By Vusumuzi Sifile
In the past, traditional authorities across Southern Africa would send messengers to beat some drums, blow trumpets or unleash some smoke in order to communicate a message to their subject. The sound of the drum or the blowing of a certain type of smoke was believed to be enough communication for the community to understand the message, and take the necessary action.
However, this approach had a number of limitations, especially in terms of timeliness and geographical reach. Some messages would take too long to reach all the targeted recipients, and when they did, some of the messages would have been distorted during further transmission through secondary sources.
The times have changed and the drum and other communication tools have also moved with the times. The advancement of radio has revolutionised the interaction between traditional leaders and their subjects. Radio is now complementing the various traditional communication tools as a channel for communication between citizens and their traditional leaders.
Radio presents a number of advantages over the drum and other traditional media. The personalised nature of the radio message allows for real time dialogue, enabling individual listeners to relate with the message as if they were with the messenger. As a result, there is usually immediate feedback on radio through phone-ins, text messages, online platforms and other tools. This is not the case with traditional media like the drum where the communication is mostly unilateral, and the messenger is at times some mysterious figure. Radio also allows the message to be repeated and repackaged in an organised way in order to reach out to a wider section of society.
While implementing a regional project titled Radio Platform for Community Development (RPCD), Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) established from traditional leaders and their subjects in the three countries that radio has now replaced traditional knowledge management systems as a conduit for cultural preservation. PSAf implemented the RPCD in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, with funding from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).
From the RPCD experience, community radio stations should not be seen as just platforms for education, entertainment and information, but as carriers of communities’ identity, as conduits for seeing through and understanding a particular community.
Listening to Inkosi Mzukuzuku of Embangweni and Inkosi Sibande of Eswazini in Mzimba district in Malawi, it became clear that community radio carries a deep symbolic element of the communities’ identity. Through the local radio station and the radio listening clubs, the chiefs or Amakhosi are not only able to communicate with their subjects, but are also able to keep contact with their fellow Ngonis across the border, in Lundazi, in the Eastern Province of Zambia. Radio is slowly assuming the role of that traditional messenger.
This brings out another key element of community radio in modern society: facilitating the integration of different communities. From the experience of the Ngonis in Mzimba, Malawi and Lundazi, Zambia, radio is a powerful tool for enhancing cultural and traditional ties. Ngonis on either side are able to engage in discourses that define and shape their culture and traditions of different societies. Through radio broadcasts, community members are able to create and share symbols of cultural representation.
The reliance on local indigenous languages has also enabled community radio stations have to become anchors of the local language and local traditions of the communities they cover. Community radio provides a platform for the conveyance of local languages, thereby providing a platform for collating and disseminating messages that define that society’s history and future.
When people share a language, it strengthens their identity and enables them to communicate who they truly are, and it is through language that communities are able to establish alliances and form networks for driving their development. By promoting local languages, community radio has therefore become a conduit for cultural development and emancipation. If well supported, radio can help achieve this and enhance cultural development and regional integration in Southern Africa.
As we commemorate World radio Day on 13 February, it is therefore important to reflect on this exceptional role of radio, especially community radio as a springboard for the sustainable development in Southern Africa.
Vusumuzi Sifile is Regional Manager for Communication and Knowledge Management at Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf). For feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org. This article has also been published in different media houses across Southern Africa.