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The Malawian who harnessed the airwaves

Villagers gather at Kondesi's radio station. (Zodiak Broadcasting)

After The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the autobiography of ingenious 22-year-old William Kamkwamba’s homemade electric windmill in Malawi, comes “the boy who harnessed the airwaves” by building a radio station with rudimentary materials. The tale of 21-year-old Malawian Gabriel Kondesi also showcases the inventiveness spawned by life in this impoverished, landlocked nation in southeastern Africa. Unlike the story of Kamkwamba, though, Kondesi’s tale is still unfolding.

Kondesi constructed the station himself three years ago, using, among other things, three small transistor radios, car batteries, TV aerials, wires, and a radio cassette player. The structure itself is noted for its brick walls, grass roof, and relatively high foundation. The height of the foundation, intended to aid in the transmission, also gave the station its name: Pachikweza, meaning something very high in the local Chichewa language. The station was built with care. “What struck me was the way he treated the walls to make sure acoustics were right so he couldn’t experience echoes,” said Gospel Kazako, managing director of the Zodiak Broadcasting Station, a prominent Malawian private network, who visited the station.

Once Pachikweza was in full operation, it broadcast at 105.1 FM within a radius of about 25 kilometers in the densely populated Mulanje district of southern Malawi. Kondesi employed a Nokia cell phone so that listeners could phone in. Because his village of Soza has no electricity, he walked to an out-of-town barbershop to recharge the cell phone and the car battery that powered the station. The station had a volunteer staff of about 10, each of whom took three-hour shifts. “We used to have a lot of jokes. We also used to have news coming from neighboring villages,” Kondesi said.

But not everyone was pleased and, for that reason, Pachikweza is now off the air. Kelton Massangano, acting director of broadcasting of the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority or MACRA, told CPJ in October that Kondesi had been arrested for broadcasting without a license.

“Local police in his neighborhood heard the broadcast in October and that was what prompted his arrest,” Massangano said. “There was no specific incident that initiated the closing of his station; we simply were not aware of its existence and so had taken no previous action.”

There are 23 radio stations currently operating in Malawi, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa. Malawi liberalized the use of its public airwaves after holding its first multiparty elections in 1994, but license applications were not accepted until 1998. Even now, the government accepts applications only during occasional, announced periods, according to Zadziko Mankhambo, a MACRA spokesman. A successful applicant must have a business plan and pay a yearly installment of 29,000 kwacha (US$200) over seven years. Local journalists have complained that political interference has tainted the process, and the government has often imposed censorship, and carried out arrests and closures of stations over political coverage, particularly during election cycles, according to CPJ research.

Kondesi outside his station. (Zodiak Broadcasting)Kondesi gathered information to apply for a license two years ago but was told to wait for MACRA’s next call for applications. Operating without one, he was subject to penalty. Arrested in mid-October, he faced a hard choice: Pay a fine of 50,000 kwacha (US$350), an extremely high amount in Malawi, or go to prison for 10 months. He spent only a night in prison before family, neighbors, friends and fans of his radio station pooled their limited resources to pay the fine.

Kondesi’s case has generated national headlines, and a Facebook support group counts some 475 members. He was also offered a scholarship to Kaphuka Private Secondary School in the commercial city of Blantyre and began attending classes this month. In the days after his release, he met with MACRA officials to discuss potential options for acquiring a license so that he could reopen his station. However, no concrete decisions have been made regarding this matter, according to Mankhambo.

Kondesi’s story highlights the importance of radio in small communities in Africa. "I found out that so many people were looking up to me,” he said. “The people of the village expect me to continue broadcasting to them because I used to give them the opportunity to express themselves. Everybody’s expecting a lot from me so I will continue to be a radio broadcaster.”

Mohamed Keita is CPJ’s Africa research associate. Caitlin Clarke is a CPJ consultant. 

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Great article. I hope one day we will all have the freedom of imagination without being bans from the people that was suppose to encourage us.
the free Internet in Burkina Faso
http://www.filsdufaso.com

It is so sad how politics are censoring the freedom of expression at different levels, and it is not just sad but also dishearening to see how governments fail to deliver what is expected of them by their communities and yet can not appreciate the efforts made by others who devote themselves out of nothing.
Surely Kondesi should be given a hero's treatment by his people and I personally thank the community for having given him the financial support. I am behind him all the way.
Long live the spirit of Journalism Long live.
Together we can..

