Finland’s Somali community uses soap opera and TV talk show in coronavirus awareness push

The social media-friendly webisodes give information about the coronavirus epidemic in a way that's easy to understand but also attracts thousands of viewers.

Screen grab from Somali discussion programme / Credit: Caawinaad

Members of Finland’s Somali community are using a home-made soap opera, and a fact-driven TV talk show in their public health toolbox to promote greater Covid-19 awareness.

Harnessing the power of television is just one aspect of a project called Caawinaad – which means Helping in Somali – that also uses social media, a helpline, and in-person meetings to reach as many people as possible with accurate information and advice about the pandemic.

This spring although Finland generally had low numbers of coronavirus cases compared with other countries in the region, the Somali community was hit particularly hard.

In his office in East Helsinki, Yusuf M. Mubarak from the Finland-Somalia Association receives a delivery of face masks which he plans to distribute to people in need at mosques during Friday prayers.

Social distancing signs for Somali community / Credit: Caawinaad

He says there’s a number of reasons why so many people in the Somali community got sick earlier this year including multi-generational living in smaller homes; the inability of people in low-paid or service industry jobs to work remotely; and a hesitancy to take advice from authorities at face value – something Finns might not even think to question.

Above all, says Mubarak, it was down to the many positive aspects of Somali culture which at this time counted against them.

“Hospitality, hand-shaking, hugging, big families, extended families where we have several generations, and weddings are very important to take part if you can” he explains.

“And religion is very important in our culture which is why if there is a mosque in the area you live, you should have to go to the mosque and pray, and also meet people, have a tea, speak with friends. A mosque is not just for praying, it’s for socialising when there’s not many big places where the community can meet” he tells News Now Finland.

Mubarak says it was a challenge to adjust all these everyday behaviours when suddenly there were taboos and restrictions around handshaking and social gatherings.

“We listened to the instructions, but we all needed time to change.”

Although there’s no definitive national data on how many members of the Somali community got sick, Covid-19 had a deadly effect.

“We have already lost very important friends. I myself lost a very close friend from coronavirus. And another close friend is also in hospital for a long time, in intensive care. This is something we have taken very seriously but it is just new for all of us.”

Screen grab from Somali-Finnish social media ‘soap opera’ / Credit: Caawinaad

Home grown soap opera tells a story 

While the Caawinaad project has used more traditional methods to spread the word about good hygiene and the new coronavirus rules and regulations, expanding into social media videos and satellite television gives them a wider audience who appreciate storytelling and discussion as a form of messaging.

“Over 18,000 have watched the first episode, out of a community of 20,000 so you can see it’s getting through” says Yusuf Mubarak.

The first episode of the soap opera, released in September, features actors from Finland’s Somali community working through the question of whether someone should travel during the pandemic, and the importance of prevention at parties and other gatherings. could visit a mosque after returning from a trip to Dubai – or if they should self isolate. In the end, the characters call the Somali-language helpline for more advice.

The second episode, released at the end of October, will emphasize the importance of self-isolating when returning from overseas travel.

The mobile-friendly clips, with Finnish subtitles, features on the SomTV Facebook page along with other video content.

“This is an effective way of communicating with the community, and we had a lot of positive feedback coming from them” Mubarak notes.

File picture of Yusuf M. Mubarak, Caawinaad project / Credit: News Now Finland

A 45-minute television discussion programme, aired in prime time on four Somali satellite channels, reach an even wider audience.

“Most of the Somalis in the evening they follow much more to the Somali programmes than the Finnish programmes, that’s why we wanted to do this broadcast, so they see a message which is meant for the Finnish Somalis living here.”

The discussion themes around coronavirus are universal and many of the messages apply no matter where a viewer might be watching. Upcoming programmes will tackle the issue of fake news, to make the viewers more aware of this phenomenon, and the challenges it poses.

Taking part in the show are Somali community leaders, mosque youth representatives, elders, and representatives from THL and the health sector with a Somali background. The idea is to give professional, factual information and speak openly about the challenges the community, and the Somali culture face when it comes to the pandemic.

“These are hard talks. This is not something easy. We tell the truth to each other about what we have to fix, where we are making progress and what we are doing right in these difficult times” says Mubarak.

“We all have to think about responsibility on a personal level, on a community level and about the other communities around us.”