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Kenya: Slum Community Radio Hits the Airwaves

A five-story apartment building on the edge of Kibera recently sprouted a new antenna. It isn't much to look at - just six-feet high and dwarfed by the satellite dish beside it. But this is the wand through which the Voice of Kibera is now being broadcast to the transistor radios of a million neighbours.

Pamoja 99.9 FM quietly added its signal to the air waves two weeks ago. It joins a growing chorus of community radio stations responding to the lack of local media coverage. "Mainstream media just aren't touching on anything to do with the day-to-day aspects of life in Kibera," explains Muchiri Kioi, Pamoja's director of operations and the driving force behind the fledgeling project. He says the station will focus on issues that bear directly on its listeners: environment, women's rights, drug abuse, and community awareness, among others. "Even free funeral and wedding announcements," he adds, "things that no one here has access to at the moment. If you tune in to any other radio station, it's as though the million people living here don't exist".

Pamoja's own struggle to exist is by no means over. In the first place, they had to overcome considerable resistance from a government that perceived them as supporting the Opposition.

"The fact that we are in Raila Odinga's constituency seemed to hinder our relations with the Communications Commission of Kenya," says Kioi. Odinga is a leading opposition politician in the Orange Democratic Movement and a presidential aspirant. It took two and a half years for Pamoja to finally clear the bureaucratic hurdles set before it by the regulatory body.

"Now that we finally have permission to broadcast, we do feel entitled to some monetary support from the MP. After all, we are working hard to improve living conditions in his constituency." Thus far, he adds, Odinga has expressed verbal support but is yet to back that up financially.

Pamoja's need is demonstrated by the modesty of its headquarters. The station broadcasts from the top floor of the X9 building in Kibera's Ayany estate, but most of the rooms are bare. There is only one computer, but no soundboards, and no back-up generator in an area that suffers from regular sustained power outages, meaning the broadcast often falls silent.

What money they have managed to raise has gone to pay rent and buy the bare essentials needed to put out a signal. To save costs, the studio was hand-built by Kioi and his team of 12 Kibera youths; they soundproofed the walls with hardboard and super foam, then lined the ceiling with egg cartons. The studio is equipped with just one computer, a hand-held microphone, a single headset and an outdated sound mixer.

"We've had a very difficult time getting anyone to invest in a radio station that wasn't already up and running," he says "but how do you start up a radio station without any funds? After almost three years, we've finally managed to get off the ground - but only just. We are in dire need of donations to modernise the studio."

As a non-profit venture, Pamoja FM is legally prohibited from selling advertising, making it even more difficult to generate funds.

In the meantime, Pamoja compensates for its penury with enthusiasm. The youths are clearly thrilled at the chance to control the airwaves, and Mr Kioi relishes the opportunity to give something back to the community he grew up in.

A graduate of the University of Nairobi's Journalism School, Kioi put aside a globe-trotting career to focus on this project. He started out as a photo-journalist, working for the Kenya Times and the Daily Nation before moving to South Africa, where he spent a year freelancing for various news outlets. He subsequently moved to Oslo, Norway, reporting for Service Press, before the harsh weather brought him back to Kenya. In 1997 he became the BBC's Rift Valley correspondent, covering the democratic struggles that tore the region apart that year. When peace returned, he joined BBC's East Africa Bureau in Nairobi and moved into radio, where he stayed until 2005 when he decided to start up a station of his own.

Kioi is using his connections and experience to train the next generation of Kibera youth. Both BBC and Internews have offered to help him mentor the team he's assembled, as have a handful of seasoned independent reporters coming from Kibera.

Pamoja's young DJs range in age from 17 to 26, representing a diversity of interests and experience. They are clearly thrilled at the opportunity now before them, and dedicate long unpaid hours to the project. They meet daily with Mr Kioi to plan their individual shows and orchestrate Pamoja's overall programme. They all continue to live in the slum they grew up in, and aside from a common desire for fame and fortune they are motivated to give expression to a community that rarely speaks for itself.

"I want to use my programme to help free the people who live here from captive mind frames," says Achmed Yusuf, 22. "They have opportunities, you know, they just need to see them."

Ibrahim Husein, a lanky 26-year-old, plans to host a talk show featuring local leaders, along with radio dramas highlighting such issues as drug abuse and HIV/Aids.

Chris Oluwenyi is a 19-year-old reggae artist who will be running the station's music segment, including a "Pass-the-Mic" programme that invites local artists to perform for their own crowd. "We have some incredible talent in Kibera," he says, "but it's all underground. No one has an outlet for their music. If we go to one of the bigger stations with a new song, they don't even look at us. But with Pamoja FM, local artists will have a chance to get their voices out."

Hadija Ahmed is a 22-year-old passionate about the environment, a pressing concern in a region famous for its flying toilets and garbage heaps. "We have to sensitise the people," she says, "because solutions exist for them right here - they can improve their own environment without waiting for help, but a lot of them just don't know how."

Pamoja FM itself is setting a fine example, having started life as a youth development centre four years ago. When Mr Kioi and his team first started thinking about ways to expand, they initially struck upon the idea of a community newspaper.

"But not many people in Kibera would ever buy a newspaper," he says, "and more importantly, there are many here who can't read."

Kioi describes the new radio station as the original Pamoja Development Centre's "daughter," asserting that the essential mission of helping Kiberans to help themselves remains unchanged - only the tactics have evolved. "We've got a wider network now," he says, "we've broadened our wings. But we're still Pamoja, still trying to bring Kiberans together."

(The Nation (Nairobi), 18 August 2007)

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