From rural villages in Malawi to the war-torn streets of north-west Cameroon, rising numbers of female radio hosts are taking to the air to dispel fake news and myths about the novel coronavirus whilst also tackling sexism.
Radio is the only source of information in many parts of rural Africa and viewed as an important medium to stem the spread of the coronavirus across the continent which has so far been less severely hit by COVID-19 than other regions.
Africa has recorded about 100,000 cases of coronavirus, according to the African Centre for Disease Control, but the World Health Organization has warned the continent, home to 1.3 billion people, could become the next epicentre of the pandemic.
Ndapewoshali Shapwanale during a talk show on Eagle FM in Windhoek, Namibia. Image credit Shelleygan Petersen, Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
“Radio has the power to change the attitude and behaviour of communities,” said Maikem Emmanuela Kimah, 32, a Cameroonian radio host and station manager for Ndefcam Radio in Bamenda in the north-west region in Cameroon.
“People come up with new corona myths every day, like spicy food or garlic can kill the virus, or that the virus isn’t even real,” Kimah, who has worked with Ndefcam Radio for seven years, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. Kimah added that in rural areas, where there are regular electricity blackouts, most people depended on a battery-powered radio for information.
Across the continent, 54% of African youth use radio as their main news source, and most - 81% - find local media more trustworthy than international, according to a pan-African survey by the South African-based Ichikowitz Family Foundation.
“We are without a doubt seeing a power dynamic shifting with more and more female radio journalists in Africa,” said Lerato Makate, an executive producer at Wits Radio Academy, a community radio training platform in Johannesburg.
“There are still struggles with intimidation, but the numbers of female reporters are growing,” said Makate.
Getting stories on air for Kimah and other female journalists is not without its challenges.
“As female reporters, we are exposed to sexual harassment a lot,” said Kimah, adding she refused to let this divert her from her main priority of reporting on the pandemic.
According to a global survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation, 58% of nearly 600 female journalists interviewed had been threatened or harassed in person, and one in 10 had received death threats.
Coupled with this, Cameroon has seen an increase in fighting in the past four years between the army and Anglophone rebels calling for a split from the French-speaking majority country.
“Just going out to get information is risky as women are more vulnerable to rape or abuse,” said Kimah.
“My advice for female journalists: wear shoes and jeans that make it easy to run if you have to.”
Maikem Emmanuela Kimah speaks into a microphone at an event in Yaounde, Cameroon. Image credit Penjo Baba, Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
Further south on the continent in Namibia, the southern African country of 2.5 million people, radio host Ndapewoshali Shapwanale said she had to quickly pivot her reporting to spotlight the dangers of COVID-19.
“When the pandemic was first announced, we focused on how to keep our listeners safe. We explained what coronavirus is and what actions our government is taking,” said Shapwanale, 30, a radio host with Eagle FM radio in the capital Windhoek.
“People initially believed that 5G had caused coronavirus, or that it was man-made or that Chinese people were intentionally bringing the virus into our country,” she said.
“We immediately educated people on the facts.”
Namibia has about 20 confirmed cases of the virus and no deaths, according to a global tally from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.
“Because our numbers are low, people are not social distancing. We are trying to explain the importance of wearing masks and staying home,” said Shapwanale in a phone interview.
Further east in Malawi, a southern African country of about 17.5 million, radio host Meclina Chirwa is doing the same from the capital city Lilongwe.
This is not the first time that Chirwa, 30, has used radio to dispels myths around health issues, having bought tuberculosis (TB) experts on to her show in the past to challenge misconceptions.
Her new show, called “Let’s talk about Corona”, continues to use expert interviews to challenge coronavirus fake news on Timveni Radio Station that has a wide reach into rural areas.
“As journalists, we need to tell the truth, and we can do this using radio to reach the rural masses,” said Chirwa.
Ndapewoshali Shapwanale conducts an interview in Windhoek, Namibia. Image credit Denver Kisting, Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
Amid the urgency to get accurate coronavirus information out to listeners, these female radio hosts said they also share another experience - regular sexual advances from male sources.
“It is not even surprising any more when this happens,” said Shapwanale. “We are made to feel objectified, and have to work extra hard to prove we can pull off a good story as well as our male colleagues.”
Pushing back against fear to go out and report is a common experience for Kimah, especially as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Cameroon has about 5,400 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 175 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“We are scared of the unforeseen, but we cannot miss out because we are scared. Inform somebody about where you are going, put on your press jacket and go,” she said.
Not doing so means male counterparts get all the good stories, leaving female reporters struggling to build their careers, said Kimah.
She said she was on her way to the radio studio in Bamenda early one morning when she was stopped by the police.
“They accused me of promoting violence through my work,” she said. “I told him: I do not promote violence. My job is to give hope to people again.”
During the Ebola crisis, Liberian radio journalists tried to tackle stigma and share information, said Lesedi Mogoatlhe, a COVID-19 content developer for Children’s Radio Foundation, a charity that trains African youth to be radio reporters.
“People were burying their dead in their backyards because of discrimination. People go into corners when there is stigma, but the anonymity of radio means we can share stories,” said Mogoatlhe in a phone interview from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Meclina Chirwa talks into a microphone during one of her shows in Lilongwe, Malawi. Image credit Meclina Chirwa, Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation