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.

Scott Baldauf
Tunes and tips: Mohammad Abubakr is a volunteer disc jockey at Pamoja FM in Nairobi, Kenya.
Scott Baldauf
Tinderbox: Kenya's largest slum, Kibera has become ground zero for much of the ethnic fighting that has killed more than 500 people and displaced more than 250,000 since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential vote.

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.

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.

Pamoja FM was created to bring news to the community, not just the crime and the misery, but the hope and the opportunities as well.

"Most Kenyans think Kibera is the worst place in the world, but for us, Kibera is the safest place in the world, because this is where our families are," says Adam Hussein, station manager and cofounder of Pamoja FM, and resident of Kibera. Newspapers cover Kibera only when something bad happens, but Pamoja focuses on information that Kibera residents can actually use to improve their lives. "Since we started this station, people of Kibera are very happy, because at least they can hear what is happening in their own community."

Funded by donations and the pocket money of the station's founders – with equipment donated by several politicians, including Odinga – Pamoja plays dance music to attract listeners, interspersed with news, talk-shows, and informational programs, targeted at specific audiences.

Something for everyone

For youths, Pamoja plays local Kenyan music by up-and-coming musicians from 7-10 a.m., and reggae from 2-4 p.m. For housewives, Pamoja plays traditional East African music from 10 a.m. to noon. For sports lovers, reporters like Fatuma Adan – an unlikely sports fanatic in traditional Muslim veil – give the play-by-play action for local matches.

Abubakr sticks to old-school reggae favorites by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff. In between songs, he talks about health and educational programs set up by local and international aid groups to reach Kibera's youths. He invites experts to talk about the health effects of drug abuse, the dangers of unprotected sex, the need for boys to avoid gangs, and young girls to avoid prostitution. The subjects might not please Kibera's traditional Muslim residents, but Abubakr's positive message and push for improvement gives them few reasons to grumble.

"People in Kibera are so poor, the levels of infrastructure are so severe, it is utterly unimaginable that human beings can be allowed to live there," says Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of the Center for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi.

"Nobody asks what can we do to improve life there," she adds, but news reports about Kibera, such as those reported by Pamoja, can make a difference, informing local residents about their own conditions, and forcing political leaders to take notice.

Despite its even-handed strategy toward political parties – or perhaps because of it – Pamoja received threats last week from gangs in the streets of Kibera, who wanted to burn down the apartment building where Pamoja broadcasts. The reason: the building is owned by a Kikuyu.

Yet Pamoja volunteers such as Mohammad, Fatuma, Adam, and others keep showing up for work, and Kibera residents continue to tune in for news about their own town.

"So many people in the ghetto have no way to express themselves," says Abubakr. "These are people with talent, people with ideas, people who are oppressed. And through radio, we can reach them."

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