Victor Juma established Bus Radio community station in Kajiado town centre to deliver solutions to local problems. It is the only licenced radio station in Kenya entirely in the hands of young people. Everyone told Juma it was ‘impossible’ – but he proved them all wrong. This is his story.
Text and pictures: Nicera Wanjiru and Cynthia Omondi
Twenty-five year old Victor Juma is waiting on the third floor of the left wing of one of Kajiado’s tallest buildings on old Namanga Street. He is naturally cheerful: it’s a warm welcome at Bus Radio. If a first name says anything, his is definitely appropriate: it is a question of victory: against all the odds he succeeded in setting up a radio station.
So far it is the only radio station in Kajiado County to be run by young people. It is growing rapidly and collaborating with the international Trac FM on broadcasting discussions about the regional water problem, among other issues, and coming up with answers as well. ‘I’m blessed with common sense,’ he says when asked about his background, ‘and fell for journalism at an early age. At my high school – Kakamega, which is famous for football and rugby – I collected all sorts of news items and presented them at meetings. While the others were outside having fun, I started writing about what was going on.’
He couldn’t go straight to university as the money wasn’t there – he was brought up by a single mother and life wasn’t easy. He took jobs on building sites to make ends meet and to put something aside for later, to pay for college, all the time keeping his dream alive. ‘In 2020, Ghetto Radio in Nairobi was looking for reporters. I took a shot at it and was lucky, although I didn’t have the qualifications, but thanks to my school reporting I was given a job. First I had a basic training and then everything went swimmingly.’
For a year Juma reported on current affairs under the watchful eye of the news editor. He stayed another year and after receiving a grant from a benefactor who saw promise in him, he left Ghetto Radio to study journalism at Multimedia University.
After he graduated, Ghetto Radio again offered him a job, but this time he declined. The best thing to do, he thought, would be to start his own radio station, inspired by the section of the Kenyan constitution which, since 2010, transfers power and resources to grassroots communities.
His radio station was going to be a voice for rural people in his County and create opportunities for young people, something that everyone around him said was ‘impossible’. ‘I discussed my idea with various people,’ he says now, ‘but the response was always negative. Some people asked where I thought I was going to get “the millions” from… It was difficult, but deep down I knew it could be done.’
He got a group of friends together, each with a different expertise, and together they drew up a proposal to present to the Chandaria Foundation. They made several presentations and passionate pitches on the design of a community radio station that would focus on the difficulties of the marginalised rural areas – and the foundation gave them a cheque for half a million shillings, or just under four hundred thousand euros.
The amount was a godsend as it covered the cost of the licence and frequency, and in 2017 they were ready to go: they broadcast live from Kajiado.
The founding mission was ‘to bring people together’, to reach people at the grassroots, as the constitution intended. Before, people in Kajiado had to make do with the Nairobi stations, which reported on national affairs. In this Masai community that had an alienating effect as the broadcasts were never about local life, about the things that were going on here.
Moreover, the news was distorted and not free of misconceptions, because the journalists were reporting from the outside. Although there were two station that broadcast in the local Maa language, neither was based in the County and so they could not zoom in on local issues. The arrival of the radio station was therefore greeted with enthusiasm and people regularly called to ask if it was really true that they would be broadcasting from Kajiado.
Victor Juma’s prime motivation was to be of service and his programmes reflect that aim: Jukwaa la Kazi (‘platform for work’) is about issues surrounding unemployment and Maji ni Uhai (‘water is life’) is about everything to do with water – a major issue here.
And the County matters most, is always top of the list for reporting, no matter what else is happening in the world. Bus Radio is not all about water and unemployment, though, it also discusses female genital mutilation, early marriage, government and public participation meetings on the County budget, presentations of petitions, and monitoring public projects.
This is done by the ‘budget champions’, trained in these matters by the Watershed programme, for the Neighbours Initiative Alliance (NIA) and the Centre for Social Planning and Administrative Development (CESPAD) – funded by Simavi for NIA and by the Kenya office of Wetlands International for CESPAD. Dutch NGO Simavi tries to improve the daily lives of women and girls in ten African and Asian countries and does that within the WASH sector, specifically geared to climate and social justice, human rights, gender equality and the ‘shift the power’ process.
In turn, the champions train other people in the community to watch out for certain things when the local government presents plans and to make diplomatic enquiries without opposing the state (in the person of the County governor, legislators and civil servants).
Bus Radio even made civil servants an offer of broadcasting an in memoriam message for free when a loved one dies. As the saying goes, the hand that gives shall receive – and the station won over the local government as listeners. The station gained recognition as a representative of all the voices and opinions in the community. Sometimes the local government even asks Bus Radio about trends, based on listeners’ input.
