Pump up the volume

Christien Jaspars / Panos Pictures

How’s this for an improbable link-up? Take poor village communities with problems few outsiders care about. Organize them into clubs and get them up to speed with basic radio production techniques. Offer training on moderating discussions and get them talking about the issues that concern them. Next send a tape of the discussion to a national radio producer who has agreed to air the club’s concerns. The producer plays the tape to someone who can make a difference – a Member of Parliament, say – putting them in the hot seat and recording their response. The two tapes are edited and broadcast over the national radio network and community radio channels. Wheels creak into motion; problems are slowly addressed.

It may seem unlikely but these kind of rural radio listening clubs (which do much more than just listen) are a reality in Zambia, Malawi and Namibia. And they have ushered in welcome change.

Originally started 10 years ago to give a voice to village women, there are now youth and men’s listening clubs, too.

In Mazabuka, Zambia, the clubs started by discussing the poor roads and the scarcity of water in the area. Eventually, the Government responded by improving roads and sinking boreholes.

Much of the focus nowadays is on how HIV/AIDS is affecting communities. In the Mangochi region of Malawi, the men’s group talked about the problem of HIV testing and counselling facilities being too far away. The Ministry of Health responded by offering facilities in a local clinic. The youth group from the same area talked about the soaring rate of HIV infection. Why? Because the only recreation young people had was to hang around a lakeside patch where interaction with tourists gave rise to casual sex and prostitution. The Ministry of Youth responded by roping in UNICEF to build a youth centre with a sports complex and counselling on offer.

Walter Otis Tapfumaneyi is the regional HIV and AIDS Programme Manager with Panos Southern Africa (PSAf), the NGO which was instrumental in using radio listening club methodology. He explains how things have changed:

‘The major achievement of the clubs is that they have given rural folk a voice. Women, especially, now have the confidence to discuss issues that affect their lives and opportunities to debate issues they would otherwise only hear other people speak about. They can now talk to their Members of Parliament, to cabinet ministers, and get direct responses. Women who before were shy, could not easily articulate issues or take part in local meetings, now talk with self-confidence. They talk with their husbands who can no longer make all the decisions. Before they would just listen, but now they can challenge.

‘It has also given women the chance to speak about matters which were taboo – like child defilement [sexual abuse]. It was impossible to talk about sex, let alone talk about it on the radio.’

The challenges are numerous – from the outright banning of proposed clubs in Zimbabwe by a touchy Ministry of Information to the expectations of participants. Tapfumaneyi explains: ‘The excitement of being able to air their views can lead to too high expectations of what will come out of it. The wish list is sometimes impossible. Funding is also a challenge. Rural communities are very poor. They cannot afford to buy batteries, tapes. We work hand in hand with the national broadcaster – but national broadcasters are poorly funded, too – they need to fundraise as well.’

The enthusiasm of the rural communities remains high. People listen excitedly every week to ‘their’ programme as it comes over the airwaves, hearing their own voices and studying the responses. Sometimes the programme becomes the basis of the next discussion.

Although Panos keeps its involvement in the clubs to a minimum, the NGO cannot stop its financial support just yet. And the idea is catching on – radio listening clubs are springing up in other parts of the world, run by different organizations tackling different concerns. •

  • email: [email protected] www.panos.org.zm
  • New Internationalist issue 400 magazine cover This article is from the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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