COVID-19 in Africa: Catholic radio stations offer hope, sustain faith

MORE THAN 16,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in 52 countries in Africa. The virus has killed close to 900 people there thus far. Public institutions, such as churches and schools, are closed in numerous countries on the continent. Many Africans do not have access to the internet or to television, radio remains the best tool for the Church to reach and support its faithful.

“In these days of social distancing and confinement measures, the radio has become a part of life that’s necessary for many people,” Father Apollinaire Cibaka Cikongo told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), illustrating the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The priest from the Diocese of Mbujimayi is the founder of Radio Ditunga, with headquarters in Ngandajika, in the central part of the country. The station was founded ten years ago with the support of ACN.

Sister Bonfanti in the studio

“Since the churches are now closed due to the health concerns we are all familiar with, Radio Ditunga has adapted its programming to allocate more airtime to the celebration of Mass, as well as prayer and spiritual exercises led by priests from Ngandajika,” Father Cibaka Cikongo explained, adding that such programming is broadcast live, as was the Easter Triduum.

This station has a broadcasting range that covers an area about five million inhabitants. This year, it did not observe its traditional day of silence on Holy Saturday. “In view of the competition that exists between communities of faith, with some local radio stations spreading false messages—one example being that several of them imputing to the Pope and the Catholic Church the spiritual responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic,” said Father Cikongo, adding: “We decided that the period of silence might lead our listeners to turn to competitor stations, with all the risk of manipulation this involves.”

In response to the schools closing on March 19, the radio station decided to broadcast lessons live in order to maintain the contact between teachers and students. “This is a completely new experience for us,” the priest acknowledged, adding: “As we serve a total of 153 families with children, we bought small transistor radios to distribute to each of these families. Other families are interested in the project and will be able to participate because radio is accessible to all. Two hours of lessons are provided each day.”

“The teachers come to the radio station and the plan is to broadcast questions and answers live for 30 minutes during the time of the evening lesson,” said the priest. One of the challenges will be “to make sure that the parents participate, particularly those who are illiterate,” while the other challenge is a financial one, he explained; “because of the school closures, it is difficult to collect spontaneous payments from the parents.”

Another example of the power of radio for the work of the Church is Radio Sol Mansi in Guinée-Bissau, which has also extended its programming. This was done not only to raise awareness among the population of the measures being taken against the coronavirus epidemic, but also to continue evangelization efforts. Today that is being done more than ever through broadcasting liturgies, catechesis and prayer, explained Sister Alessandra Bonfanti, assistant manager of the Portuguese-language radio station. She said: “In the current times, it is our mission to act as ambassadors of hope for a society that fears the pandemic. We have to help keep burning the flames of faith and hope—the hope that the world will return to normal if everyone does his or her part.”

In addition to these stations in Guinée-Bissau and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ACN has in the past five years funded 35 projects in support of Catholic radio in Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Tanzania, Togo and Zambia.

—Christophe Lafontaine