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Radio Connects Remote Papuan Village

A remote village in the central highlands of Indonesia's Papua province is now better connected to the outside world because of a new radio station. Marianne Kearney has more from Jakarta.

Until three months ago, if tribesman from Yahukimo wanted to get the latest news, they could rely on word of mouth, or make the arduous trek to town, almost 100 kilometers away, to buy a newspaper. Yahukimo had no electricity and no access to radio or TV.

But last September, the villagers took their first step in connecting with the rest of the world when a media group helped them build a community radio station, Radio Pikonane. They also built a small, hydro-powered electric generator to run the radio station.

During the rainy season, when roads and bridges are washed out, people from Yahukimo can only reach town by slogging several hours on foot. When famine struck in late 2005, it took two months to contact local officials to ask for emergency rations.

It was this devastating isolation that prompted the New York based Media Development Loan Fund to provide money to start the radio station.

"There was a failure of the crops and the people in that local community, basically 60 of them, starved to death," said Tessa Piper, the organization's Jakarta representative. "So when we heard this, we felt clearly that information was key to this, as in so many parts of the country. So that was what led us to consider setting up a station there."

Piper says the opening of Radio Pikonane was a huge event in Yahukimo. No less than the nine pigs were cooked in the traditional Papuan way - in a massive stone pit. The radio station was blessed with the blood of one of the pigs, and by a local priest.

"What I don't think any of us had expected was that around five-thousand people turned up to this event. This meant that they had all walked either for hours or even for days to attend," she said. "And I think that was for all of us who had been involved in the setting up the station, one of the most rewarding element[s] of the whole process, was just underlining how important the local population felt this station was."

Piper says the highlanders are very enthusiastic about using radio not just to communicate with other parts of Papua and the local government, but also to understand what is going on in the outside world.

She says the residents of Yahukimo often suffer from easily preventable diseases, so they asked for programs that provide basic health information.

"Well, malaria is a major, major problem there, but also skin ailments of a whole variety, which I as a non-expert can't really comment too much upon," said Piper. "But it's very clear when you look at the men, women and children, a lot of them - a very high percentage of them - suffer from various skin ailments."

But with the famine still fresh in the minds of the area's subsistence farmers, agricultural news is also very popular.

"I've got lots of news, but it's local news - cost of food and other basic goods, because we know that the cost of goods is expensive in Papua," said Kathe Vince Damara, one of Radio Pikonane's lead reporters. "So, I did a report on the cost of things in Yahukimo versus the cost in other areas of Papua."

Damara says news on how the local government plans to help develop their region is also well received.

There are no telephones in the village, or even cell phone coverage, so listeners do not call in to the station. But that doesn't stop them from making their views known. Damara says if villagers like what they hear on Radio Pikonane, they walk to the station to ply reporters with questions, turning Radio Pikonane into a social hub.

In addition to local news stories, Radio Pikonane also broadcasts national and international news produced by radio 68H, an independent, Jakarta-based partner station.

28-year-old Damara is still learning the ropes of reporting from 68H, which trains reporters and provides assistance to stations across Indonesia.

Radio Pikonane's reporters have all trained with more experienced broadcasters in Jakarta. But Eni Mulia, a 68H trainer, says basic reporting is often a challenge.

"There are some students who don't even know how to research, and they've never used the Internet, and do research for their news from the Internet. Some of them have experience, but others have very little," said Mulia.

With training and small steps forward, Damara and the other Radio Pikonane reporters are helping connect the villagers of Yahukimo with the rest of Papua, Jakarta and the entire world.