I had already received my letter of recall from the Foreign Service after having served almost seven years at the Embassy of the Republic of Zambia in Washington DC. That was mid 2014. During the period I was at the Mission, I had several times gone on one of those ten day leave to visit friends and relatives spread across the United States.
Though I had been to Atlanta once before on official duty, I had always longed for an opportunity that would enable me visit places of interest such as the CNN Center, the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Center, the World of Coca-Cola and the Jimmy Carter Library. Most of all, I had always promised an American friend Professor Debra (Spitulnik) Vidali that one day, before the end of my tour, I would bring along my family to Atlanta so she could get to meet them.
Professor Vidali is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University. She spent several years in Zambia in Lusaka, Luapula and Northern Provinces researching on the Bemba language. She has authored numerous essays on radio and peoples’ relationships with media and language in Zambia. In the 80s, her first port of call had been the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) where she interacted with most broadcasters from both the English and Bemba sections. She had also lived and met with some Bemba chiefs in most parts of Luapula and the then Northern Province. At Emory University, she is recognized as an expert in the Bemba language and the Bemba traditions.
It was no wonder that when I visited her at the Department of Anthropology, her office was full of African Literature books, many of Zambia writers. Her library consisted Zambian writers from Stephen Mpashi’s Pano Chalo, Chekesoni, Uwakalema Takaleka to Andrea Masiye’s Before Dawn, Dominic Mulaisho’s Tongue of the Dumb, Alick Musonda’s Maliongo, Imamba taifyala mamba mbiye. Other Zambian writers included books by Mubanga Kashoki, Maon Kachinga, Brighton Lubasi, Phallen Bwalya and Mwanza Nakawala. Dr. Vidali also has the largest private collection of Harriet Chirwa and Agnes Morton’s Bana Chimbusa programmes, Mwansa Kapeya’s Ifyabukaya and David Yumba’s Kabusha Takolelwe Ubowa.
She was later to tell me that her celebrated Bemba Presenter and Producer on local language radio on the Home Service of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) was the late David Yumba, the initiator of Kabusha Takolelwe Ubowa, a Bemba proverb translated into English as “A person who inquires first, is not poisoned by mushroom”. The programme whose letters were be read by the co-presenter, the late Emelda Yumbe, were answers to letters from listeners about politics, current affairs, the family and society in general. The same programme was presented and produced in the Lozi and Kaonde languages as Singanyeganye and Mbulaiko respectively.
Dr. Vidali woud also state the importance of other local language programmes on the Home Service (Radio One) such as the Nyanja’s Phochezda Madzulo (meaning to hang around in the evening), Ifyabukaya in Bemba (meaning things you know), Malikopo, a Tonga programme of a hero advising people in urban areas whose income had become low to go back to the land).
As we got deeper into the importance of vernacular or local languages in community broadcasting, we were first agreed that radio is the most popular mass medium in Zambia and that at the moment Zambia had a four tier broadcasting system that comprises public, commercial, community and religious broadcasting.
This statement had been further made by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in its submission to the Parliamentary Committee on Information and Broadcasting in November, 2014 and I quote, “A Public broadcaster is one that broadcasts for public benefit rather than for commercial purposes. Whereas, according t the IBA Act, a Commercial broadcaster is one that provides a diverse range of programming addressing a wide section of the country. It provides an appropriate amount of local and national programming.
On the other hand, Community and Religious broadcasting is one that reflects the needs of the people in the community which includes the cultural language and demographic needs. It focusses on the provision of programmes that highlight grassroots community issues such as developmental, environmental and educational with Religious broadcasting focusing on the religious beliefs and needs of the people and provide a distant broadcasting service dealing specifically with religious issues,” end of quote.
The emergence of local language usage as a central component of Community Radio is an outcome of the liberalized market that has shifted broadcasters’ attention to the rural audiences as the largest section of the population of Zambia. For instance, rural populations are always a focal point in terms of government policy making and in the highlighting of activities carried out by the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and any organization that is concerned with improving the living standards and conditions of the under-privileged. It can also be used to address issues focusing on agriculture, the environment and tourism.
Politically, ethnic tensions, human rights and corruption can be addressed and ‘digested’ fully in the usage of a local language on a Community Radio. Other issues include how low literacy levels, gender disparities, problems of HIV/AIDS and any other communicable diseases can be tackled.
Local language on Community Radio can also contribute to a positive media step towards information, entertainment and education provision. For this reason, it is expected that Community Radio that uses local language in its broadcasts should carry more local content that is relevant to their target population. Kariba FM located in Siavonga, as an example, would be expected to address issues that affect the farming and fishing community in Siavonga or indeed highlight any other issue that deeply affects people in Siavonga area.
Herbert Macha a media expert, who was instrumental in the launch of Kariba FM Radio says, “The radio broadcasts in Siavonga, Chirundu and some parts of Zimbabwe. People in the area predominantly speak Tonga and a bit of Goba. 70 percent of programmes are in Tonga and only 30 per cent are in English.”
According to Macha, for a long time people in the area had no or poor reception from ZNBC and therefore were forced to listen in to Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) whose programmes are in Shona and Ndebele.
He adds, “You must also understand that there are Tonga speaking people in Zimbabwe and this radio has linked the two peoples’ who unfortunately found themselves on either side of the Kariba.
In the same line one would expect Mazabuka FM Radio to address issues of interest to the local community. The role of Mazabuka FM, Kariba FM, Liseli, Lyambai, Radio Mano, Chikuni, Chikaya and the rest of the other Community Radio Stations spread across Zambia cannot be over emphasized.
Against this background, it could be said that Community Radio plays an important role in peoples’ lives. It gives people a sense of the world they live in. They get information and news on what is happening within their locality, country and the world at large. It allows people who are otherwise excluded from other forms of mainstream media such as print media, a channel to express their voices and a role to play in public discourse. But at the end of it all, the local language plays a catalyst role.
Ben Kangwa is a broadcast journalist and Media Consultant.