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Peace Hits the Airwaves in Sudan

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By Debbie DeVoe

"You take one of my cows, and I'll take two of yours."

In Southern Sudan, this way of solving problems is much too common. Although Sudan's 22-year second civil war ended in 2005, many people still turn to violence when disputes arise. The Catholic Church believes it's time for this to change.

Radio Bakhita in Juba, Sudan

Radio Bakhita in Juba, Sudan, produces peace messages that six other Catholic stations air six times a day in local languages. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

"Sudan has been undergoing 50 years of conflict," says Sister Cecilia Sierra Salcido, a Comboni Missionary sister and director of Radio Bakhita. Sister Cecilia says this has caused many people to believe that retribution is good and that killing out of revenge is justified. "It's good to challenge this worldview and invite people to understand the world in different ways."

Beating the Drums for Peace

In February 2010, the Sudan Catholic Radio Network began Beat the Drums for Peace. This radio project—part of Catholic Relief Services' $4-million initiative to support peace in Sudan—consists of 3-to-5-minute programs that share messages of peace and ways to peacefully resolve conflicts.

Between February and April, the project developed 10 messages about trust, peace, justice and individual responsibility. Radio Bakhita in the southern capital of Juba produces the messages in English. The station then works with six other Catholic stations to translate the messages into 10 languages, including variations of Arabic, Dinka, Nuer and Hausa.

"No one program will bring peace," Sister Cecilia says. "But a succession of programs will make everyone feel they can act for peace."

Sudan's First Saint

Radio Bakhita is named after Sudan's first saint. In the late 19th century, a Sudanese girl named Bakhita was kidnapped from her home in Darfur when she was 9 years old. Over the next eight years she was sold as a slave five times in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum. This trauma caused her to forget her birth name. Her owners called her Bakhita, "fortunate" in Arabic.

Bakhita suffered many beatings, including a near-fatal one, and endured 60 patterns cut into her skin to mark her as the property of her fourth owner. Her final owner was an Italian diplomat named Callisto Legnani, who brought her to Italy where she later became a nanny for the daughter of his friend Augusto Michieli. When Michieli and his wife moved away for business reasons, they left Bakhita and their daughter at a boarding school run by the Daughters of Charity. During this time, Bakhita began learning about the Catholic faith and was baptized. When Michieli returned a few years later, Bakhita—backed by the superior—refused to leave. An Italian court later ruled Bakhita's slavery was illegal, making Bakhita a free woman.

In 1896, Bakhita joined the Daughters of Charity permanently, staying with them as a humble, beloved community member until her death in 1947. According to Radio Bakhita's Sister Cecilia, Saint Bakhita said that if she ever met those who enslaved her, she would kneel before them because they brought her to grace.

Calls for her canonization began immediately after her death. On October 1, 2000, Saint Josephine Bakhita was canonized. Saint Bakhita is a beloved African saint with special relevance to slavery and oppression. Many call her "Our Black Mother."

The programs are aired six times a day and are widely heard, as the Catholic stations are often the most popular radio stations in a given area. Phone lines continue the conversation by allowing the public to call in and share their thoughts.

"I think we may be the only people in Sudan reaching people in their local language," Sister Cecilia adds. "When you're listening to something so many times, it's like a drop of water that breaks a stone. At the end of the day, the stone breaks."

Calling All Sudanese

Radio is a highly effective form of outreach in Southern Sudan due to high illiteracy rates and low television access. "Beat the Drums for Peace" comes from the Southern Sudanese tradition of using drums to call people to important community meetings.

CRS writes the program scripts and covers airtime, production and translation costs. The project has been so successful that CRS is planning to fund additional radio programming during a crucial period before the January referendum on Southern Sudan's secession: the 101 days between International Peace Day on September 21 and New Year's.

"After listening to the programs, people say 'I didn't know it's my right to vote. I didn't know I could resolve my problems,' " says Catherine Baatiyo, a Radio Bakhita marketing officer who also helps with program production.

One program taught people how to handle trauma—something that almost every Southern Sudanese has experienced. Suggestions included breathing deeply, exercising, sharing traumatic experiences with trusted people, and learning to identify feelings and signs of stress.

"It also told people to become aware of and avoid things that could trigger a traumatic response, such as a sound, sight or smell," says Chris Olet, another Radio Bakhita marketing officer who assists with production and voice-overs. "Some people may have heard these concepts in workshops. Now we're taking the content to everyone."

"My own cousin had a problem some time back," Catherine adds. "He heard the program and realized it wasn't the end of his life. The radio helped him."

Debbie DeVoe was CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa, based in Nairobi.

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