Uganda. Radio Wa, the people’s voice.

A community radio at the service of people of Northern Uganda. Inspired by the social teaching of the Church. 

“For over twenty years, northern Uganda has experienced one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa, during which, the Lord’s Resistance Army, headed  by Joseph Kony, abducted an estimated 30,000 boys and girls, while over two million people were forced to flee their homes”, said Monsignor Joseph Franzelli, Bishop of Lira.

“Our diocese – he told us – was strongly affected by the conflict. Many of our facilities, churches, and schools, were destroyed, and the pastoral activities blocked. We experienced a tragic moment, people were losing hope and the will to live. Radio Wa played an important role in this context by transmitting courage and hope to many Christians and not only them”. Radio Wa, (which in the luo language means “Our radio”) is a community radio, broadcasting from Lira in Northern Uganda. It belongs to the Catholic Diocese of Lira and it has been active in the region since the 1 January 2001 thanks to the commitment of the Comboni Father John Fraser. Radio Wa is at the service of people. The first transmission site was in Ngetta Mission, eight kilometers from Lira. 

The radio became a point of reference for many people in those critical moments. In those days, in fact, the towns of the country were isolated and rebel groups terrorized the population, with frequent attacks against civilians. The radio began to provide the population with information on rebel groups and their movements across the region. People, in this way, were able to leave their homes before the arrival of the rebels or to call the army for help.

The former Director of the radio, Alberto Eisman recalled: “The Karibu program, (Karibu means “Welcome” in Swahili), marked the change in the way of giving information. The program was devoted to the thousands of boys and girls abducted by rebel groups. We knew that the rebels used to listen to the program, as well as the abducted children, who did it covertly of course. Sometimes we deliberately left small radios where we knew rebels would pass through”.

The Karibu program began broadcasting the messages of friends and relatives of the abducted children. These were messages of nostalgia, love, forgiveness, and hope. The aim of the program was to nurture the desire to go back home. “Rebels – continues the former director of Radio Wa – have a devilish way to make sure that child hostages are not tempted to return to their villages. They make children kill other children, sometimes their friends, in order to make them feel guilty and terrified of being despised and refused, in case they returned home, by the people of their villages for having killed a friend”.

Radio Wa began to broadcast programs designed for, and marketed to abducted children, to send them the message that despite the atrocities committed, their families were willing to forgive and to welcome them with open arms. A path of reconciliation and healing was available for them. Thanks to the Karibu program, many children were able to get information and listen to the voice of their relatives. This helped child hostages to keep the hope alive for a different future for them. The program made them aware that their relatives were waiting for them at home. This encouraged them to think that it was worth trying to escape, even putting their life at risk. Escaping from their kidnappers became their great challenge.

Radio Wa was becoming a real threat to the rebels. So one day in September 2002, in the early morning, a group of rebels attacked the headquarters of Radio Wa with grenades and small firearms. The only journalist who was in the office that morning miraculously managed to escape. Most of the radio installations were destroyed, but the courage and the desire to start over again, those were spared. Six months later, Radio Wa was broadcasting again.

The radio station, this time, was located near the cathedral, in the centre of Lira. Some years later, military sources reported that about 1,500 children had managed to escape from rebels and be reunited with their families thanks to the programs of Radio Wa. Since 2008, the situation has changed. Kony and his rebels operate mostly in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries where they are pursued by international forces. While in northern Uganda, slowly, people have started to live again.

Lira, fourth largest city of Uganda, home to 110,000 inhabitants, is now a thriving commercial centre with shops, paved roads, children who go to school in their blue uniforms. People arriving from the eight districts that make up the region of Lira swarm about the city every day. But many of them carry the sign of tragic memories on their faces and, as well, in some corners of the city, you can still find signs of violence dating back to those years of terror, as if time has not passed or has not made people forget.

Just like Lira, Radio Wa has also changed. Inspired by the social doctrine of the Church and following the Gospel motto ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, Radio Wa broadcasts to spread the values of the Kingdom of God: justice, peace, dialogue and tolerance between peoples. This vocation of sowers of peace is particularly well outlined in those programs of a social nature. Radio Wa is particularly focused on the injustices of contemporary society, corruption, violence against women. Radio Wa also want to help develop a critical attitude towards politics, and we never forget that we were born to serve people.