In a dilapidated structure with lack of appropriate equipment, a voice of one of the community members is heard discussing the problem of HIV which has ravaged their community. The radio station may not have all the necessary equipment and personnel but they still call it their radio. It is the only radio station that provides them with current affairs and general information on various developments in their community. Community members meet to discuss many issues ranging from cattle disease to lack of health facilities and schools for their children.  

A station manager of radio Lyambai in Mongu recently remarked that since the closure of the radio station, people have been denied the source of information. Government accused the station of fueling violence in the recent riots that rocked Mongu, the provincial capital of Western Province. The riots were sparked by government’s refusal to give permit to the local people to protest over lack of development and government’s failure to honour the Barotse agreement of 1964. It is alleged that the radio station gave space to the organizers and activists to air their views on the matter. This did not go down well with government who instructed the police to confiscate the equipment and close down the station.

This is not unusual in Zambia. Many community radio stations have been threatened with closures and withdrawal of operating licenses if they fail to abide by government regulation. Radio Lyambai will not be the last radio station to receive such threats from the government. These radio stations are often an initiative of the church, community members and individuals who have little or no experience in broadcast media. To make matters worse, many of these radio stations operate with limited staff volunteers from the surrounding communities.

Notwithstanding the many challenges facing these radio stations, they have played and continue to play an active role in enhancing freedom of speech. Through the local radio stations, people express their views on many issues such as agriculture, water and sanitation and sometimes economic and political issues. My recent encounter with 49 year old Lucy Mukwasa of Nakonde, a northern border town of Zambia reveals that the purpose of the radio programmes was to help communities listen to the power of their own voices. Lucy who is HIV positive says her life has been transformed by the radio programme aired on the local radio station, Isoka FM. She says with a beaming smile that she has been liberated from alcohol abuse and she now knows her HIV status. Lucy, a mother of five says she used to brew local beer and abused alcohol. She says the radio programme has changed her life. “The Zewelanji radio programme changed my life. I used to drink heavily and I would have sex with any man who came my way when I am drunk. I never cared about my life,” she revealed. Zewelanji, which means “happiness” in the local Namwanga language, is the name that was given to a series of radio programmes produced by Ntindi community - a local village of Nakonde District.

Through the use of communication, it is clear that radio is a powerful tool which can amplify voices of members of the community in addressing their own issues. Instead of threatening these radio stations with closures, the government must be looking for ways to help them. These stations require trained staff; they need up-to-date equipment and expertise in gathering news and producing programmes which are relevant to their communities. In any meaningful democracy, people have to participate fully in their own development process. One way they can do so is by voicing their concerns whenever things don’t go well in the country and these radios have given people that platform. It is no longer educated and eloquent people who speak through these radios but even the most silent voices in the communities make their voices heard.
Community radio stations in Zambia started in the early 90s when the nation turned to plural politics and the government liberated the airwaves. The nation now boasts of more than fifty radios dotted across the country. Language is not a barrier as most of these stations promote local languages spoken in a particular locality.

Charles Mafa - Journalist.