I really liked how that young boy tried his best in order to give his society effective radio that may give them what ever they are interesting I know radio broadcasting is not something easy it needs a lot of efforts and support.
Also every government is good for its existence to give priority for the freedom of expression , let the governments try to give financial support that radio rather then prohibiting , because this is something needed by the community , the government is the community .

Finally, I am saying to the 22-year-old boy continue your head work and try to a void everything that may bring you hazardous.

Thank you so much for you good moral.

Another amazing story from Africa. Once again this story goes to prove that African politicians prefer uninformed citizenry and will do anything they can to keep the their populace ignorant. Kondesi, don't give up the fight.

Such genius characters surface once in a while in a whole generation. The case of this young man, Kondesi, ought to have been over looked by repressive media laws. He probably hardly knew that there was any need for a license. All he needed is encouragement and support by government itself, rather than such harassment. It's a shame that he had to go through all what he went through in the eyes of the capitalist institutions and the many privileged individuals in Malawi.
I do hope that CPJ too will do something for this young man.

What a truly amazing and inspirational story. I wish Kondesi much success in his studies and pray that his dreams will come true to become a radio journalist. It is so unfair that the government does not support someone with so much initiative! I pray too for his safety!

This is so great. It highly shows how africans are being innovative. Very good work and hope other africans will invent more other facilities.

What a refreshing piece from the African continent ravaged by official sleaze and leadership atrophy. This report shows that with improved access to education and social freedom, African kids can be the best they can. I commend the CPJ for fishing out this relieving feature to give us hope that good news can indeed come out of Africa.

Great for Chantal Kabwela to be set free. As Editor-in-Chief of the Rainbow Newspaper Limited, I say Aluta Continua.
Long Live Press Freedom
She was free since child birth and I wish to commend her husband, Henry Ngilazi and POst people especially Fred Mmembe, Amos Malupenga and Shiekh Chifuwe for standing stead fast

Great, touching story. I have faith he will grow into a free, qualified broadcaster. Instead of helping him achieve his dream--an African govt, as usual, rewarded innovation with prison! Our sad story!

This is one golden opportunity that is being lost. The government ought to have commended this ingenuity by helping the young man acquire the needed education to enable him grow his inborn talents and skills rather than repressive tactics. The nation and Africa would be the loser

In as much as the airwaves can not be left by govt unregulated due to its sensitive nature, it should not be a an excuse by govt to muzzle and discourage the needed talent and skills to create local technology. the Malawian authorities should bury their heads in shame for trying to cover a rising star.

chansa kabwela we are proud of you abash kunda and his minions. viva press freedom.

Evans
Zambian Journalist

Thanks to both of you for the report which highlights a positive development on the country. For years, Africa has been reported in the media as a continent where nothing good can come out. The determination of the young Malawian truly shows that Africans are creative and inventive like any other group of people.

Aniefiok Udonquak November 19, 2009 10:08:11 AM ET

For a community broadcasting station the fee is $200 per year and not over a 7 year period as per your article.

Zadziko Mankhambo
Communications Manager, MACRA

Zadziko Mankhambo November 19, 2009 11:47:45 AM ET

His story is very touching, I think the people of Africa should wake up from sleep and stand for the rights of the press as far as the dissemination of information is concern let them be aware that without the press the world will be in a deep darkness. And for the leaders of Africa, whether they like it or not the media must exit and will work up to the expectation of the people. Kodesi keep up the momentum, God bless and guide you

sarata jabbi dibba November 19, 2009 11:55:06 AM ET

Dear Mr. Mankhambo,
Thanks for your interest. We think we have it covered accurately when we say "... a yearly installment of 29,000 kwacha (US$200) over seven years." We welcome any other comments you might have, though, about press freedom issues in Malawi.

Bill Sweeney/CPJ Editorial Director November 19, 2009 7:03:22 PM ET


This is a moving story. we need to encourage local inventions and provide license to enhance media freedom. I hope he could overcome the challenge and his skills harnessed.

What a positive development for Africa. i urge the government of Malawi to help the star further his dream instead of suffocating it. Such characters are not only good for the media industry but for the entire continent, bravo CPJ for the wonderful work.

This is a young man helping the Malawian government promote the African values,letting the world know that there is an urge for people to let their voices head.Yet our leaders are afraid of the unknown.My father here in Cameroon used to tell me that"you cannot sell someone a goat and then hold back the rope".Our leaders should stop pretending and give us FULL Freedom.
This young man need serious encouragement.

INNOCENT YUH
Editor in chief
Ocean City Radio K-Town,
Cameroon.