A firsthand account of the Orkonerei Community Radio Station by Vinod Pavarala
A dusty and bumpy drive from Arusha, Tanzania took us to Terrat village, about 80 km away, in the Simanjiro district of the Manyara region. It had the haunting beauty of the dry highland in the Maasai plains. UNESCO had organized a workshop there for community radio stations in Tanzania in October this year. The village of about 15,000 people, mostly the Maasai pastoralist community, is located on the banks of a small river and had houses mostly built of mud and wood, with a few concrete houses with corrugated iron roofs.
The Institute for Orkonerei Pastoralists Advancement (IOPA) was founded in 1991 by the soft-spoken Martin Kariongi Ole Sanago, a Maasai himself who returned to his roots after getting trained as a doctor in Ireland to promote community economic rights and improve the standards of living of the Maasai people through innovative social entrepreneurship initiatives. It was the time when small farmers were being intimidated to sell their lands for cheap prices and with most of the national parks being on Maasai lands, they had to contend with alienation from wildlife parks.
An Ashoka Fellow, Martin outlined the ‘social businesses’ that IOPA has set up, including milk processing and cheese making, energy and water supply, livestock production and natural resource management. The Orkonerei Radio Station (ORS) was started in 1995 and went on air in 2002 after a long struggle to get a license, a story that was reminiscent of some of the early efforts of grassroots organizations in India to carve a space for community broadcasting. Martin said pointedly that the station ‘evolved from an organic link to the community and their basic rights’.
David Baraka, the genial and resourceful station manager of ORS, gave us a tour of the station and sat down for a chat. He holds a diploma in journalism from the Arusha Institute of Journalism and has been with the station since 2006. UNESCO had provided the initial support for equipment, content production, and capacity building. He is proud that it is mostly individuals from the Maasai community who are able to present and produce programmes at the station, thanks to a series of training workshops conducted by organizations such as BBC Media Action, UNESCO, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Although Tanzania has a complicated language policy that emphasizes media content in Kiswahili, the station managed to get permission to broadcast news content in Maasai language. The traditional Maasai elders, with their unmistakable, tall, regal bearing, dressed in red or blue shukas as they are called in Maa, the Maasai language) or kangas and carrying their long sticks or the shorter rungu, participate in radio programmes quite regularly. In fact, we met some of them as they were recording their voter awareness messages for the upcoming national elections.
Advertising, including political messages, are permitted on air, and the station typically broadcasts about seven to 10 commercial messages in a day. They are clear that they refuse any advertisements that they feel ‘destroy the image of the station or that of the community’. IOPA’s enterprises also advertise on the station, and the organization has an annual budget for the station. As Baraka explained, there is no salary system for the staff, but the amount left after all the expenditure is given out as allowances. In terms of news, there is a code of ethics in place to ensure fairness and balance.
“I am keen that I must use my education to work for my community. My heart swells with pride when the Maasai people know what is happening in the world through our radio, from conflicts in East Africa to news of ‘Papa’ Obama,” Baraka signs off with a sense of fulfillment about his work.