By Timothy La Rose
When Ebola hit Guinea in 2014, the country faced many challenges to stop the spread of the virus, including a widespread rural population and numerous local languages. Learn how building a network of rural radio stations helped overcome these barriers of communication, creating valuable tools for rural communities that are still being used today.
CONAKRY, Guinea, 14 September 2016 – Radio, the conventional wisdom goes, is the best way to reach the peoples of Africa. I heard this time and time again while working at United Nations Headquarters – usually before the launch of some global campaign. “Don’t forget about radio,” someone would say. Everyone would nod.
As a newbie in Guinea when the Ebola outbreak started in 2014, radio seemed like the most obvious way to reach the most rural communities with life-saving information. It wasn’t.
During the outbreak and even now when I speak to journalists, social scientists and epidemiologists in restaurants in the capital or small cafes in the field, they often ask me, “Why was the outbreak so much more difficult to end in Guinea than in Liberia?
There are so many answers to that question. So many theories. One sure reason that everyone can agree on, is the geography of the country. Guinea is more than twice the size of Liberia. Its seemingly never-ending vastness obscures village after village hidden around each corner or at the end of another left turn down a dirt road. It is impossible to imagine when looking at a map. Yet in those villages, the Ebola virus lived like pneumonia hiding in the infinite alveoli of a lung, and this is where we had to go to fight it.
Radio can act like a general antibiotic reaching all affected areas. At UNICEF, we started working with rural radio stations immediately. But, as we discovered early on, we didn’t really know the barriers to their reach. We found that two-thirds of the 24 existing stations simply couldn’t afford the petrol to keep their generators running. Even mapping the signal strength and reach of the existing rural radios proved very difficult. Most only operated at night, well beyond the time when local and international organizations can safely drive into the bush to conduct the complex scientific test of turning on their car stereos and listening.
Complicating matters more, in huge pockets of the country, including in the hot zones, there was no rural radio at all. In Forecariah, while the virus raged for over one year, many people got their news from Sierra Leone – whose policies for combatting Ebola were very different. People in Guinea started to fear lock downs and other such responses that were well tailored for a Sierra Leonean response but would never work in Guinea. In parts of Kankan, people were listening to the radio from Mali and missing all of the Ebola prevention and warning messages provided by the Guinean authorities. When the outbreak started in Siguri, a mining community near the border of Mali with some of the lowest indicators in Guinea, some had barely heard about the outbreak at all. And the process of sensitization had to start from almost zero.
This is not to say that radio itself didn’t work at all. People in rural communities throughout Guinea did receive radio broadcasts. One could always turn on a small portable and tune into BBC Afrique or RFI. But quickly the next problem was revealed. While Guinea is a Francophone country, outside of the capital most people only speak local languages. Receiving information in French is either impossible to understand or lacks credibility to rural communities.
Beyond Ebola, Guinea is a country plagued by other outbreaks. Polio, measles, meningitis, and cholera among others regularly make their way through the countryside. Despite the building of hundreds of schools, there are still communities miles and miles away from the nearest schoolhouse. The literacy is low, and dangerously violent traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and cutting rates, at 97 per cent, are among the highest in the world. We realized very early on that a strong network of rural radios broadcasting in multiple local languages reaching even the most remote villages would be necessary to address all of these issues and more.
In March of 2015, UNICEF inaugurated the first newly built rural radio station in Forecariah, then the centre of the Ebola outbreak. I was told that this was the first radio station in Sousou reaching Forecariah that anyone could remember.
After Forecariah, we built a station in Boffa, then Dalaba, then Boke. By the time Ebola was over in Guinea on 29 December 2015, UNICEF had built, rehabilitated, or supported 22 rural radio stations. But there was more to be done. Some communities were still not being reached. We placed repeaters high up in the hills and continued adding new stations.
Last month, following a week of inaugurations in Leloma, Koubia, Dubreka, and Fria, along with the Ministry of Communications who is supporting these stations moving forward, we opened the final rural radio station on the island of Kassa. The station is designed to reach all of the people living on the five islands off of the coast of Conakry. Broadcasting to the island villages in their own language is essential. Past cholera outbreaks often begin off of the coast.
When you see the stations themselves they aren’t very impressive – just a small building with a few meeting rooms. In the back there is a tiny studio with a few microphones and two computers. But they punch above their weight. They play local traditional music and tell old stories of their village history. People from Conakry can call in and greet their whole family in a village far away. The radios are not just for one-way communication. There are radio clubs and call-in shows allowing the community to work with the DJs and influence the programming. Most importantly, the radios provide information that can protect the villages.
All told, UNICEF, along with our partners, has built 10 new rural radio stations and rehabilitated or reinforced 16 more. But there is still more work ahead. Lola, a border prefecture in Guinea’s forest region, near to where the Ebola outbreak started, still needs a radio. UNICEF will be exploring possibilities.
Building the radios themselves was just the first step. The opportunities for working with rural radios to improve the lives of Guinean mothers and children are endless. UNICEF continues to seek support from our partners to keep this new network up and running and to support the implementation of new programmes.
There are new ideas every day – but at the next meeting in United Nations Headquarters we can proudly say that Guinea radio is online.
Updated: 15 September 2016