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Learning by Ear
– by Ute Schaeffer
James Muhando is nervous. The radio moderator and actor organises the Nairobi DW casting for the new educational programme Learning by Ear. As the 50 Kenyan actors arrive on time, the 28-year-old relaxes. But only now the actual work begins: over the next two weeks, the small production studio of Baraka FM in Hurlingham will produce about 400 minutes of airtime.
Hurlingham is a Nairobi neighbourhood with an ever-increasing middle class. The streets are clean and the noise and turmoil of the four million metropolis is hardly noticeable. A security staff in uniform permanently protects the walled-in apartment complexes. One of Nairobi’s 200 slums is only two blocks away. 75 % of the city’s population live here in corrugated-iron shacks. When it rains, the narrow streets turn into an impassable sludge and the Learning by Ear production team has to make detours to get to work.
At the production studio, the team is busy giving directions, discussing the scenes, bridging technical gaps and enduring power failures. After two weeks, nobody notices anymore that improvisation was the most important thing the German direction and production team had to learn. “It is a mammoth challenge. But here in Nairobi, the studio conditions are relatively good,” says sound editor Götz Bürki. “Due to the bad acoustical absorption, we first had to buy mattresses on the local market. The technical system works smoothly. Everything was well prepared by the Nairobi colleagues.” Bürki has already participated in five Learning by Ear productions since the project started in spring 2008.
The script, production and broadcasting of Learning by Ear are mostly conceived in Africa. “It is the best way to develop programmes that meet the interests of DW listeners in sub-Saharan Africa,” says director Erik Bettermann. The more than 200 African partner radio stations have long been looking forward to more educational programmes for young listeners. The DW project, as Bettermann emphasises, was made possible by third-party funds from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs that supports foreign cultural projects with its “Aktion Afrika” programme.
Discussing everyday problems
So far, DW has broadcasted 15 episodes of Learning by Ear in all six African broadcasting languages: English, French, Portuguese, Amharic, Hausa and Kiswahili. It reflects the everyday life of young people. “The adolescents are fed up with lectures on AIDS and other diseases,” says the Mozambican actor Elliot Alex who worked for the Portuguese version. “The best way to get across a message is by means of a story.”
This can be a portrait or a report – e.g. about young people who are actively engaged in their community. Consider, for example, Collins Omondi from Mathare, one of the biggest Nairobi slums with up to 700,000 people. Collins works as a volunteer cameraman and editor for Slum TV, a channel with an independent editorial team reporting about the everyday life in Mathare. Another example is Alfred Sirleaf who disseminates daily information by a wall newspaper in the form of a billboard. Or the Liberian midwife Anita Varney who is confronted every day with the consequences of the civil war in her country and gives advice to victims of sexual violence.
Fictional stories and soap operas are not only popular in Nollywood, the successful Nigerian film industry, but also on the entire African TV and radio market. The Learning by Ear team has acknowledged this: about two thirds of the programme’s topics are presented in mini radio plays. In series with ten episodes of ten minutes each, big and small dramas of everyday life are presented. They feature various key subjects of African development: globalisation, environment, HIV/AIDS, the situation of women and girls, health care, political participation, civil society, computers and the internet. Each topic comes with a realistic story and reflects the everyday life of the target audience; as in the story of the intelligent and vivacious Malaika who leaves her village in order to study and has to cope with life in a big city, far away from home.
Despite the huge variety of stories and contents of the novellas, their plot is always exciting and entertaining. The episode of “the unwelcome evening guest,” for instance, tells the story of the poor fisherman Masika and brings up the subject of malaria. Masika, with no regular income and only little education, wonders how to protect himself and his family from a disease like malaria. A mosquito net distributed by an NGO is used by him for fishing. As his children get sick, Masika becomes desperate. Should he try to get hold of medication? Or bring his children to the traditional healer? Should he get them tested for malaria at the local hospital? But how can he afford the treatment? Fortunately, his fourteen-year-old daughter is a good student and knows what to do…
While anxiously following the dramatic story of Masika’s family, the listeners obtain important information on the course of malaria and its therapeutic options, on conflicts between traditional and Western medicine and – above all – on how to protect themselves from the perilous disease.
