For eight years, I worked for Internews in Washington and in the field. While all the years were good, I consider the best year of my entire professional life to be the year that I spent developing the Internews project in Eastern Chad, where we had launched the Humanitarian Information Service. This innovative project was a three station community radio network--duly licensed in Chad--that provided news and information programming to the vast majority of the Darfur refugees and to the Chadians who lived in the communities that were directly impacted by the arrival of 250,000 people fleeing the Darfur region of Sudan.
From 2006 to 2007 I managed the project. Our programming covered a variety of important topics from health to education to the concerns of women in the camps, many who had witnessed the murders of their husbands, fathers, brothers and male children, and themselves were survivors of rape and other brutal attacks. It was this last program, “She Speaks, She Listens,” which I believe had a life-changing impact on the communities we served. The program empowered women, amplified their voices and gave legitimacy to their issues and challenges.
We covered topics ranging from child marriage to domestic abuse to female genital mutilation. Every week a feature story anchored the program, which was initially broadcast in Arabic and French, and included a mailbag and other important elements rounding out a 30 minute show. She Speaks, She Listens was then followed by a radio theater program that adapted the feature story into a drama, which further explained the issues using entertainment to drive home the message. All of this was produced in Abéché, at our flagship station, and then made available to our station in Iriba (during my time in Chad, I was building Radio Sila in Goz Beida, the third station on the network).
We were not a group of cultural imperialists imposing our views on a traumatized society. We met regularly with women in the camps and with local Chadian women, drawing from them content and inspiration. Before I left, we were already broadcasting a lot of our content in Zagawa and we were introducing Massalit, both unwritten languages, commonly spoken in the region.
Our international presence was tiny. There were three of us: an American, a Canadian and a Burundian, with a part-time Belgian providing technical support and equipment training. Our staff was Chadian and Sudanese.
While I viscerally understood the importance of our work, it was not until UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, conducted an independent survey of the camp residents that I realized the extent of our influence and importance. We were just about a year into our work when UNHCR commissioned the survey, unbeknownst to me. Everything that we could have hoped for was confirmed. We were initiating important conversations, overcoming misinformation, and yes, saving lives. One woman spoke about personal hygiene for herself and her children, another about the trust she placed in us, and yet another thanking the radio station for initiating discussions within the communities about topics long considered taboo.
Listenership in the camps was nearly universal. We knew that one radio served about seven people, but there was also the value of passing on information that was heard on the radio. If it was on our broadcast then it had to be true. We covered countless topics, survived mercenaries and rebels, and unified the communities around their issues, as they expressed them on the radio, a first for the region.
Among some of our milestones:
• A reduction in the number of deaths during childbirth of mothers and newborns following a radio campaign that convinced many women to deliver in the camp clinics;
• A 10% increase in the attendance of girls in the camp schools following a radio campaign that explained the importance of education for girls;
• The quick suppression of rumors about a change in a key staple in the food distribution that was being interpreted by the refugees as a reduction in quantity and quality, and was about to lead to rioting;
• And the containment of a hepatitis outbreak due to contaminated river water near one of the camps following our broadcasts explaining the dangers.
We also empowered the Darfur refugees to be full partners in their own recovery, providing a platform for communication between beneficiary and respondent. It was a building year for us, and our overall project budget was just under a million, but every dollar that was spent in the humanitarian response went a little farther and did a little more thanks to the Internews project. And we did something that you cannot put a price on: we saved lives.