Using the Power of Storytelling to Spark Social and Behavior Change

By Karen Pillay, Director of Corporate Affairs & Resource Mobilisation – PSI South Africa

“We have to protect each other,” says Jeannette Nitidufasha, as she offers a colorful hand-made face mask to a person she’s just met on the street. Jeannette, who owns and operates a sewing business, has been making and distributing masks in her community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Hoping to motivate her neighbors to heed messaging about the importance of mask-wearing, Jeannette initiates conversations and offers hand sanitizer and a free mask to anyone in need. “Some people, they do not have jobs, and they cannot afford to buy a mask. But I can afford to give to them.”  

“The first time I heard about COVID, it was still overseas. But later, I heard other countries also getting this shutdown, and I was like, oh, OK, this thing is serious,” Jeannette explains in Jeannette Makes Masks, a 6-minute documentary film developed as part of Population Services International (PSI) South Africa Health Solutions approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, funded by Unilever and UKAID through the Hygiene and Behavior Change Coalition (HBCC)The project, and film, sparks dialogue about social and behavioral change at the local level.

Adding to Jeanette’s health-related concerns about the pandemic that was rapidly spreading worldwide, Jeannette’s family was also facing economic uncertainty. Like so many others, her family business was affected by public health restrictions and economic constraints. “Financially, business went down, down, down, down flat,” says Jeannette’s husband, Moses Tinfayo. “Especially as things that we sell, are things that are bought by tourists.” 

When experts worldwide recommended mask-wearing in all public spaces, Jeannette saw an opportunity to help her own family and her community. “I said to my husband, ‘Look, it’s our time to come up with something which can help our family to earn an income.’” She transformed her sewing business to support COVID-19 prevention by making two different types of cloth face masks: an expandable pleated mask and a mask designed for people who wear glasses.  


Influencing Healthy Behaviors Through Local Innovation

Researchers have identified public fatigue about COVID-19 messaging as an immediate threat to public health in communities like the one where Jeannette livesSouth Africa is just one of the 37 countries where the HBCC, a GBP£500 million investment, aims to reach over 500 million individuals with critical messages, services and products to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Like PSI and other implementors across HBCC countries, PSI South AfricaHealth Solutions facilitates local projects aimed at promoting social behavior change and community awareness, including partnering with Social Transformation Empowerment Projects (STEPS) to develop documentary films that capture real-life stories of resilience during COVID-19. 

Jeannette Makes Masks is one of several documentary films that South African filmmakers created to capture lived stories during COVID-19, particularly in marginalized and disadvantaged communities. In just over six minutes, Jeannette Makes Masks shows how one person’s actions can effect change in a community and help influence preventive behaviors that could alter the course of COVID-19 in South Africa 

HBCC funding allows PSI South Africa Health Solutions to support and promote individual and communitylevel social behavioral change efforts like Jeannette’s and to monitor the reach and effect such efforts have on prevention, mitigation, response, and ultimately recovery from the effects of COVID-19.  

The documentary films are shown in a wide variety of gatherings, festivals and community events. Trained individuals facilitate conversations about the films and why adopting preventative behaviors is both important and accessible, while giving out supplies such as soap for handwashingIn addition to the overall documentary film project, UKAID and Unilever’s support also allowed PSI South Africa Health Solutions to train 276 youth radio presenters, film makers, and counselors/testers on promoting COVID-19 prevention.  

The project has delivered COVID-19 prevention messaging and soap products to approximately 85,000 households, 340,000 individuals and 35 primary health facilities, as well as reached more than 4.3 million people in urban, rural and semi-rural communities throughout South Africa. 



In many countries where HBCC works, like South Africa, the insight driving the projects is that while health is important to people, the problem of supporting one’s family is often even more immediate. The story of Jeannette is not only a story about mask-making, but about opportunity. 

The demand for Jeannette’s hand-made masks was almost immediate. “A friend of mine advertised the masks on a Facebook page, so we ended up having a huge order. I couldn’t cope,” she explains. Jeannette needed help to fulfill the order, so she taught her husband how to sew. “She said, ‘If you are interested, you can have a seat—I will teach you how to do it.’ She inspired me,” says Moses.  

Now the couple works side-by-side, sewing face masks to sustain their family and protect their community. When she’s not seated at her sewing machine or working to fulfill orders, Jeannette is helping to control the spread of COVID-19 by influencing her neighbors to take preventive actions. “We can only fight this disease if we take it seriously,” says Jeannette. 

Jeannette’s story is one example of how individual actions in local communities can have a profound impact on the course of the pandemic, both in South Africa and throughout the world. PSI South Africa Health Solutions will continue to support and amplify the efforts of local change-makers like Jeannette, whose actions have a profound ripple effect when it comes to influencing social and behavior change, ultimately creating healthier behaviors across communities 

To view “Jeanette Makes Masks” and other COVID-centered documentaries from PSI South Africa see below!

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