Bus Radio’s advocacy attracted the attention of the NIA, which brought the station to the attention of Simavi, which in turn runs a project called Wotazella on raising awareness of water issues. Armed with the relevant data, the project brought rights holders into contact with the government in a bid to come to sustainable solutions.
Trac FM, another implementing partner of Wotazella, made sure Bus Radio had the capacity it needed to collect the data and carry out the survey, which not only delivered the required information, but also a ranking. The survey took place in Kenya, Uganda and Nepal and consisted of four leading questions: ‘What is the biggest challenge when fetching water for household use?’ The answer given by 62% of respondents was ‘the distance to the water source.’
‘Who should have priority access to water?’ According to 40% of respondents, the main priority for the government should be protecting water resources in rural areas such as Kajiado County. ‘Why couldn’t you take part in the planning process for water and sanitation facilities in Kajiado?’ The most common response, given by 44% of respondents, was ‘not informed on time’. ‘What should the government’s priority be for water issues in rural Kajiado?’ While 6% said wildlife, 69% said ‘the household’ should be first to receive water.
Bus Radio presented these results to its listeners and to civil servants and advised the former to use the results to lobby the latter. An unintended consequence of the project is that it encouraged the population to take an active part in the County meetings, where the people shared solutions to tackle the local water shortage. This paid off immediately as it led to the drilling of more wells. Another outcome was cooperation between different sectors, from NGOs and the County administration to the media and citizens’ groups, to deal with the water problem.
But the station is much more than this: Victor Juma is starting to become a mini remedy for youth unemployment. The radio station has provided work for eleven people, who are paid monthly, and more than seventy students have done their work placements there, with most then finding jobs with the big media concerns. It surprises many trainees that he is the owner, as they still have the idea that the boss should be older, in fact much older.
And that in turn inspires Victor to motivate the trainees to do their utmost to deliver quality work. He also offers a platform where they can not only learn and show what they can do, but also communicate their strengths to the team; it works both ways.
Juma regularly hears from the governor, who is keen to get information about what the listeners have to say, with reports and all, and that puts Juma in a position to influence policy. To a certain extent Bus Radio has not only given a boost to public participation in the governance of the region, but has also influenced the atmosphere in which County policy is made and implemented.
Involving young people is rare anywhere in the world, but Juma has succeeded in doing that on key issues – such as the local budget process. The finger-pointing between citizens and government you see elsewhere has been avoided here: one side does not blame the other when a problem arises because both sides work together, consult, participate. Policy is shared. When it became clear that the budget allocated to water was too small, the local population – mostly young people – came up with helpful alternatives for things like repairing pipes. It resulted in a win-win situation.
The Bus Radio motto is ‘Sauti ya Kajiado’, the voice of the County – legitimising the representative role it has adopted. And the listeners unreservedly identify with the items and surveys aired by the station, which go to the heart of their experience and culture. However, for a topic like genital mutilation the situation on the ground is always taken as the starting point so the community feels it is being taken seriously and actively participates. Bus Radio also advocates gender equality by highlighting issues that directly affect women and girls in the patriarchal society.
The station’s personnel policy also makes no gender distinctions; only quality counts. For example, the head of the news department is Faith and she presents in both Swahili and the Masai language. The station represents and reflects the whole community. Juma leads a team that believes in values and ethics, that prefers to let ordinary people speak rather than politicians – and more than that, the programmes encourage people to step up and hold the local administration and civil servants to account.
Yes, it is more than radio. The station also broadcasts information that motivates young people to change. With national elections coming up and the political campaigns underway, the young journalists of Bus Radio are determined to properly inform the young people of Kajiado County and protect them from being exploited by politicians, from being misled into stirring up chaos and ending up in jail.
The station has also set up the first public forum between young people and the police. It is very informal and relaxed and has led to major changes for some of them, who have started their own businesses or have become volunteers in the community. ‘It’s high time,’ says Juma, ‘that young people starting thinking about creating jobs. We have been waiting for so long, but the media veterans do not seem to be retiring any time soon. I feel a desire to see young people generating their own work, which is what made me start this radio station.’
‘Make the impossible possible and set a good example for other young people. Many people visit us here and they are always impressed that I’m not an employee, but the owner and manager. They often even insist I show them the papers to prove it. Young people do have the capabilities, I sincerely believe that, and if we create more jobs we’ll help to combat the youth unemployment crisis. If I hadn’t started this radio station, where would these eleven people have worked?’
Bus Radio plans to expand its coverage and to venture into television. The station is celebrating its fourth anniversary and in five years hopes to reach twenty-two countries (with many cattle farming communities).
This story previously appeared in the youth special of Vice Versa.
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