, 26 October, 2019 / 5:38 AM
While the exact impact of the protracted South Sudan civil strife on the Church is yet to come to the light, Malakal diocese, one of the most affected ecclesial territories in the youngest nation of the world, is attempting to revive the seeming dampened spirits of the people of God through the revival of a damaged and looted radio station, which now requires US$50,000.00 to resume broadcasting, sources at the heart of the initiative have told ACI Africa.
“I would consider US$50,000.00 a gap to be closed and that will help us rebuild and refurbish the radio station and to have something, thinking about the salaries of the personnel for at least some months,” Sr. Elena Balatti, a Comboni Missionary has told ACI Africa referencing Sout al Mahaba Radio, one of the nine radio stations that constitute the Catholic Radio Network (CRN).
Started in 2006 as Sudan Catholic Radio Network (SCRN), CRN is considered a model of Catholic media networking in Africa especially because of the sharing of news reports from local Churches facilitated by a team of editors. As a Catholic media entity, CRN was spearheaded by the Comboni Family of missionary clergy, consecrated Brothers, and nuns in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops in Sudan years before the 2011 referendum when South Sudan became an independent country.
“A few donors, a few private contributions have arrived,” Italian-born Sr. Balatti who is coordinating the fundraising initiatives to get the radio back on air alongside overseeing the office of Justice and Peace of the Comboni Missionaries in South Sudan has told ACI Africa.
Explaining the amount required to make functional the radio station she founded in 2009, she said that the turning of the newly identified building structure into a functional radio station within the premises of the Cathedral in Malakal has been estimated to cost US$90,000.00 and the cost of new equipment at about US$80,000.00.
She disclosed, “There are other pledges from some Catholic charities. And also, there is a pledge of support in terms of equipment by one of the news agencies operating in South Sudan, that is Inter News.”
Established as the diocesan and community-based radio of the Catholic diocese of Malakal, Sout al Mahaba had, over the years, “gained a certain popularity and the developments were quite favorable” till the civil strife broke out in South Sudan, Sr. Balatti narrated.
“Unfortunately, the civil war in South Sudan that erupted in 2013 didn’t spare (Sout al Mahaba) in Malakal where almost everything was destroyed,” Sr. Balatti recalled, signaling to the events of February 2014, when the Catholic radio she was heading “was looted and vandalized.”
The Italian nun who has ministered in Sudan and South Sudan for several decades recalls efforts made to have the radio back on air in 2015. However, she told ACI Africa, the resumption of broadcast was short-lived as this was “only for a few months and a new wave of fighting interrupted operation, put the lives of the personnel at risk.”
Since April 2015, the primary audience, estimated at 400,000 listeners within the radio’s 60km radius coverage, has been starved of the services Sout al mahaba previously provided.
In the heat of the civil conflict, all potential listeners were scattered. In 2017, Sr. Balatti recalled, “the former listeners and the people in the Malakal area and in the region started asking for the Radio of the church to be back on air.” Two years down the line and counting, efforts are still underway to have the radio back on air.
Sr. Balatti described the damages caused on the radio building as “very huge” and the looting “complete”.
“The Station was a new building. What remains is a structure of the building, equipment was completely taken, but also doors and windows were taken or damaged. Even the electric cables, the solar system even the anti-lighting, (which is) such a precious metal. Then the generator, the power sources, all of them (were) removed or dismantled and taken. The security fence was removed,” Sr. Balatti narrated.
“To reactivate the Radio Station means in financial terms to spend practically the same amount that was used to build the radio station from zero as it was in 2008 and 2009,” the Comboni nun says.
In her view, a realization of necessary funding would see the largest Catholic diocese in South Sudan resume the radio service by April 2020, some time “before the end of the dry season because seasons matter in terms of construction and the logistics.”
She is counting on the support of the new Local Ordinary, Bishop Stephen Nyodho who was appointed in May and consecrated Bishop in July.
Rather than renovate the original radio building and expose the project to the risk of another round of possible vandalism occasioned by the seeming protracted conflict, the diocesan administration has decided to relocate to radio station to the Cathedral premises.
Bishop Nyodho has told ACI Africa that safety precautions informed the decision to relocate.
He has explained, “This time there is relative peace since the Peace Agreement was signed a year ago; there seems to be a return of normalcy even for the people at home and that is why we are trying to relocate the radio to the Cathedral, which is in town and which is more secure than the other place.”
In case there is a collapse of peace, the Bishop reflected, “we might also relocate the radio again to the United Nations Protection for the Civilian (where the people who were in town are staying, it is just like a big prison) if there is possibility.”
The South Sudanese Bishop has had the good of the radio at heart from the beginning of the initiative as he confirmed, “I happen to be one of the people who has played a big role because it was also established in my own parish and I had to identify where the radio should be put and I was the first person to name it with the Voice of Love.”
The Bishop has confirmed his commitment to getting the diocesan media project back on air underlining the significant of the radio.
He has said referencing the radio station, “We are now working hard so that it is restored because it is the voice of love and voice for the people. If the church has a voice to say, to defend the people of God, it is through that radio, through that means of communication. It has helped thousands of people in the diocese and we are trying to bring it up again.”
The Bishop has also recalled the time the radio was up and running saying, “Sometime when it does not broadcast the Mass on Sunday, you will hear people calling asking what happened, we did not pray because even the fishermen go to fish with their radios so that they follow the Mass. Those who go to cultivate follow the Mass in the field, so it was really a kind of a very beautiful instrument for us.”
Acknowledging the interest of Bishop Nyodho to realize this radio apostolate, Sr. Balatti also expressed appreciation for the resilience of South Sudanese over the many years of conflict saying, “They have been able to overcome, to carry on though with great suffering.”
The desire that has been expressed by the people of God to have the radio back on air is a genuine wish to have back a significant “forum to exchange their ideas, their hopes, their beliefs,” Sr. Balatti said.
For Bishop Nyodho, the voice of love radio was a sure source of “the word of God, love, peace, and the tranquility in of life” and his heartfelt desire is for the Catholic radio to be back on air as soon as possible.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa