Messages from Mahad — Using the Airwaves to Connect with Family and Friends

Headshot of Riak Akech
Riak Akech. Credit Adam Bemma/Internews

Riak Akech in Juba, South Sudan wakes up to the sound of the muezzin call to prayer for all Muslims. She’s a Christian, but uses the call as an alarm clock in her small tukul (hut) that she shares with her aunt and younger cousin. The tukul is constructed of bamboo and plastic sheets with a UN agency logo imprinted on it.

Akech, 19, lives in Mahad, an informal settlement of nearly 3,000 displaced South Sudanese coming from Jonglei state, an area marred by conflict. Akech steps out at dawn with a bucket in hand to retrieve water from Mahad’s reservoir.

Mahad is located in an Islamic primary school in the heart of Juba. There are far fewer interventions from humanitarians than in other formal IDP (internally displaced persons) sites or Protection of Civilian areas, but, as in those settlements, there is a dire need for information.

Internews’ Boda Boda Talk Talk team developed an audio program — My Mahad — to help the community meet its information needs.

Internews taught Akech, along with other young people at the camp, how to record audio and conduct interviews in the community for My Mahad. She learned so fast that by the end of the first week, an audio program was ready to air for Mahad residents. It featured Nur Kur Nyang, the school administrator, and others in the community talking about the history of settlement at Mahad.

Riak stands in the camp holding a microphone
Riak Akech was trained by Internews to be a reporter for My Mahad. Credit Adam Bemma/Internews

“I liked doing the radio program because it made me feel like a journalist,” Akech says. “I would like to learn more about journalism.”

The program covers issues like security, sanitation, education and health awareness. It is broadcast in all of the community’s three traditional languages — Dinka, Anyuak and Murle, as well as the two national language — Arabic and English.

“There are many things I don’t know,” says Akech. “By talking to my elders at Mahad, I can learn so much more.” My Mahad also gives Akech a chance to share the voices from her community with others, including aid providers. “It helps people by letting them talk about the issues they face.”

Two women hold a radio by a tent
Residents of Mahad listen to the radio program on wind-up radios. Credit Adam Bemma/Internews

Each group at Mahad — Dinka, Anyuak and Murle, received a wind-up, solar-powered radio. One was also given to the child-friendly space at the camp to play for kids, all eager to listen to My Mahad.

Each episode of My Mahad was loaded on to SD cards — the cards with all the up-to-date episodes stay with each radio, so they could be played continuously until the next episode was finished, then it would be uploaded to each card.

Messages from Mahad

17-year-old Mahad resident Sandy Riak comes from Bor. She wants to become a doctor, so she can help people by providing health care to those who need it most.

“Those in Bor, Jonglei state. God bless you. I want to join you. I’m greeting you my friends. I miss you my family,” Sandy Riak said in her first message from Mahad, recorded last July.

This message to family and friends in Bor gave Internews the idea to turn its work at Mahad from providing My Mahad, a humanitarian information audio program, into a radio service — called Messages from Mahad — sending messages to loved ones in hopes to reunify families.

Akech records an interview with a camp resident
Akech records messages from Mahad residents that are broadcast on Messages from Mahad with the hope that family members will hear them. Credit: Adam Bemma/Internews

Akech carries the audio recorder with her every day in Mahad. Displaced residents ask her to stop and record their messages for lost family members, hoping they will hear it and be reunited someday.

“The majority of people living at Mahad don’t have access to mobile phones or radios,” Akech said. “The main way people in Mahad receive information is by word of mouth.”

“It is important to talk about peace in our community. We all need to teach our children about the importance of peace. If we are to have real peace, we must begin with children,” Sandy Riak said in her latest message from Mahad.

“I am in Mahad. I come from Bor. The fighting happened 24 December 2013 while I was there,” 12-year-old Akoi Mayen Kur said in his first message to family and friends. “We want to join our hands for peace. We are one nation and one people. We miss our home.”

“People ask to hear their voices once I’ve recorded them, so I play it back. It makes them smile. Children laugh,” Akech said.

Messages from Mahad is aired every Saturday and Sunday on Mingkaman 100 FM. A new radio mast at Mingkaman 100 FM means its broadcasts reach from Lakes state across the Nile River deep into Jonglei state.

A group of children and some adults listen to the radio
Radios were distributed to various groups in Mahad, including the children’s center. Credit: Adam Bemma/InternewsRadios were distributed to various groups in Mahad, including the children’s center. Credit: Adam Bemma/Internews

Mahad is almost entirely made up of women and children. Of the estimated 3,000 internally displaced people living here, over half are kids.

The youth in Mahad don’t have access to school. Only a lucky few are attending afternoon classes outside of the community. Most youth are left idle in Mahad with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

As well as her radio work, Akech also works for Terre des Hommes, a non-governmental organization providing psychosocial support for the children in Mahad. This includes providing a Child Friendly Space, where kids living at Mahad are able to play games and learn in a safe and secure environment.

The children greet her as “teacher,” a title reserved only for those local youth trust.

“I’m happy that the kids respect me. I teach them not to get in trouble,” Akech said.

She’s not your typical teacher, as she hasn’t even finished primary school. But Akech has volunteered her time to work at Mahad’s Child Friendly Space, teaching the youth the value of education and letting them help out with the radio program.

“I enjoy spending time with the children,” Akech said. “I lived in [Kenya’s] Kakuma refugee camp until 2003, so I know how important it is to help young people living in this situation.”

Listen to Akech on SoundCloud:

Internews has been working in what is now South Sudan since 2006, building some of the first community radio stations in the country, and providing communities in remote, information-poor areas with vital access to news and information in local languages. Internews’ work in South Sudan is supported by USAID.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)