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João Pedro Martins


Using improvisational theatre to discuss irregular migration with teenagers in The Gambia


João Pedro Martins is a Ph.D. Candidate and lecturer at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. His interest in migration reaches from social cohesion, the difficulties of integration in host communities until LGBTI+ migration and migration policy. Apart from conducting research, João is also a Junior Consultant with vast experience and knowhow in the development of (online) learning tools. He’s supported the IOM Regional Office for West and Central Africa and the IOM Offices in Nigeria and The Gambia with the development of a wide range of tools and guidance. These include the online RCCE course in response to COVID-19, a guide for community dialogue and a Journalist Toolkit.

In this podcast, João speaks about a project he designed for IOM The Gambia. Following field research with youth in semi-urban areas, he designed ‘The Backway Improvisational Theatre’. It’s an interactive game-like activity for teenagers, implemented in schools and facilitated by returnees. For more info on the game and how to use it, visit the dedicated page on Yenna.


Bérénice: João is a Brazilian researcher who now lives in Barcelona, Spain, where he is working on his PhD thesis. He has a strong academic background in international migration, and has also worked with different organizations around learning, education, and training. Today, we are interested in knowing more about an awareness raising activity that João led and developed with the IOM in the Gambia. First of all, he is going to tell us about himself and how migration became part of his interests.

João: When I was a teenager I decided to go to university. I really wanted to understand how migration happens today because we do not have a lot of migrants today in Brazil. I mean, we do not have a lot of foreigners living in Brazil. We have a lot of heritage, but not a lot of foreigners. And I want you to understand, I wanted to get out of my small-town reality and see the world and see what would be migration in the big city or in a very cosmopolitan city like in the movies or like in what I used to read.

I’m living in Spain for almost three years now, and previously I have lived in Italy and Spain and France. I became a migrant myself, as well as part of the experience of understanding the migration phenomena in the world.

Bérénice: Today, we are interested in knowing more about an awareness raising activity that João led and co-created with IOM the Gambia named the ‘Backway theater’. We are going to hear more about how it was developed, and which methodology is used.

João:  I was invited by IOM The Gambia to develop with them, to co-create a methodology on awareness raising for teenagers in schools. Our target group was teenagers in middle school and high school. And after the fieldwork in The Gambia in the city of Banjul and Serrekunda, which is the metropolitan area of the capital city, I have developed the ‘Backway Theater’, which is an improv theater with teenagers. They explain what they understand about migration, and then they receive training with returnees from the Backway.

So the backway is how the route to reach Europe from West Africa is known, especially in the government. So basically, the backway is the irregular migration from the Gambia through Senegal or Niger until you reach Libya and Italy or other parts of Europe. This is

the typical Mediterranean route or the typical Mediterranean route until 2018 19, because now we have seen a very big shift on the routes that migrants are taking into regular migration. But while the backway is that irregular migration, it is a very tough route. It is a very tough trip through the desert and then crossing the Mediterranean. And it is extremely dangerous.

People speak about it all the time, but it is very delicate. So you don’t know how to address all the issues that irregular migration entails and also create awareness and not just be the person who breaks the dreams of somebody who wants to migrate. How can you educate people and make people understand what are the dangers of this migration? So this was the issue in The Gambia. This was very hard because it is really confusing to understand what are the dreams of those teenagers? Because teenagers are teenagers. It does not matter where you are from because teenagers have a lot of things in common. And one of those things is dreaming.

We need to create awareness raising with joy. If you do not have joy and we do not have happiness, people are not listening. That is a human fact, especially if they are teenagers. Probably if you are listening to me, dear listener of the podcast, you have been a teenager or maybe you were a teenager, and you know that teenagers live in boredom and they need something very happy and very exciting to maintain their attention. So this in my opinion, is the main part of the main challenge of the awareness raising, managing your privilege as an educator, being honest about your privilege as an educator, being sensitive, listening and also being funny. You have to have fun with who you are creating awareness raising.

Bérénice: After this overall presentation of the awareness raising activity, João is going to give us more insights about the objectives and advantages of the activity.

