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Positive radio brings calm to tense Kenya slum

Pajoma FM spins African music, reggae, hip-hop – and urges people to stay nonviolent in Nairobi's tumultuous Kibera slum.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 11, 2008

Tunes and tips: Mohammad Abubakr is a volunteer disc jockey at Pamoja FM in Nairobi, Kenya.

Scott Baldauf

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Nairobi, Kenya

Like most radio stations in Kenya, Pamoja FM broadcasts hours of African music, reggae, and hip-hop – as well as mellow encouragements to remain calm and nonviolent during the country's worst political crisis since independence in 1963.

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Located in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Pamoja (which means "together" in Swahili) and its staff of volunteers provide news for a shantytown of 1.2 million that has become ground zero for the ethnic clashes that have killed more than 500 people and displaced more than 250,000 since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election.

"We're doing news, but we don't incite people," says Mohammad Abubakr, a hip young volunteer who runs the midday reggae show, aimed at Kibera's youth. Normally, Mr. Abubakr's show covers topics such as the need to avoid drugs, gangs, and teen pregnancy, but since the political crisis, Pamoja has become a clearing house for the sort of basic information that people would need after a hurricane or other natural disaster.

"We don't tell them [who should be] president, and make them want to fight," says Abubakr. "We tell them the situation in Kibera, which shops are open, where there is food, where there is fuel, where they can buy airtime for their cellphones."

Kenya's spasms of violence have waned, but long-simmering ethnic tensions in what was until now East Africa's most stable and prosperous nation remain at boiling point.

A flurry of high-level diplomatic efforts in the past week have failed to garner an agreement between populist opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, whom Mr. Odinga accuses of stealing the vote.

African Union mediator John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, announced Thursday that the two rivals agreed to work with a panel of eminent Africans led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But Mr. Kibaki's move Thursday to swear in half of his Cabinet without giving any seats to Odinga's party, even though they were expected to discuss power sharing, will not make talks any easier, experts say.

Tight control of the media

Since violence broke out, Kenyan broadcasters have come under tight governmental scrutiny. Live broadcasts were banned, and any statements deemed to be political or incendiary have been dealt with harshly. Pamoja itself has steered clear of politics since election day, using a kind of self-censorship – but even that approach has not prevented the station from receiving threats.

Kibera, a down-and-out slum, has become a tinderbox of political frustration. Armed gangs now prowl the streets with machetes, targeting houses and shops owned by members of Kibaki's ethnic group, the Kikuyus. Many Kikuyus have been forced to leave Kibera, destroying the tentative coexistence that prevailed before.