After The Boy
Who Harnessed the Wind, the autobiography of ingenious
22-year-old William Kamkwamba’s homemade electric
windmill in Malawi, comes “the boy who harnessed the airwaves” by building a radio station
with rudimentary materials. The tale of 21-year-old Malawian Gabriel
Kondesi also showcases the inventiveness spawned by life in this impoverished, landlocked
nation in southeastern Africa. Unlike the
story of Kamkwamba, though, Kondesi’s tale is still unfolding.
Kondesi constructed the station himself three years ago,
using, among other things, three small transistor radios, car batteries, TV
aerials, wires, and a radio cassette player. The structure itself is noted for
its brick walls, grass roof, and relatively high foundation. The height of the
foundation, intended to aid in the transmission, also gave the station its
name: Pachikweza, meaning something very high in the local Chichewa language. The
station was built with care. “What struck me was the way he treated the walls
to make sure acoustics were right so he couldn’t experience echoes,” said
Gospel Kazako, managing director of the Zodiak
Broadcasting Station, a prominent Malawian private network, who visited the
Once Pachikweza was in full operation, it broadcast at 105.1
FM within a radius of about 25 kilometers in the densely populated Mulanje
district of southern Malawi.
Kondesi employed a Nokia cell phone so that listeners could phone in. Because
his village of Soza has no electricity, he walked to an
out-of-town barbershop to recharge the cell phone and the car battery that
powered the station. The station had a volunteer staff of about 10, each of whom
took three-hour shifts. “We used to have a lot of jokes. We also used to have
news coming from neighboring villages,” Kondesi said.
not everyone was pleased and, for that reason, Pachikweza is now off the air.
Kelton Massangano, acting director of broadcasting of the Malawi
Authority or MACRA
, told CPJ in October
that Kondesi had been arrested for broadcasting without a license.
police in his neighborhood heard the broadcast in October and that was what
prompted his arrest,” Massangano said. “There was no specific incident that
initiated the closing of his station; we simply were not aware of its existence
and so had taken no previous action.”
There are 23 radio stations currently operating in Malawi,
according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
liberalized the use of its public airwaves after holding its first multiparty
elections in 1994, but license applications were not accepted until 1998. Even
now, the government accepts applications only during occasional, announced
periods, according to Zadziko Mankhambo, a MACRA spokesman. A successful
applicant must have a business plan and pay a yearly installment of 29,000
kwacha (US$200) over seven years. Local journalists have complained that
political interference has tainted the process, and the government has often
and carried out arrests
of stations over political coverage,
particularly during election cycles, according to CPJ research.
gathered information to apply for a license two years ago but was told to wait
for MACRA’s next call for applications. Operating without one, he was subject
to penalty. Arrested in mid-October, he faced a hard choice: Pay a fine of
(US$350), an extremely high amount in Malawi, or go to prison for 10 months. He
spent only a night in prison before family, neighbors, friends and fans of his
radio station pooled their limited resources to pay the fine.
Kondesi’s case has generated national
headlines, and a Facebook
support group counts some 475 members. He was also offered a scholarship
to Kaphuka Private Secondary School in the commercial city of Blantyre and began attending classes this month. In
the days after his release, he met with MACRA officials to discuss potential
options for acquiring a license so that he could reopen his station. However,
no concrete decisions have been made regarding this matter, according to
Kondesi’s story highlights the
importance of radio in small communities in Africa. "I found out that so many people
were looking up to me,” he said. “The people of the
village expect me to continue broadcasting to them because I used to give them
the opportunity to express themselves. Everybody’s expecting a lot from me so I
will continue to be a radio broadcaster.”
Mohamed Keita is CPJ’s Africa
research associate. Caitlin Clarke is a CPJ consultant.