Saving the Suba

Friday February 7 2014

An Ekialo Kiona Suba Youth 99.3 FM presenter speaks to a caller over the radio. Photo/Jan Fox

An Ekialo Kiona Suba Youth 99.3 FM presenter speaks to a caller over the radio. Photo/Jan Fox 

By JAN FOX

According to estimates from Unesco, half of the 6,000 plus languages spoken across the globe today could disappear by the end of the century.

If this were the case, they stress, humanity would lose not only cultural wealth but also ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in undocumented indigenous languages.

All over the world, indigenous communities are being assimilated into more populous neighbours, and oral traditions are fading with the passing of each generation.

One of these East African communities is the Suba — a Bantu-speaking community on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria, which over the years has been heavily influenced by the predominant group in the region — the Luo. So much so that the Suba language, Olusuba, is listed among Africa’s 300 languages consigned to extinction by the Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing.

The name “Suba,” itself, is a Luo word used to describe the original migrants from Uganda in the late 18th century who settled on the eastern islands and shores of Lake Victoria. Today, the remnants of Suba culture have been largely confined to a few scattered communities on Mfangano Island.

There are those, however, who are helping to preserve Olusuba — chief among which is a radio station in a small community centre on the island’s southern shore.

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Every day, from 1pm to 6pm, the Ekialo Kiona Suba Youth Radio Station 99.3 FM, or EK-FM, broadcasts programmes on health, sustainable agriculture, fishing, youth empowerment and, importantly, Suba language and culture. The latter programme includes daily Olusuba lessons, Suba music and lengthy discussions with Suba elders.

When they are not on air, the EK-FM broadcasters spend their time interviewing community members and collating traditions and stories of Suba history. It is the only radio station in the region that broadcasts programmes in Olusuba, and is certainly the only one to focus its programming so heavily on the preservation of Suba culture.

“The elders claim that Olusuba started to disappear in colonial times,” explained Richard Magerenge, the founder of the community centre.

“The white settlers were on the mainland, where they picked up Luo. When they arrived on the island they brought Luo translators with them, but the islanders didn’t want to have to communicate through translators, so that gradually started to learn Luo. The men then started to marry Luo women, and even disciplined children not to speak in Suba. Today, most youths struggle to speak Olusuba fluently, and if something is not done now, the language will definitely disappear.”

In addition to the Suba language and culture programmes, the station collaborates with over 50 micro-clinics on the island to improve the general knowledge of, and attitudes towards, HIV/Aids.

It also offers a youth development initiative that gives secondary school students the opportunity to develop and present stories over the radio, as well as an educational programme that links local farmers to district agriculture officers for information on seasons and crops.

Though the centre currently revolves around the radio station, it wasn’t originally intended to do so. Magerenge is a resident of Mfangano who trained to be a health worker.

The prevalence of HIV/Aids on the island is among the highest in the region — 7,000 of its 26,000 inhabitants are HIV positive — and Magerenge wanted to create a centre that offered voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) without the stigmatisation that often surrounds such health facilities.

He came up with the idea of establishing a “Cyber-VCT” centre, which would also satisfy the islanders’ enthusiasm for Internet access. It would also form an incentive, and a valid excuse, for residents to participate in regular HIV counselling and testing. Everyone who joined the “club” through biannual HIV testing would receive free unlimited access to the Internet.

With the help of three university students, a team of builders from Mfangano, and grants from Google and other partners in the US, Magerenge spent three years building the centre and a wind-powered communications tower that activated East Africa’s longest range broadband Wi-Fi link.

The communications tower was followed by a wind and solar-powered 500Watt FM transmitter, from which the EK-FM radio station was born. Though the usual range of the transmitter is 80km, the station claims that it often gets callers from as far away as Nakuru, and some even from Tanzania.

The centre has 2,300 members, 45 local staff, and a network of dozens of international volunteers.

Since construction began in 2009, Ekialo Kiona has developed a number of community-based programmes, including a scholarship fund to send selected primary school students on Mfangano to secondary school, a micro-clinic programme to encourage attitude changes and communication on HIV/Aids, and a “Sisterhood Exchange Programme,” a support network that links HIV positive women on Mfangano to others in Kenya and in the US.

The centre is also experimenting with aquaponics — an innovative farming system that uses tilapia excrement to fertilise a range of vegetables not usually suited to the local environment.

Ekialo Kiona even received a shipment of 350 mountain bikes from the organisation Bicycles for Humanity in the US, and now runs a bike shop.

What started off as a VCT centre has evolved into the focal point of community activity on Mfangano Island.