Motivation for social engagement
Learning by Ear cannot replace school, yet it may communicate important educational matters to young people. Therefore, the programme complements the German and international effort to achieve the UN Millennium Goal of “Education for All,” also in Africa. “Where children cannot go to school, DW brings educational programmes to the young listeners,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier whose budget finances the initiative.
Learning by Ear imparts knowledge and motivates young listeners to engage socially. In the episode “Getting involved – how to become a political player,” the courageous young politician Evelyn teaches the listener what social engagement means. The daughter of a policeman and single father is tired of the selfish ways of the old established élite and wants to become a city councillor in order to stand up for the concerns of her generation. Yet, the way to becoming a councillor is hard. The story teaches the listener about corruption and the lack of freedom of speech, but it also explains what the individual can do about it.
The young listeners can even contribute by describing their own experiences and posting them on a web page that was especially designed for the programme. According to Cream Wright, UNICEF’s global chief of education, this is a key factor: “Young people want to experience their own limits. They want to create and explore new possibilities. For these young people, it is not only about studying different subjects, but about seeing and developing their own potential.” He argues that the programme promotes self-determined action. “If we manage to incite this energy and these resources, it can lead to many positive things.”
Learning by Ear also works on CD. In cooperation with Care Deutschland, the Northern Nigerian NGO Hedtamat uses audio recordings for their work with young Tuareg.
Discussing the programme
In Niger, Uganda and other African countries, there are now various Learning by Ear clubs where young people come together to listen and then discuss the programme. It matters to them that their own living conditions are taken into account and that they can identify with the characters. Diamantino da Silva, a young listener from Guinea-Bissau, writes about a radionovella that tells the story of an HIV-positive girl: “This is exactly what happens here. The mothers are afraid of speaking with their daughters about sexuality. Instead, they pick up their knowledge on the street and are badly informed. Good information is the best way to fight AIDS.”
For a competition in Togo and Benin, students created their own radio education programme. Based on a Learning by Ear episode, they collected ideas about renewable energies and wrote their own feature stories. Extracts of the best stories were broadcasted in the African programmes of DW. Listeners could vote which stories they liked best.
As Learning by Ear is an interactive programme, it also focuses on the internet. Yet undoubtedly, the radio remains the most important information medium. In rural areas, it often remains the only possibility to obtain information. Newspapers are rare and in some regions, you don’t even find television. In the few existing cyber cafés, internet connections are agonisingly slow and far too expensive to be used regularly.
User figures show how popular sound radio is in Africa. According to a 2006 survey by the African Media Development Initiative, 95 % of all Tanzanians listen to the radio at least once per week. 35 % watch television, 31 % read newspapers. Less than one percent of the population uses the internet.
The situation is similar in most sub-Saharan African countries. Almost everyone has a small radio receiver – and the signals of small community stations and international radio stations like BBC or DW can be received in the remotest villages. Moreover, radio is in line with the centuries-old African narrative traditions. Since time immemorial, information has been passed on orally through vivid stories. Radio reaches many people, because it is cheap and easily available.
Grammy Award winner Youssou N’Dour knows all about it: the Senegalese singer and composer has long been a cult figure, reaching beyond the borders of his home country. His songs are about social problems and he has also become actively engaged. As a founder of the Joko project, he helps connect young Africans to the world by providing new media, knowing how important they are. “Radio is good for transmitting different matters and ideas. This is particularly important for young people who live in remote areas and cannot attend school. Learning by Ear teaches them lots of things – it is a bit like going to school.”
The editors try to keep the programme different from the school curricula – after all, Learning by Ear is not a distance-learning programme like the tape-based courses we remember from the 70s, but a journalistic product.
DW reaches 40 million people in Africa. According to German Federal President Horst Köhler, “the educational effort is the most important thing for Africa to ensure a good future for the young generations. Programmes like this can positively support that.” The realisation of such projects was only possible due to good networking with African partners.
There is a lot of positive individual response regarding the project. Nairobi moderator James Muhando, for instance, says he has learned many things about professional radio broadcasting. “This time I didn’t get much sleep. But hopefully in my next DW project, I will learn even more ‘by ear’.”