The letters to the editor tell the story. A schoolboy in Abidjan tears a page from his exercise book to scribble thanks to the editor. The police chief in Diouloulou, Senegal, buys an issue for his wife every three months. A reader in a remote area of Mali is so grateful for his subscription he gives two chickens to the person who sold him the subscription. Midwives in Upper Volta, children in Zaire, village blacksmiths in Mali and university deans in Senegal studiously pour over this African magazine. Entire articles are broadcast over various radio stations.
Overnight, Famille et Developpement (F &. D), the new hard-hitting quarterly magazine, by, for and about Africans, has become one of the most popular international periodicals and perhaps the most influential in one of the poorest, most information-starved areas of the Third World.
In this part of Africa the censorship of military regimes is heavy-handed; literacy in some countries is below 10 per cent; some countries are without a single indigenous magazine or newspaper. Here the ‘press’ consists mostly of government propaganda, cheap European periodicals, soap-opera ‘photo-romans’, and occasionally mimeographed, locally produced ‘magazines’.
*"From crib to tomb, Africans, especially women, are thirsty for information in all areas ... The articles of F & D relate to the education of mothers for better child care, breast feeding vs. artificial feeding, abortion, family planning. I can only encourage F & D to go forward for the emancipation of our dear Africa. Courage and perseverance."* - *Mrs. Toffa Tanimowo Afiobe Olouwa*
Ministry of Education,
F & D, published in Senegal, has broken with the norms of African journalism. It offers no gimmicks, no giveaways, no sensationalism or sentimentality. Instead, the magazine generates debate over such fundamental but often ‘taboo’ subjects as polygamy, teenage abortion, alcoholism, rural medicine, contraception, and the adverse impact of tourism. The colourful 64-page magazine exemplifies solution-oriented journalism. It is intended to help Africans bootstrap themselves over the monumental and mundane challenges of development - be they health problems, appropriate technology, improved diets, sex education, latrine construction, or the ill effects of Westernisation.
This ‘self-help’ publication attacks problems, not governments - a fact which has helped it become widely accepted, from the right-wing regime of Gabon to the extreme left in Benin. This should not be taken to mean F & D is simply a sort of do-it-yourself magazine crammed with practical suggestions. It attempts to help its readers break away from stereotyped models of thinking. Far from focusing solely on family issues, it touches on the widest spectrum of problems. It has had articles on topics as varied as solar energy, unemployment, traditional medicine, drug abuse, delinquency, drought problems in the Sahel, etc. In each issue a few pages are devoted to explaining basic economic concepts and problems in very simple language and another section carries regular information on scientific discoveries, research and problems in all fields. Special importance is given to educational problems and the need to find new modes of education and training in Africa.
*"Famille et Developpement is the type of magazine Africa and Africans have been awaiting since Independence... started by Africans who can help us resolve our problems."* - *Koffi Appia Alexander*,
High School Student Bongouanou,
Total F & D sales as long ago as January 1978 stood at close to 4’0,000. F & D could then have been reaching as many as 400,000 people in the 17 French-speaking countries including Senegal, Togo, Upper Volta, Benin, Mali, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Zaire, Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Congo, and Mauritania, as well as subscribers in North Africa where the magazine is distributed.
Crucial to F & D’s success (and perhaps one of its most significant contributions) is a pioneering focus on the vital role of women in Africa’s development - particularly in the areas of family-rearing. Traditionally, women in sub-Saharan Africa are considered third-class citizens. Fathers sell their daughters for the highest ‘bride price’ in this polygamous society where the role of woman is that of servant and child-bearer. The vast majority of women are the wives of poor rural peasants. They shoulder the larger share of the heavy workload of village life; they rise before dawn to begin their daily chores of pounding millet, drawing water, gathering firewood, watering the garden, caring for the children and goats, cooking and washing for their families.
