Radio Okapi Kindu (book review)

Jennifer Bakody’s memoir Radio Okapi Kindu-The Station That Helped Bring Peace to the Congo on her time as a UN communications officer and local radio station manager in Kindu, DRC in the early 2000s is definitely a great addition to your development-related summer reading list!

After reading and reviewing quite a few memoirs of aid work(ers), Radio Okapi Kindu adds some interesting new nuances to the genre and managed to entertain me right from the beginning through Bakody’s gentle and unhurried style which allows her story to unfold and ‘breathe’ with a lot of nuances, details and space for her protagonists.

Stories from and about journalists-not expat aid work in ‘Africa’

Unlike some aid worker memoirs, Jennifer Bakody manages right from the start to frame her story around the team of Congolese journalists, thereby avoiding the stereotypical pitfalls of a young Western woman going to ‘find herself’ in a remote place in the deepest and darkest and most dangerous part of Africa that all too often provides the backdrop for these books.
Her story is essentially about good journalism and good radio in a remote place-and that remote location happens to be in DRC in 2002.
The reader is quickly introduced to Mamadou, Mamy, Matthieu, Rigobert, Sadala, Tumba, Ulli and the rest of the team, which leaves refreshingly little space for any ‘expat hero’ narrative to unfold. Jennifer pushes for professional journalism, provides feedback and offers an outsider’s perspective, but there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The governments backing Radio Okapi (…) were using the rich world’s tax dollars to buy high editorial standards in a country flooded with mediocre private and community-based radio stations, all trying to pick up the slack for the dud that had become the state broadcaster (…). A national radio in the locals’ indigenous languages (pp.51-52).
At the end of the (broadcasting) day the work of the station comes down to the same principles that make local journalism work almost everywhere:
“I mean…How do you know what’s going on every day?”
“We live here,” said Rigobert, his voice taking on a higher-pitched lilt of confusion.
“People in the community talk and we pay attention,” said Tumba (…) (p.63).
Treating people and their stories with respect
I described Bakody’s writing style as ‘gentle’ before and I am still not sure whether this is the best way to capture her approach.
Her outline of a typical broadcasting day comes with quasi-ethnographic observational details, but there is also a vivid collection of vignettes, visits and personal anecdotes that should keep you entertained throughout the book.
Bakody’s personal story, from arrival to Malaria hospitalization, a botched story about a development project and her subsequent departure to other duty stations in the country is always more of a  background. She is always treating local stories (families reunited after a long war; new local council legislation regarding fencing properties) and her own immersions with dignity and respect which should be the norm in reflections on aid work, but often is not.
She also makes few attempts to explain the ‘bigger picture’ or ‘Congo’ to her readers which may make her book not the first choice for new aid work(er) readers, but certainly worthwhile for those who already have an idea about the industry.

‘Cruel, unforeseen events that had a way of making our everyday problems seem at once luxurious and trite’

Still, no one could tell me for one iota of a second that out lives in Kindu were any less real than any other. Come 9 or 10 PM, the journalists and I would pick ourselves up and slump out the door, same as anyone else after a long day’s work (…). Mamy had managed to pick up typhoid fever. Matthieu fell sick with malaria. I knew Rigobert was midway through dusty cement piles of home renovations (…). So we had real-world problems. And not just real-world gripes, like never having enough paper for the printer or always having to rely on UN dispatch to get anywhere. Because in the Congo, in Maniema, the real world was also full of cruel, unforeseen events that had a way of making our everyday problems seem at once luxurious and trite.
(…)
“That was a friend on the phone. Just now,” said Gabriel. “He says they’ve found two Rwandans. And a mob is stoning them. They’re killing them.” (pp.190-191).
From my research and teaching perspective, these are important traits of a book that I can discuss with students in the classroom: Making everyday professional or personal worlds visible and connecting the regular and mundane with some of the broader ‘development’ challenges! And from a communication for development perspective, experiencing Bakody’s story through radio programming and communication work around a general election is an added bonus!

Aid work and tragedies in Congo, Haiti or Yemen
Yet another strength of Bakody’s narrative is that she focuses on her time in Congo from 2002 to 2006. That frees her from other typical aid worker memoir plot lines of the uprooted expat aid worker who follows the crisis caravan to the next emergency. Bakody settles in Europe, but before that she manages to hint at the dangers that local journalists face; most of them are not as fortunate as the Radio Okapi journalists to be affiliated to a national brand with international support.
Rigobert is abducted and beaten by one of the armed groups over a minor disagreement:

In an eyeblink – that fast – three soldiers gripped him steady as a vice while another took out a long wooden baton. They stripped him down and started lashing. The strikes where rhythmic. They struck the spine in the small of his back where there was bone and stinging skin. They hit is buttocks and keep on coming, one after another (p. 266).
And the senior female journalist Mamy also spends some time in jail before public pressure leads to her release.
Once out, Mamy shook her head and laughed. It hadn’t been so bad, she said. The best part of it was that she’d left with a ton of stories. She first quipped to her father, then later to Rigobert: “They really hadn’t been thinking, putting a journalist on the inside like that!” (p.338).
Other colleagues die on mission in other humanitarian emergencies or from HIV/AIDS and as sad as these stories are they nonetheless provide a sense of ‘wholeness’, of beginnings and endings and the extraordinary work of a group of regular, professional journalists:
One final word on Radio Oakpi: when recognizing the network with its Free Media Pioneer Award, the International Press Institute lauded it professionalism and success in drawing in a full third of the country every day, calling it a shining example not only for media in other conflict or post-conflict areas but for radio stations around the world (p. 342).
Radio Okapi Kindu is definitely among my favorite aid worker memoirs now and a great addition to this emerging genre that continues to surprise me with fresh voices and approaches to communicating development in engaging and different ways!

Bakody, Jennifer: Radio Oakpi Kindu. ISBN 978-1-92795-897-1, 345pp, 16.95 USD, Vancouver, BC: Figure 1, 2017.

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