João: This is an improvised theater that we have developed and doing this improv theater, teenagers have to tell a story of a migrant who wants to reach somewhere. So we give three destinations. One of them is Italy, the other one in Spain through the Atlantic actually. And the third one was Nigeria, which is part of the exodus. And then anyone is an equal citizen can go with their own passports. So we give the teenagers three possibilities of migration. They have to choose and then they decide where they want to go. And then they have to explain with an improvised theater, I mean, with no scripts, they

have just to go and act and tell the story of these migrants that they create the characters. It was really amazing how the Gambian teenagers are extremely creative. They really like soap operas and they really like movies and they are very passionate about acting and not about drama. We could see that it was very natural to them.

Bérénice: João just explained that during the activities, the students are asked to improvise around the story of a migrant. Now, we would like to know what these migration stories are.

João: So, it was really interesting to see that Gambian teenagers, they know about migration, they know the context, they have heard about it, and they have a critical view as well in their own way. But they have a critical view. It does not mean that they will not go on the backway or migrate or they will go. It is not about that. It is just that we wanted to understand what they know about migration, what are their thoughts on migration. And the best way of doing that is making them have action, putting them into improving and singing and creating some activities and making a map. It was a very nice activity.

Throughout the whole of this process. Who was the implementers of the activity? Who were the educators working in them? They were actual returnees from the Gambia who spoke the local languages, like who spoke Fula, who spoke Wolof. Some spoke Mandinka. And then they could communicate and they could really have a conversation with empathy and with understanding with those teenagers. I mean, I was helping, I was doing the supervision. But my task is to create the content and to give some advice and pedagogical content and to put everything together and give a training of trainers. But the stars of this activity are the returnees who are giving all of their light love and blood and passion to the teenagers. Ad they were having a lot of fun as well, because they have been teenagers and they understand the teenager so it was very it was very satisfying to them.

At the end of this improv theater, those facilitators, they explained that they were returnees, it’s a surprise actually. They do not explain that they have been a migrant themselves. So, they have been to the backway themselves. They are just adults, but they are just adults that explain to them an activity from them. But at the end, they explained that they were migrants and they are the migrants who were represented in the theater. And it’s a very shocking moment because denaturing like, oh my God, I can’t believe we were. Did I offend you? They were like super shocked that they see an actual person who went to the backway. And it is a very nice thing because it, it takes out the

taboo, it takes out this anxiety about migration, because then we have already established a relationship between the returnees and the teenagers, and they feel free to ask questions to the returnees.

Bérénice:  We are also curious to know how students react to the improvised theater and what are the perceptions and representations on migration.

João: What we could see in the theaters is that teenagers, they are on social media and they have Facebook and they know what is happening. They read news; they speak English. So, they have a lot more access to information that we adults working in international organizations or universities can think. I mean, they are very smart, and they are a new generation that is connected to what is happening in the world. And teenagers in the country have this big privilege, which is speaking English and learning English at school.

Teenagers know who a smuggler is. They know where the smugglers are, and they know what trafficking in persons is. It was pretty clear that they know because they always represent somebody who is smuggling people through different countries until the final destination. So, this is something that they are aware of and maybe they are not aware of how dangerous it might be or how it happens.

Bérénice: At the end of our discussion on the Back with theatre, you also share with us some recommendations to implement successful awareness raising activities.

João: Awareness raising needs empathy, that’s the only thing that I that I can think of, it really needs a lot of empathy, because if you’re creating awareness raising, you have to understand how people behave. It is really difficult to know how someone else thinks because it’s really difficult to understand other cultures in general. We cannot think that we own the world that or that we know only a knowledge of the world. Basically, we have to create empathy in a way that people feel listened to and people feel that they can express their feelings and they can trust you.

I could integrate what I have lived as a migrant in those activities as well and speak to them, try to speak to teenagers or to facilitators in a horizontal way. This is what I tried at least. And I think that is the key to success. I am not sure there is the key to success to everything in life, but it is a key to reaching people.

Bérénice: This podcast is part of the research series and is available on The research series is funded by the UK government through the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.

“The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in these podcasts belong solely to the speaker, and not reflect the view of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), its partners or donors. This podcast is protected under creative commons and can be used by third parties under certain conditions. For more information, contact [email protected].”
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