*"I respectfully submit to your great kindness to inform you that your magazine "Letters to the Editor" has put a lot of lessons into my head,"* - *L. Lago*,
That an indigenous publication of such quality and content could blossom and grow to meet the diverse needs of sub-Saharan Africa, defies not only the region’s reputation, but also its expansive geography, cultural diversity, and varied political economies. F & D’s distribution extends from Senegal and Mauritania on the west, to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and now includes a growing number of subscribers in Europe and North America. F & D’s range of territory is highly heterogeneous. In religion it is a patchwork of Christianity, Islam and countless animistic cults. Culturally, it is a vast cross-section of innumerable languages and traditions. The economic spectrum among countries ranges from poverty-stricken to resource-rich. Rwanda, Burundi, Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, Chad and Benin are among the poorest countries on earth - frequently classified among the ‘Fourth World’ nations. Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Zaire are among the most potentially rich in terms of natural resources of the African nations.
In addition to the region’s diversity there are many obstacles to development in sub-Saharan Africa: the inertia of military dictatorships; widespread government corruption - from lowly civil servants to presidents; unwieldy bureaucracies and highly centralised school systems left behind by French colonists. More often than not, when daily newspapers do exist, they are rigidly controlled by government.
The genesis of F & D was in the spring of 1973, shortly after a conference on sex education was held in Bamako, Mali. The conference, which was the first of its kind in French-speaking Africa, had suggested that an international agency should fund a much-needed bulletin on family life education. At the same time, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a semi-public Canadian development agency, began toying with the idea of starting a publication on population issues. It hired a respected Swiss sociologist, Dr. Pierre Pradervand, experienced in problems of family health and population in Africa, to explore the concept and (if feasible) to send up a trial balloon issue within 18 months. With an openmindedness rare among aid agencies, the IDRC ended up accepting a complete revision of its initial population-oriented proposal. This revision gave birth to F & D.
In the spring of 1974, Senegalese social scientist Angelique Savane was hired as chief editor. Later that year a sample issue was circulated throughout Africa. The sample met with rave reviews from readers who warmly embraced it as ‘our’ new periodical. The IDRC committed itself to three years of funding, and the magazine was off and running.
*". . . let me mention just one example of F & D’s impact: the article on skin whiteners in issue No. 4. Many of our students have now understood the dangers to which the v expose themselves by using these products. We can say all we want, they don’t believe it, but the day they find the same warnings printed on paper, it becomes gospel for them. I would like to suggest two other topics,for your consideration: high-heeled shoes and the custom of wearing dark sunglasses when there is no sunshine. "* - *M.G. Verbraeken*,
From it inception, the basic philosophy behind F & D was one of helping people help themselves. ‘Development is a grass roots process,’ explains Pradervand. ‘People cannot be developed; they have to develop themselves. The problem with development in the past is that it has been done to or for people sometimes even against people, but rarely with people…’
F & D’s approach is positive; ‘We dont buy the stereotype of the backward Africa,’ says Pradervand. ‘Our first premise is that our reader is intelligent. He may be semi-literate, but he is intelligent and acutely aware of his own needs.’ To this purpose, F & D provides basic ‘do-it-yourself’ articles in the field of health and nutrition, so that readers can take action themselves. The most popular articles are frequently the most controversial. They centre around the magazine’s direct approach to sensitive topics. F & D’s article on clitorectomy (the custom of incising or cutting off the clitoris) was the first ever on this subject published in a masscirculation periodical in Africa. For a full year readers debated the article in the quarterly ‘Letters to the Editor’ column. Until that time, the subject had been unmentionable. In Togo, trainee midwives used the clitorectomy article in their classes; throughout subSaharan Africa teachers read and discussed the article with their students.
The impact of F & D is difficult to measure; soaring circulation figures dont tell the human story. But improved village hygiene, better diet, continued breastfeeding rather than bottlefeeding, a greater respect for women and African culture - and especially a clearer perception that individuals and communities are not victims of ‘fate’ or other unintelligible forces: these are all part of the gradual revolution in behaviour and attitudes being fomented by the magazine. The results are real, although they will never show up on a balance sheet or cost-benefit analysis of the publication.