Medical Zambia

Radio Gaga

It was A’s idea. “It sounds like you’ve been doing great work vaccinating in the schools. Why don’t you get the message out there, blow your own trumpet?” And what better way to do it than getting on local radio?

Mnkanya Radio 88.3FM is our local Mfuwe station. It is situated half way between the national park gate and the airport. There is a cluster of modern huts on one side of the compound (the owner is trying to start up a lodge business as well), a reception and a recording studio. Towering above is a red and white radio mast. They mainly play music from Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the USA. Although they broadcast the news in English several times a day, the disk jockeys and station announcers speak in local dialects. Their Facebook page is a bit sparse but contains some news items such as

“police in kabwe has gun down two criminals de other one has died at de spot and de body dead has taken to de mochary in kabwe hospital while de other one z at kabwe central police wth severe injuries this has happend wen two criminals broke into acertain shop wen security officer phonnd de police without delayment and de police dd according to their works thus was around 24hrs on 20th january 2019”

At the clinic, I discussed the need to publicise our work in the community, to explain to parents exactly why we were vaccinating their children in schools. Mr C, the public health inspector in charge of community programmes, thought it was an excellent idea to use radio to do this. But he thought that the radio station would charge us as they charge advertisers. I insisted that this was a public service, the public had the right to know, and there was hardly any decent local news to broadcast. C wasn’t convinced.

He brought up the subject at the next clinic meeting. The nursing officer in charge agreed it was a good idea, but only if it didn’t cost anything, because the clinic could not afford to advertise. We agreed that once C had finished compiling the vaccination report, we would pay a visit to Mnkanya Radio in Mfuwe.

“Home of lxuary & confortable place”

Armed with the figures, we decided to drop in unannounced. If we had written a letter or email, it may have gone unanswered or we might even have been rebuffed. During the short drive to the station, I discussed strategy with the health inspector – key points, short sentences, snappy answers. I spoke about the ABC technique with tricky questions – Acknowledge the question (answer it if it is easy), Bridge to your safe ground, the area where you want to answer questions, and Communicate your key messages.

C wasn’t convinced. He was so worried that the radio station would want to charge us that he wasn’t listening to my advice. “You have done this before, doc,” he said, “You can represent the clinic.”

The recording studio

We drove into the compound and walked to reception. The small building was empty. A gardener noticed us and alerted one of the reporters. He took us over to the recording studio where they were broadcasting live.

“What do you want?” the reporter asked.

Mr C looked to me and I motioned for him to answer the question. He rambled on for a few minutes, using jargon (“TT” instead of vaccination against tetanus, a disease which can kill adults as well as young babies) and getting rather muddled. It is common for Zambians to pad out their English with bland phrases while they search for the right word.

I could see the reporter was looking less than impressed. Mr C turned to me and said, “Doc?” I emphasised that this was a good local news story; many families with school aged children would be interested; we had vaccinated 1,205 school children during February; the immunisation coverage rate was better than in the UK. The punch line was that we will be returning to the schools in March to give booster doses.

The reporter got out his iPhone ready to record an interview. I said, “It wouldn’t be right for a muzungu to talk in English to your listeners. The Zambian health workers and volunteers are responsible for this work and they should speak in Kunda or Cinyanja.” He agreed and pointed the iPhone microphone towards Mr C, who suddenly looked terrified.

“Can you give us a minute?” I asked. The reporter went inside, while I discussed interview technique with Mr C. “Martial your facts, speak in short sentences, don’t use jargon, tell them what a great job we have done,” I said. “You  can do it!”

The interview was very short, less than five minutes, but for Mr C it seemed like it was half an hour. The reporter blindsided him with a question about the vaccination schedule for schools in March. We didn’t have the vaccine in stock and there were some public holidays just to complicate matters. But Mr C went through his papers and eventually came up with a schedule for the listeners. “I will edit that last piece,” said the reporter, kindly.

Just before we left, I asked the reporter if he was interested in any local health stories. He told us that he was always on the lookout for anything that would get more listeners. On the way back to the clinic, Mr C was enthusiastic. “We could do plays with health messages… we could warn people about malaria… we might get a regular health spot,” he said.

“That will be a great deal of additional work, Mr C,” I told him.”You are already working flat out. And remember, actions speak louder than words. This is only newsworthy because it has been such a success.”

“Ah, you are right, doc!” he replied.

When we got back to the clinic, Mr C made sure everyone knew that he would be on the midday news, and the afternoon news, and the evening news, and the late night news. Perhaps even tomorrow morning’s early news. He was a radio celebrity now.