In South Sudan, a local radio project is calming community tensions

Julia Ding races down the dirt path: beads of sweat pour down her forehead and her face is contorted with fear. She collapses on to her knees outside Nile FM radio station. A tear rolls down her face.

The bullets continue to rain down as staff scramble to lock up the radio station – a large khaki-green tent with a small mast protruding from the top. Humanitarian workers run towards bunkers, while others jump into dried-out ditches for protection.

This was the scene at the protection of civilians (Poc) site in Malakal in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State when fighting broke out on 21 April. The site, which is on the UN base just outside the town, is now a hissing pressure cooker.

The Poc is a microcosm of South Sudan’s wider civil conflictMore than 25,000 people from the area’s major tribes are seeking refuge from the fighting; Dinka, Shilluk, and Nuer are all here for safety, shelter and basic services.

Ensuring that the wider conflict is not played out inside the PoC has been a priority for agencies trying to deliver services. A quarrel at the water point or in a food distribution queue can quickly escalate.

Getting timely, effective, fair and accurate information to people is critical in keeping a lid on tensions. That is where Nile FM, a project run by Internews’ humanitarian information service, comes in.

The service started in Malakal last year as a low-tech “mini-media” offering, providing a 20-minute audio programme “made by the community for the community”.

It mirrored a project in the capital, Juba, where programmes are recorded on USB sticks and played on speakers at strategic locations, such as health clinics and water collection points. The speakers are carried on quad bikes, earning the service the name Boda Boda Talk Talk (BBTT), a reference to the local word for “motorbike”.

In February, the Malakal service became a fully fledged radio station, sitting alongside other critical humanitarian actors in the Poc. Nile FM uses the same principles as the mini-media service. While traditional news media tells its audience what has happened, Nile FM asks people what they need to know in times of crisis, aiming to deliver “news you can use”.

During the fighting in April, Nile FM immediately switched to emergency programming. All live phone calls were stopped and the music selection was cleaned up to avoid potentially divisive songs being aired.

Public service announcements were increased, including a two-minute drama urging children not to climb trees when shooting starts, an explanation of what unexploded objects look like, and a compilation of community voices called People for Peace. 

Most of the radio’s work focused on reducing tensions.

On the second day of fighting, Nile FM staff gathered for a morning news meeting. Ding, who works as a journalist, was back with the team of 10 correspondents, all of whom fled to the Poc during fighting in Malakal last year.

When they arrived, some of them had never even opened a laptop and had certainly never conducted interviews. Now the team buzzes with story ideas, drawn from people living in the Poc site.

“Everyone is talking about how the youths are going into town to ‘salvage’ goods from the destroyed market. If they go, they should be worried about being forced to join the army,” said correspondent Anthony Thon De Diew, a former child soldier.

“Students want to know what will happen to the examination they were due to sit today with the exam paper now inaccessible in town,” says former teacher Lorince Nyawela, another correspondent.

With new people arriving daily, everyone is concerned about increased pressure on water services. And they want to know why traders have increased the price of sugar and basic commodities by 90% in just two days.

A recorder is held in front of a woman with a baby
A woman in Wau Shilluk uses the Boda Boda Talk Talk service to relate how she saved her child from cholera by taking her to an MSF treatment centre. Photograph: Meena Bhandari/Internews

The humanitarian information service shows that the right information can dispel rumour, reduce tensions and calm communities, who often feel disempowered during conflict and subsequent aid responses.

As well as working with communities, the service collaborates with humanitarian agencies, who tend to focus on top-down, one-way communications; the ubiquitous hand-washing posters with the child squatting and using a latrine, telling people what to do without enough evidence of impact. Through the service, aid agencies can listen to local people and tailor their responses accordingly.

BBTT is just starting up in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, where it will aim to serve a small population of displaced people from the Nuer community.

In Malakal, now that the latest spasm of fighting has calmed, the team continues to deliver vital information to help keep the peace.

(This article from the Guardian was written by Meena Bhandari, humanitarian director for Internews in South Sudan.)