From orphan to founder of a radio station aimed at peace building
Perry Saxe Gateka loved radio. So he attached his homemade antenna to the highest branch of an avocado tree and began broadcasting to more than 100 households in Burundi.
Gitega, Burundi — Hippopotamus and Rhinoceros pulled stoutly on their ends of the rope. Obscured from one another by high bushes, both animals stood convinced they battled the long-eared hare that had earlier challenged each to a test of strength.
After an epic struggle both Hippo and Rhino dropped their ends of the rope to see how the hare could possibly be so strong. Upon discovering one another they began laughing at how they had been duped.
Due to hare’s clever ruse, Hippo and Rhino, both longtime enemies, entered into a discussion. Having laughed together and been tricked together, they discovered their commonalities and forged an agreement. For all time henceforth, Rhino was welcome to drink from Hippo’s river, and Hippo was welcome to graze Rhino’s land.
Thanks to the cunning and good nature of the hare, a dialogue was created that empowered peace to flourish.
Of all the animals, it is this cunning, industrious, peace-creating hare of African folklore that Perry Saxe Gateka identifies with. A nimble yet hardy creature with long antennae-like ears, it is a suitable symbol for the founder and director of Radio Humuriza FM in Gitega, Burundi. Although his station has been temporarily shut down during the current political unrest, the story of how Mr. Gateka managed to create it at all remains an inspiring tale.
Orphaned at the age of 11, Gateka grew up in a small town with four sisters. He loved listening to programs on the radio, but the struggling siblings could not afford one.
Fascinated by technology and tired of venturing to neighbors’ homes in the hope of getting a chance to listen to their radios, Gateka began watching the village radio and electronic repairmen.
“I asked them about the parts of the radios, and I watched them repairing and asked them what is the use of this, and what does this do? Then I would write down the different names of the parts of the radios. This is how the idea came to me to create my own radio.”
To afford the bits of wire and metal to make his own radio, Gateka gathered bricks for workmen, fetched water for neighbors, and tended to cattle. Once he earned enough money he didn’t stop at simply fashioning a radio. Instead he decided to attempt to make his own transmitter and create his own station.
His neighbors were the first to hear his voice through the airwaves.
“People were disturbed when they listened to their radios, and they were like ‘what is that?’ And then they knew that somebody was around making their own radio…. But the youths were really interested in my radio, so I told the young people to turn on the radio and listen to me speaking, and they were amazed and word began to spread.”
Gateka, ever industrious, sought a larger audience and, after studying how to construct an FM transmitter, built one in order to reach an area encompassing approximately one square mile. Braving a tricky climb, he affixed his homemade antenna to the highest branch of an avocado tree and began broadcasting to more than 100 households.
Word of the young broadcaster spread, and it wasn’t too long before government officials arrived at Gateka’s home and makeshift studio. They were both curious and alarmed by the young man’s ability to fashion his transmitter and reach an audience – all without adhering to any regulations. The officials demanded that he buy a real transmitter and properly register like other stations.
Luckily, the government officials were not the only ones to have heard of Giteka’s radio exploits, and a telecommunications company hired him. On Aug. 5, 2013, he moved to Gitega, the second-largest city in Burundi in East Africa. Using all of his savings, coupled with hard work and perseverance, he had Humuriza FM up and running within two months.
Today the station has a staff of 30, comprised of 10 full time workers, 15 volunteers, and 5 trainees. Apart from music, in partnership with Search for Common Ground (SfCG) and other local and international NGOs, Radio Humuriza FM broadcasts programs focusing on peace building, along with issues affecting youths and the rights of women.
“From SfCG trainings I learned about nonviolent communication," Giteka says. "I learned how to unite people and build peace without violence and fighting. I also learned about being a visionary and a leader where you live; that you don't have to wait for someone to come help you – you have to be the visionary to initiate the change.
"Like me discovering and building this radio … many people here didn’t have a radio, but nobody dared to try to build their own, but I dared to try.... [W]ith no finances and no money, I built it.”
After attending SfCG trainings, Giteka in turn trained the station’s journalists and staff and began to spread the training to the surrounding population through the airwaves. It is difficult to know exactly how many listeners the station can reach, but the broadcasts could be heard on radios throughout local markets. When Humuirza FM DJs had their audiences call in, it wasn't unusual for the station to receive more than 250 calls in an hour.
When asked what is the greatest challenge facing his generation in Burundi, Gateka answers it is their antiquated way of thinking.
“They believe to get a job it has to be a certain way. They don't think how to innovate and create jobs," he says. "People have to see that all things are possible. If you feel your talent or know that you are passionate about something, you can make it and achieve it.”
Gateka dreams that someday his station will reach the entire nation “to help the youth be creative, to get jobs, and to be active.”
But the challenges can be daunting.
The station needs better equipment, including updated computers and a better transmitter and microphones.
“I hope that people from different countries all over the world, like those from the Burundian Diaspora, will come and visit us and see that we are doing something great," he says. "It makes me happy to see the youth learning from my experience and saying, ‘Yes, even the young people can initiate something, build it, and succeed.’ ”
The biggest challenge so far for Gateka and Humuirza FM came May 14, one day after reports of an attempted move to oust sitting President Pierre Nkurunziza began to surface. The station's ability to broadcast both over the airwaves and through streaming online was halted, as with other private stations in Burundi.
Gateka is doing as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances. As always, he remains positive, viewing this latest adversity as a possible opportunity: He hopes news of the station's shutdown might bring inquiries from potential partners.
• As of May 26 Gateka's station remains off the air. To see if the station has begun broadcasting visit http://www.humuriza.com. Radio Humuriza FM’s Facebook page is still accessible at http://bit.ly/HumurizaFM.
• Kristoff Kohlhagen is a writer and peace builder who has worked in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia with Invest in Children Africa and Search for Common Ground. He is the manager of Africa programs for Kidsave International, which focuses on finding safe, permanent, and local families for children in Sierra Leone orphaned by the Ebola crisis.