Festus Tarawalie – Vatican City
It is now 89 years since Vatican Radio was inaugurated. The first Radio Message was in Latin by Pope Pius XI on 12 February 1931.
The English Programme was launched six years later in 1937 and English language broadcasts to Africa began in 1950. However, it was not until 1979 that the English Africa Service as we know it today, was created out of the English Programme to respond to the changing trends on the continent.
An evening bulletin on shortwave
The English Africa Service began as a shortwave evening broadcast to listeners in the English-speaking countries of Africa, airing mainly news of the Holy See and the Church in western countries. Also included in its programming at that initial stage were lessons of Catechism, the lives of the saints and African proverbs. The programmes were broadcast on shortwave through a giant rotating transmitter at the Santa Maria di Galeria transmission centre in the north-western outskirts of Rome. The FM broadcasts to the diaspora in Italy were instead relayed through an antenna located on top of the Vatican Radio Museum inside Vatican City.
Cassette tapes for Africa
According to Sean Lovett, former head of the English language programme and member of the committee that set up the English Africa Service, the initial programme was the same as the one for Europe, North America and Oceania but with just a few changes to suit the listeners in Africa. There were also pre-recorded programmes sent directly to the faithful on the continent known as (Cassette) Tapes for Africa.
An English Service for Africa with a new vision
Lovett says they gave serious consideration to the following before setting up the service.
“One, understanding what the real issues were that concerned the people in Africa. So, identifying questions like healthcare, justice, peace; the issues that were of concern to people who were listening in Africa. The second challenge was to overturn that colonialist, European vision of Africa as a continent where only bad things happen and try to create a new vision of Africa, a positive vision of Africa as a place that can serve as an example to the rest of the world in so many things,” explained Lovett.
KiSwahili Gospel readings on the English Africa Service (1993)
In 1993, the English Africa Service started daily broadcasts of the day’s Gospel readings in KiSwahili (Swahili), a Bantu language and lingua franca in eastern Africa. A year later, it became an established language programme of Vatican Radio under the English Africa Service. KiSwahili is widely spoken in Tanzania and Kenya and some regions of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. An estimated 120 million people, if not more, speak or understand KiSwahili.
Short-lived Hausa Service
Another important milestone in the history of the English Africa Service - though short-lived - was the creation in 2002 of daily broadcasts in Hausa, a Chadic language spoken by approximately between 100 – 150 million people. Historically, it is considered a lingua franca across much of Western Africa. The 15-minute programme was centred on Christian formation and was transmitted at 9 am Rome time, immediately after the traditional English Africa Service programme. The programme in Hausa was a joint production by Vatican Radio staff in collaboration with the then Centre of Social Communications of Kaduna, in Nigeria.
First African Synod and a new format
The current half-hour daily broadcast of English Africa took its format in 1995, a year after the first African Synod. The format covers a wide range of themes recommended in the apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa (The Church in Africa) of Pope St. John Paul II in 1995. Further elements were introduced after the publication of Africae Munus (The Commitment of Africa) by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI after the 2009 Second African Synod.
So, apart from news about the Holy Father, activities of the Holy See and the Church in the world, the English Africa daily programme has features and segments dedicated to the life of the Church in Africa, issues of justice, peace, reconciliation, development, culture and the role of young people in the Church and society, all tailored to respond to the challenges facing the continent. Added to these is a daily round-up of news on the socio-political happenings in Africa that we call, Africa News Panorama.
Dawn of digital era
In 2017, our daily broadcast for listeners in Rome was moved from the FM platform to Digital Radio DAB+. Moreover, our shortwave broadcasts to Africa are now relayed from a transmission station in Madagascar.
Website articles on contemporary African Church news
The changing pattern in the broadcast media and the impact social media is having on the way we communicate has warranted a shift to some form of convergence journalism. So, apart from our traditional channels, we now publish website articles on some of the contemporary Church stories making news on the continent. This amplifies the voices and views of the Church in Africa. It has been an important development because it seals the communication process as two-way from the universal Church and the other way round.
The daily podcast
Our daily programme can be downloaded and listened to at any time of the day from the podcast section of our portal www.vaticannews.va. We also have a presence on Facebook through the English programme’s fb page.
English Africa Service re-transmitted on Catholic FM Radios
Meanwhile, on the continent of Africa, about 40 Catholic radio stations, in addition to radio stations of the Radio Maria Network, retransmit our daily programme in English. This ensures that we reach millions who do not have shortwave radio sets or places where the shortwave signal is weak.
Most of the Catholic radio stations that re-transmit our programmes are owned by various African Catholic dioceses, parishes, religious congregations and some by the Radio Maria network.
A request to send the programme through WhatsApp is being considered.
The nucleus staff of the English Africa Service comprises four persons originally from Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia, along with two colleagues from Tanzania for the KiSwahili language programme. However, we have several collaborators, correspondents, friends and stringers, and Bishops’ Conference personnel who constantly update us with news and information on the African continent. Then there are the students of Rome’s Pontifical Universities - priests, nuns, seminarians, lay-persons who regularly work with us.
On a yearly basis, we receive on average between three to four or more students who come for a period of Internship with either the English Africa Service or our KiSwahili programme.
Growing our network in Africa
As we look to the future, the greatest challenge for the Africa Service, in general, is how to create a network of those radio stations and dioceses in Africa for feedback and further exchange of news on the activities of the Church. We always welcome feedback, suggestions and proposals at these emails: inglese.africa@spc. or email@example.com
Laudetur Iesus Christus,
Praised be Jesus Christ!