When I set-up Lifeline Energy (or Freeplay Foundation as it was known then) in January 1999 I was tasked with finding ways to get the first model hand-crank radios to rural Africans who didn’t have listening access. Although I had travelled widely across Africa, admittedly I was naïve when it came to radio. It didn’t take me long to appreciate the profound power and importance of radio in the lives of the poorest.

In early 1999 I received a hand-written airmail letter with beautiful Rwandan stamps addressed to ‘The Manager’ with the picture below.  The author, was a student intern working for an NGO in Rwanda.  She said that our wind-up radios, which had been donated by the British government, were of great benefit to helping “child-headed households”. This was the first time I’d heard that term.  The 1994 genocide having orphaned an estimated one million children meant that an entire generation could grow up without a parent.  HIV/AIDS, which was largely unknown before the genocide, was rapidly becoming a pandemic in the Great Lakes region expedited by widespread raping of women, further orphaning children.

I later went to Rwanda, and with the aid of a local charity – Refugee Trust – spoke to groups of children who headed households and had received our radios. Some were as young as nine and most were girls.  Nothing prepared me for this experience. The messages perpetrated by the now infamous hate radio stastion Radio Mille Collines were well known, but for those old enough it was never mentioned.

The photo Kristine received

These children were the poorest of the poor.  Destitute, their only clothes were the ones on their backs. Most slept on the ground. Many were malnourished and didn’t feel well. All had experienced unimaginable trauma and had responsibilities that no child should ever have to bear.  How they coped at all, I don’t know.

The children told me that they listened to their radios from the time they woke up until they went to sleep, if they slept at all.  They said that they were afraid of the dark and worried about soldiers coming. The voices on the radio made them feel safe after dark. Nearly every child said that what they wanted to listen to most was the news. Given the instability in the region at that time, they wanted to know what was going on in Rwanda and in neighbouring Congo where a fresh conflict was underway.

Their impressions of the genocide and what happened seemed to depend on what side of the genocide that their parents were on. In either instance, they revealed that they didn’t trust the adults around them and felt exploited. They said that the radio was “their most trusted friend”. At that time their favorite stations were the Voice of America’s Great Lakes Service and the BBC World Service.  Both broadcast in the local language of Kinyarwanda.

In addition to the news, they needed basic, practical advice that a parent or trusted adult would provide about hygiene, health, nutrition, cooking and farming and livestock care.  A soap opera drama called Urunana had begun broadcasting which included an orphaned family in the story line. Many said that they never thought that they would be rich enough to own a radio or to even buy batteries. They could listen any time because our radios could be wound up on demand.

Children gathered in groups of up to 20 to listen and discuss what they heard, helping one another. Francine, 15, said that winding up the radio made her feel important and it was like having a ‘magic box’.

A child-headed family with their radio

Mukakarimba, a 14-year old head of household told me that her most important possession used to be her goat.  Now it was her radio. Jean Paul, 13, said that without his radio he would have not known to wash his hands before eating and that he had to boil water before drinking it. Eriminata, 16  and the head of a household of five younger siblings, said that her radio was her ‘lifeline’. The name stayed with us.

Over the years I’ve been to Rwanda 35 times and have spoken to hundreds of children who head households.  It was where the idea for the Lifeline radio, the first radio designed for children living on their own and distance education was conceived. We’ve been responsible for the distribution of more than 16,000 solar and hand-powered radios in Rwanda reaching an estimated 300,000 listeners.

To those children who are poor and isolated, on-demand radio access is still their lifeline. Children cite Radio Rwanda and community stations as their favorites nowadays.  Rwanda’s radio waves are rich with programmes on farming, peace and reconciliation, livestock care, the environment and health.

Although the groups of listeners are smaller in Rwanda than in other programmes, such as those found in schools, the impact of radio is potent and positive. Children feel that they have information that they ‘own’ and that they can trust.

The challenges of growing up yourself while also trying to guide your siblings and provide them with life’s basic needs are incomprehensible. The most effective way that these children can consistently obtain the information they need to improve their situation, is via radio. We at Lifeline Energy recognise our responsibility to ensuring that these children have access to information and recommit ourselves to providing suitably powered radios to those who need them most.

by Kristine Pearson in honour of World Radio Day