Radio remains the most important communications medium in sub-Saharan Africa, especially so in South Sudan.  With electricity, cellular coverage and Internet restricted to a handful of cities in an area the size of Texas, radio remains the only technology that can reach isolated groups. That said, batteries outside towns and trading posts are hard to come by and expensive, making rural communities even harder to reach.

Picture courtesy T Thielen

From late 2006 to 2008, Lifeline Energy shipped 265,000 of our solar and wind-up radios to South Sudan in support of a broad-based civic education initiative spearheaded by the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The radios were deployed to support Let’s Talk, a 30-minute weekly programme covering a host of issues – political transition, rights and responsibilities in a democracy, the new constitutional framework and political processes. Providing listening access through our power-independent radios not only helped ensure access for women and youth, but also enabled people to listen to topics of interest like the weather, news and educational broadcasts. Let’s Talk was broadcast on Sudan Radio Service and Miraya FM, the south’s most popular station.

In a country with less than 50 miles of paved roads, delivering these huge consignments was no easy task, as evidenced by the trucks transporting radios stuck in the mud on the Juba-Yei road. The responsibility of distributing the radios fell to NDI’s partner NGOs working in the southern states for use by listening groups.

Juba-Yei road

Our project manager, Chhavi Sharma, and I travelled to Juba in February 2008 to work with NDI’s on-the-ground partners to help create a training programme. Although I had been to Khartoum, it was my first trip to the south. The training, attended by about 40 local and international NGO staff of the partner NGOs, took place in a community centre overlooking the Nile. Literacy levels in southern Sudan are some of the lowest in the world and for women, literacy is an appalling 8%. Therefore, the training had to be highly visual and pictorial. Teachers and community leaders were identified as radio guardians, but we understood that many might never have operated a radio before.

Radio training programme in Juba

The lack of infrastructure makes feedback difficult to obtain. However, I am confident that our blue radios have made a positive difference to people’s engagement in this week’s referendum to decide whether or not Southern Sudan should become Africa’s 53rd state.

I have watched with immense interest the television images of the long and patient queues of high spirited women and men wearing their best clothes and baking for hours in the sun waiting to stamp their thumbprints on the ballot paper.  It brought back fond memories of 1994, when I waited for several hours myself to vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections on the second of three election days. The role that radio played in informing around those elections cannot be underestimated either.

by Kristine Pearson