In a country where taboos are the rule, Alyaa Gad breaks the silence. At a distance but keeping Egypt in her heart, she answers embarrassing questions about sexuality and health.
“How do I do it? put on a very serious face and talk science with confidence. And it works!” Alyaa’s project Afham.tv offers easy-to-understand health educational videos discussing first aid, sexuality, diseases, motherhood and beauty.
What’s Afham.tv about?
The work of Afham.tv is based on preventing. It uses simple methods and tools with visual aids, in order to make it possible for health educators to reproduce the lessons in any setting: at home, school, hospital, clinic, or a health unit.
How is it that a doctor living in Switzerland starts producing educational videos for the Arab world?
Twenty years ago, I had a traumatic personal experience that made me want to rethink my life as a spoilt middle-class Cairo girl who wanted to become a fashion designer. So I held a pen and a paper and wrote down: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I see myself in 5, 10, or 50 years?
One thing I wrote was: “I want to change the world to be a better place for women and girls”. I was in my final year of medicine, but I wasn’t so keen on medical careers. I am the classical story of an Egyptian child whose parents forced her to study medicine because of its status. Then I thought: “But I love teaching! How about teaching medicine?”
I got off, looked for a job in health education, and an international organization sent me down (or up- obviously everything in Egypt is upside down) to Upper Egypt, to the most deprived remote villages where I spent some of the best yet hardest years of my life, with real Egyptians. Truly struggling mothers, tough nature, poverty, disease -you name it.
The situation was not easy after all. The culture was too strict and I was tired of fighting my way through living there with the rigid male-dominated mentality. So I thought: “OK then, let me go study further in Europe and make my project even bigger, perhaps on TV!”
So I travelled, I studied, I prepared, I tried and failed, I got frustrated and very bitter, but then, the miracle happened, and the Internet came along with YouTube. And here I am today, living my dream, backed with a great partner, and an amazing Swiss production team who believe in my cause, and work twice as much for this humane cause.
Are you planning to air the videos on TV?
I have tried for more than 10 years to get attention to my project, but all I got was people who gave me false promises and stood me up. I then decided I would do it on my own, and it’s working very well.
The only problem is I am not able to reach everyone, especially mothers and children in remote Egyptian villages. And that’s a new challenge I’m tackling. I have met some health educators online who are willing to show my videos in the villages they visit. So let’s see it as a ray of light.
How do you financially support the production?
I pay for them from my own pocket. Call me crazy, but I have been having a dream for 20 years, and a mission to help my people, and nothing can stop me anymore. Hopefully one day I would get some business partners.
Is it difficult to talk about sexual health in Egypt?
Yes. Sexual health is a very sensitive issue, but what I do is put on a very serious face, talk with confidence and with a scientifically-backed line of thought, and it works very well. I have heard that my videos have saved marriages and in some cases, lives!
What does the health sector need in Egypt?
Well, a lot! Got time? Imagine health systems in countries looking like a pyramid. The base of the pyramid is where most money goes. In a well-developed system, that base is the “prevention” part. First-world countries spend mainly on preventing disease; and that is how they spend the least on treating it (on top the pyramid). Now, our health pyramid in Egypt is upside down! So we spend a lot on treatment because we do nothing about prevention. And that is where I see the importance of my work. Health education is the key and the base that we can’t go without.