A community radio project in Senegal’s troubled Casamance region is trying to help the peace process there by encouraging dialogue in an atmosphere of ongoing tension and violence.
Pasted to the wall inside Fogny FM, a radio station located just south of the Gambian border, are the words "radio is an art" scribbled in French. But for thousands of listeners living amidst West Africa's longest running civil war, the station is far more than art.
It is central to hopes for peace. Fogny FM is one of nine community radio stations scattered across conflict-ridden Casamance in a network dedicated to peace.
Since 1981, separatists in Casamance have been fighting Senegal's national government over land rights. Bouts of violence and killings have devastated the region's economy, culture, and society.
Casamance was once the breadbasket of Senegal. It had a thriving agricultural economy and a rich cultural heritage. Now, people are afraid to travel between villages for fear of hidden landmines or attacks by rebel bandits. Animosity and fear have heightened tension and made communication difficult.
Six years ago the U.S. aid organization World Education started their community radio network. They recently released a documentary, entitled Casamance Voices of Peace, which traces the project’s evolution. Their goal has been to bring people together, by giving them a platform to speak from, and improve their access to information.
In Senegal, like in many developing nations, radio is the best way to keep people informed. The American-based non-profit group, Development Radio Partners, says the number of community radio stations in Africa grew by nearly 1,500 percent between 2000 and 2006.
In Senegal, where over half the population is illiterate, there is the highest number of private radio stations in all of West Africa. In Casamance specifically, the airwaves are an essential way of keeping people updated on the conflict. It is also a way of staying aware of developments in health, agriculture and education, and a venue for discussing controversial or taboo topics.
Francesca Diouf hosts a regular show on Kambeng FM, a network member located in central Casamance.
Diouf says since she started broadcasting about the risks of female circumcision she hears far less tamtams in her village. The sound of these drums usually indicates that a mother has taken her young girl to be cut.
Each of the World Education stations is community-run and driven, addressing issues relevant to their local listeners in local languages.
Casamance is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of Senegal. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, estimates that some 15 ethnic languages are in danger of disappearing in this region alone. One of these is Bainouk, which is spoken by roughly 1,700 people. At Kairaba FM, in Diouloulou, they deliver a one-hour program broadcast entirely in Bainouk.
Bakary Sonko Diambary works at Kairaba FM. Diambary says when the Bainouk show is on their phone lines are flooded with Bainouk people. It is one of few times they can all talk together and share in their cultural identity through the language.
Broadcasting in many languages is considered an essential part of the peace process in Casamance. Salem Mezhoud is regional editor of UNESCO’s World Atlas of Endangered Languages for North Africa and the Middle East.
"Very often conflict arises out of misunderstanding, and misunderstanding means sometimes misunderstanding what has been expressed in one particular language," said Mezhoud. "If everyone received specific messages about anything - about culture, politics, international development, or the development in their own area, in their own languages they understand it better. But moreover, they understand the other people as well. I think broadcasting in many languages may promote harmony, may promote understanding and may promote peace."
Community network stations aim for the widest range of voices possible, presenting men, women, and young people as well as political and religious leaders and even members of the separatist movement.
Bertrand Diamacoune is a member of that movement who regularly calls in to express his views.
Throughout this whole process, and our search for peace and reconciliation, Diamacoune says the community radios have supported us. Everywhere we go in this region, they have given us the chance to speak out and let people stay aware of what we are doing - from our side.
Louis Tendeng, another member of the separatist group, is a big supporter of the project. Tendeng says that if the radios were there from the beginning, it could have helped avoid many of the problems they face today.
Since the Casamance conflict began over 30 years ago, tens of thousands of people have left their homes and fled into neighboring countries including Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. The radio network broadcasts across borders to encourage these migrants to come home and help rebuild the villages and farms that have been abandoned.
Luis Carlitos, director on the Kassoumay FM branch in Sao Domingo, Guinea Bissau, says the radio stations play an important part in building cross-border relations. They have helped people realize they must work together. He says they are all the same people, only divided by colonization. Carliots says community radios support a sense of unity that Africa needs.