global health causes in hopes of reaching broader audiences for the importance of the work, but not every celebrity succeeds. See Madonna’s recent troubles. In Ethiopia, though, the Ministry of Health approached perhaps the country’s most famous actor and asked him to do what does best – act – and the results have been impressive.
Earlier this year, Minister of Health Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked actor Fekadu Teklemariam if he would act in four public service announcements (PSA) to help educate people about the dangers of tuberculosis. Ethiopia was estimated to have more than 310,000 cases of TB in 2007.
Teklemariam, who was one of three artists named as Ethiopian of the Millennium in 2007, readily agreed, and the Ministry is now finishing the shooting and editing of the four 30- and 45-second spots.
I’m in Ethiopia now on a project with the Ministerial Leadership Initiative for Global Health, which works in five Health Ministries, including Ethiopia’s, on priorities chosen by country officials. I was sitting one recent morning in a Ministry office and in walked Teklemariam, a short, balding man who caused the generally shy Ethiopians around me to stand up in a flush of excitement. Just from their smiles, it was easy to see we were in the presence of a major celebrity.
Teklemariam, 55, shook hands with all of them and talked with each. Later, in an interview, he said he didn’t hesitate to accept Minister Tedros’ request to do the TV spots, which will begin airing in about a week.
“I think it was an obligation of mine to do this – to serve the people and to serve the country,” he said, standing in a Ministry hallway after the filming of a scene for the PSA. “I am really well known here, so when I give the message, more people will listen. That’s why it’s my obligation.”
He said he had another motivation as well: He has had friends die from TB.
“In the theatre, it was hidden if you had it, at least in years before,” he said. “I had one friend who gradually became more and more ill with it. She didn’t take her treatment. We visited her in the hospital and she just became so thin. It was very, very sad.”
In the scene filmed in the Ministry, Teklemariam is walking up a flight of stairs when he comes across a man bent over. The man is coughing violently. The actor, played by a Ministry communications officer, Tesfamichael Afework, says he is sick with HIV.
Teklemariam tells him, “You might also have TB. You should go to a health center and be tested.” Then he looks into the camera and says: “HIV affects your immune system. Please get tested if you are HIV positive and not well.”
Of the four PSAs, perhaps the most memorable one is a segment that tests Teklemariam’s acting skills.
He is sitting outside on a red couch, with lush greenery behind him, and he lets out a huge laugh. “Sac,” he says, which is Amharic for laughter. “You should laugh out loud,” he says. “You don’t have to cough. You should have a sweet kind of laughter.”
Fitsum Asfaw, a consultant at the Ministry who is helping produce the PSAs, said it was a hard segment to execute – so much depended on the actor’s laugh.
“Oh, but he’s so good at laughing,” Asfaw said.
It was true. Later that day, I watched the outtakes of the segment – eight or nine times that Teklemariam roared with laughter and shouted out “Sak!”
It was a moment that remains lodged in my brain (I am saying “Sak” to myself constantly) – a good thing for a country looking for any message, and messenger, who can make people more aware of TB and its danger.
John Donnelly, a freelance writer specializing in global health issues, is producing a short series of blogs from inside Ethiopia’s Health Ministry. His trip was funded by the Ministerial Leadership Initiative for Global Health, which is a program of Aspen Global Health and Development.